8.5 Harriet Tubman: Freedom’s Spy (rebroadcast)

Harriet Tubman: Freedom’s Spy

Some women are just too multi-talented to be slotted into only one series. I first covered Harriet Tubman last year in my series A Slave, But Now I’m Free, episode 4.10. But she was also a spy, officially for the Union army. Even before that, her efforts to free her family had all the elements of espionage: fake identities, coded messages, traveling through enemy territory, and more.

Full Transcript

This woman is a superhero. Seriously, when the time machine gets invented and we go back to meet her, I will not be surprised to find out that she secretly wore a shiny spandex suit because she really is on that level.

Most slaves have only a hazy idea about when they were born, and Tubman was no exception. But we know that on March 15, 1822, one Anthony Thompson paid a midwife $2 to help his slave Harriet Green, known as “Rit,” which is probably the closest thing to a birth certificate we can get. The baby’s name at the time was not Harriet, nor Tubman. She was Araminta Ross, commonly known as “Minty,” and she lived in Dorchester County, Maryland. It was a good place to be born, if you have to be born as a slave, because Dorchester County butts up against Delaware. In Delaware slavery was technically legal, but not widespread. It was also a mere 120 miles away from the Pennsylvania state line, and that was free country.

Minty’s father was Ben Ross, also a slave in the same household, which included between 13 and 40 slaves in total, depending on the exact year and whether the small children were counted. This was no huge plantation with clear segregation between house slaves and field slaves. These people knew each other, black and white, and depending on the needs of the family at the time, slaves might be set to work in the house, or in the fields, or frequently simply hired out to others in the community.

This hiring out custom was hard on a slave’s family life because there was no guarantee of how far away it would be, or for how long, or with what kind of treatment. By the age of 5, Tubman was in charge of her younger siblings while her mother worked elsewhere. She remembered it fondly, but as a modern parent, can you imagine leaving a 5-year-old as the woman in charge? What Tubman didn’t do at age 5 was learn to read or write. She would remain illiterate for the rest of her life.

But far worse than any of that was the constant threat of sale. She had older siblings she never met because they were sold south before she was born. She had two older sisters that she did remember. She said later that for many years “she never closed her eyes that she did not imagine she saw the horsemen coming, and heard the screams of women and children, as they were dragged away to a far worse slavery than that they were enduring there” (Larsen, 29). The economy was changing all over. In the Deep South, plantations were expanding to accommodate a growing market for cotton. That meant more need for slaves. But in Maryland, the economy was shifting from tobacco to grain and timber. Grain and timber didn’t require year-round labor, so a slave was an expensive way to go. Hence the hiring out, or possibly, the sale (Larsen, 15).

You couldn’t even count on a master to be above-board about it. There were abolitionists about, publicly shaming masters who sold their slaves south. And breaking up slave families led to discontent, so some masters sold their slaves secretly, and then claimed the slave had run away. This was something that could happen to a slave at any moment, with no warning.

Harriet was never sold. But she was hired out. One of her first tasks was to prowl the marshy wetlands to monitor the muskrat traps in wintertime. It was cold and wet. She was 7 years old. Unsurprisingly, she grew ill and was sent back home. She got better, just in time to be hired out again. Some of her masters beat her if her work was not done to their satisfaction. She bore the scars of whip lashes for the rest of her life. At one point her ribs were broken, but by far the worst injury wasn’t intended for her at all. She was a teenager then and hired out as a field hand. A fellow slave tried to run away. The owner threw an iron weight at the escaping slave. He missed. It hit Harriet in the head and broke part of her skull. They carried her to the house, let her rest for two days and then sent her back out into the field. 

The head injury never fully healed. All through her amazing life, she would sometimes suddenly lose consciousness for a few minutes. Some have speculated that she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy or TLE. She also saw visions, heard sounds no one else could hear, and experienced sudden joy and fearlessness, all of which she interpreted religiously, but has elsewhere been suggested as symptoms of TLE.

Regardless of your opinion on that, the religious aspect was not trivial to her success. Christianity, despite being the religion of their oppressors, was one of the few support systems available to slaves. The evangelicalism of the 19th century touched them strongly, and the promise of salvation was both spiritual and literal to them. Tubman viewed her later attempts to free the slaves as a holy Crusade, given to her by God.

In the meantime, though, she was still a slave and still hired out as soon as her head was good enough that anyone would take her. She worked both indoors and out, and was well known for her astonishing physical strength, a characteristic that would serve her well in the future.

In 1844, she married a local free black man named John Tubman. She also chose to be called Harriet, and thus Minty Ross became Harriet Tubman.

By this point, she had largely come to a new arrangement with her master. Instead of his doing the work to find employers and hire her out, she hired herself out. She paid him the $50-60 per year that her labor was supposedly worth. Anything extra she kept. She bought her own pair of steers. Then she could hire herself out with a team, plowing fields and hauling timber.

This was not just a taste of freedom, it was also an education. Because the logging camps and the wharves where the logs were sold was a male world. More to the point, it was a black male world. Often a free black male world. These men knew where the safe houses were. They knew how to travel by water and how to communicate with each other without writing a letter.

Still, escaping was highly risky, and Tubman might not have done it, except that her owner died. His widow found herself in difficult financial circumstances and there was a collection of slaves, easy to convert into ready cash. It was time to run.

In 1849, Tubman and two of her brothers slipped away. The practice of hiring out helped them because their absence was not immediately noticed. It was not until two weeks later that an ad appeared, describing Minty as about 27 years, of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about 5 feet high, with a $100 reward if taken out of state and $50 if taken in Maryland (Larsen, 78).

The first attempt failed. Her brothers were scared and worried about leaving their families. But in October, Harriet tried again, this time on her own. She made it to a safe house, and a Quaker man loaded his wagon, with her in the bottom, and drove her to the next safe house. With the help of the Underground Railroad, and the guidance of the North Star, she eventually crossed the Pennsylvania border. “When I found I had crossed that line,” she later said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven” (Larsen, 84).

Even in Heaven, you can hear bad news. Tubman was in Philadelphia working as a domestic laborer, when she heard that her niece Kessiah was to be sold. Tubman had been free for only about a year, but she turned right around and went back to slave territory. Kessiah and her two children were spirited away by log canoe and safe houses. It was Tubman’s first success as a liberator of others.

A few months later she was back for her brother and two other men. That was a success too.

In the fall of 1851, Tubman decided to return for her husband. She wanted him to come to Philadelphia with her. When she arrived however, she found that he had abandoned her and taken another wife and he wouldn’t come.

Harriet was initially shocked, hurt, and devastated. But also intensely practical. After her initial reaction, she dropped him too. But she wasn’t going to waste a trip to Dorchester County, so she left John Tubman behind (forever), but she took a group of slaves with her back to Philadelphia.

These were just the first of many trips back to Maryland in Tubman’s self-appointed quest to free her entire family, and any others who wanted to come along. Her life has been sensationalized and fictionalized to the point that it is difficult to find good hard numbers, but the estimates I’m going to go with are 75 slaves freed across 13 trips (Larsen, 100). In addition, she gave instructions to some 50 other fugitive slaves, many of whom made it into Pennsylvania.

How did she do it? Well, unfortunately, she never wrote an autobiography, so we will never know all the details. But we can piece together some of her methods from statements she made to interviewers later in life. We know she navigated by the North Star. We know she made use of safe houses owned by free blacks and sympathetic whites. She preferred to do her raiding in winter because the nights were long then, and they could travel by cover of darkness. She preferred the escapes to happen on Saturday nights because newspapers didn’t print on Sundays, so no reward notice could be published until Monday. We know she paid free blacks to follow slave catchers and tear down the notices they put up. We know the topology of Maryland was helpful. All the swamps, marshes, creeks, and inlets provided many hiding places. We know that she was a master of disguising herself. She could pass as a man, or as an elderly black woman who posed no threat, or as a well-off free black woman. She could make silly banter with white folks and attract their attention while her group passed behind them. She could also pull herself along the ground with her arms, deceiving some into believing that it was only some animal that had passed by in the night.

She also used spirituals and religious imagery to send coded messages. A letter which ended that her brothers should be “watchful unto prayer . . . [and when the] good old ship of Zion comes along, to be ready to step aboard” of course, meant that she was on her way, be ready. She might also sing to a group in hiding to let them know what was going on. She used “Go Down, Moses” to tell slaves to get moving:

Go down, Moses

Way down in Egypt’s land

Tell old Pharoah,

Let my people go.

Ostensibly, of course, it’s about the children of Israel leaving bondage in Egypt, but the parallels to slavery in the South were obvious, especially when you realize that Moses was Tubman’s code name. Some have even speculated that the song was specifically written about her, or possibly by her, but there’s no hard evidence for any of that (“Go Down Moses”).

There may have been other spirituals as well: it has been suggested that “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus” was a direct instruction, as was “Wade in de water, God is gonna trouble de waters.” While we know from her own testimony that she (and other slaves) used spirituals in code that way, it is often hard to be sure exactly which ones or what they meant (Library of Congress).

And finally Tubman herself believed that she was led by God, and she trusted Him. She prayed, and she followed where inspiration led. On one occasion, she found herself in a train with one of her former masters. Quick as a flash, she snatched up an abandoned newspaper and hid behind it, pretending to read. But her illiteracy was to such an extent that she didn’t even know if she was holding it right side up. The white man knew the slave he was looking for couldn’t read, so he didn’t bother her. “The Lord,” Tubman said, “save me that time too.”

Despite all these techniques, the way was hard. It was generally cold, dark, and wet. Runaway slaves often had no shoes, coarse clothing, and little food. They were pursued by men with dogs, guns, knives, whips, and no compunction about using them. And always, always there was the possibility of betrayal, even by their own. Tubman could not leave anyone behind, even if they thought they couldn’t go on because anyone left behind might volunteer information or be compelled to tell the slavecatchers what they wanted to know. At one point, one man wanted to stop and rest, but danger was closing in. Tubman pulled out her pistol and said, “go on or die” (Larsen, 103). He went on, so we don’t know whether she would actually have shot him or not.

Despite Pennsylvania being relatively close, the danger didn’t end there. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed and northerners were technically required to return runaway slaves. So in many cases, Tubman wasn’t just leading her group to Pennsylvania. She was leading them to Canada.

Her main problem was lack of funds. Obviously she was not earning money while she was on these expeditions, and it’s not like she commanded an enormous salary as a domestic servant in Philadelphia. The abolitionist movement grew to know her, and they funded her much of the time, calling her Moses. She wasn’t shy about asking for money. Once she parked herself in the New York Anti-Slavery Office and refused to leave until they gave her enough to head down and rescue her aging parents. When she was earning wages, she hoarded the money carefully, and soon she was on the lecture circuit in New England, speaking about her experiences and collecting money.

The better she was known, the more enraged and alert the slaveowners of Dorchester County became.

But that didn’t stop Tubman’s personal quest to reunite her family. She bought a house (with borrowed money) in New York and established her parents in it. She brought in her brothers and their families. And yet, that was not everyone. Tubman returned again and again to Maryland, trying to bring out her sister Rachel and her children, bringing others with her each time, but failing again and again to bring out the people she was trying to reach. Sadly Rachel died before the right moment came, and her two children were still enslaved when war broke out.

Even if none of the above had happened, Tubman would still be a superhero for her work during the war. As a well known figure, with proven skills and leadership ability, Tubman was welcomed to the Union Army and assigned to South Carolina. There she was in charge of the Christian Commission house which distributed supplies to Union soldiers. She also received $200 to establish what she called a wash house, which was basically a place to teach all the newly freed slave women how to do the washing, sewing, and baking for the Union army for pay, so they could support themselves. Initially, Tubman was given rations like other soldiers, but she soon refused that privilege, when she realized that the freedmen she was trying to serve considered it preferential behavior. After that, she was supporting herself with the washing, sewing, and baking, just like all the other freedwomen. When the wounded arrived, Tubman also worked as a nurse.

But her talents didn’t stop there. She went out on scouting missions and acting as a spy, using all the skills she had developed in the Underground Railroad. She was given a pass that allowed her to move in and out of camp at all times and to draw whatever provisions she needed from the Commissary.  

In 1863, Tubman’s scouting missions and network of informers identified some Confederate warehouses and stockpiles of rice and corn on the Combahee river, some 25 miles away from the Union camp. General Hunter asked her if she would go on a raid to destroy or capture those supplies and she said she would if Colonel Montgomery were placed in command. So that’s how it was arranged, and Tubman went along with several men under her (Bradford, 39). Did you catch that? She now has men placed under her command! Sadly my source does not specify whether these were white or black soldiers, but either way, she is widely credited (both then and now) with being the first woman to “plan and execute an armed expedition during the Civil War” (Larson, 212). In my combing through the accounts, I am actually finding it difficult to tell how much planning and execution was hers rather than Montgomery’s, but there is no doubt that she was there and her intelligence was crucial.

Sneaking up the river in the dark, three gunboats with 300 men moved slowly upriver, dodging the torpedoes (whose location Tubman knew) and heading for the plantations (whose location Tubman also knew). They set fire to the buildings and confiscated huge amounts of rice, corn, cotton, horses, and other animals. They broke sluice gates to flood the fields, kill the growing crop, and set the slaves free. Men, women, and children streamed to boats, carrying blankets, pigs, chickens, and pails of food still steaming. “It was like the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt,” Tubman said.

The problem was getting 730 additional people and all their possessions safely on to three gunboats. The slaves were clinging to the outside of the boat, desperate not to be left behind. Sinking under the additional weight was not going to help anyone. Montgomery asked Tubman to calm her people down.

And here Tubman says an interesting thing. They “wasn’t my people any more than they was his—only we was all Negroes—’cause I didn’t know any more about them than he did.” Sometimes with the distance of time and space, we tend to lump groups of people together as if they were all the same. I certainly would have assumed that Tubman as an escaped slaved was very much like these very recently escaped slaves, but that’s not how she felt about it. Her people were those of Dorchester County, Maryland, which she knew very well. But these people had relationships she didn’t know and experiences she hadn’t shared. They even spoke a different dialect.

Tubman and these people stared at each other for a couple of minutes while she wondered what to say. And then she decided not to say anything. Instead, she sang to them. Soon, people on the banks joined her, clapping their hands and shouting “Glory.”

And the evacuation restarted, with people lining up to board the boat one at a time. They spent a crowded night on board, enduring a violent storm, but in the morning the sun shone and they pulled into the Union camp and they were free.

The Northern newspapers waxed rapturously about the daring raid, the thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies destroyed and confiscated, the 100 or so able-bodied black men who immediately joined up as new Union soldiers, and most especially the daring black heroine who had led the charge (Larson, 215-216). The Charleston Mercury ignored the black heroine and reported the episode as “certainly a very mortifying circumstance” (Charleston Mercury, June 4, 1863).

For the rest of the war, Tubman would move seamlessly between an amazing variety of roles: cook, laundress, teacher, spy, scout, provisions master, nurse, fundraiser. It does not appear that she ever stopped moving, and it’s astonishing to remember that she had health problems of her own the whole time.

Harriet Tubman in 1868 or 1869, Source

It’s also astonishing to realized that the Union paid her very little for her services. She mostly supported herself through all of this. And when the war was over, they denied her a pension. This was partly racism: black soldiers were paid considerably less than white soldiers. But it was also sexism. When Tubman finally did collect a pension in 1895 (30 years after the war was over!), it wasn’t even for her own services. No, it was the widow’s pension for the service of her second husband, Nelson Davis. The New York Congressman Sereno E. Payne, at least, was on her side, calling the $8 per month widow’s pension inadequate. Under his prodding, the government finally agreed in 1899 that she was worthy of an additional $12 per month for her nursing services. Her services as spy and scout were never paid for at all.

Winning that fight, or at least winning it earlier, would have meant a great deal to Tubman, not just for the recognition, but also for the money itself. Her post-year wars were no longer about abolition, but that didn’t mean she was sitting around relaxing. She had a constant stream of people staying on her New York property, whether she herself was there or not. Her mother and father were increasingly frail, and various other family members and people in need lived there too. Food sometimes ran short. To raise money, she and her second husband ran a brickmaking operation on the property. She also hired herself out as a domestic worker.

Despite the need to support herself and her family, Tubman was a long way from done with activism. She went to DC to argue for better hospitals for black soldiers. She had her own Rosa Parks moment when she was ordered to move to the smoking car of a train because of her skin color. She refused and was forcibly put there by three men working together. She ran fairs to generate funds to help the freedmen, many of whom were in terrible need. She spoke at women’s suffrage events. She established a home to care for aging black people. If she were anybody else, all this would be the story. It’s incredible. As it is, it all feels like an afterthought to her underground railroad and civil war work.

In 1911, Harriet Tubman was finally forced to enter her own Harriet Tubman Home, Inc. She was 91 years old, and she was penniless.

Harriet Tubman in 1911, Source

She died two years later on March 10, 1913. The community put up a marker on her grave in which they quoted words she had said in 1896 after Susan B. Anthony led her to the podium to address a largely white crowd of Suffragists: “I was the conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger” (Larson, 276).

Selected Sources

Bradford, Sarah Hopkins. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. S.L., Echo Library, 1869, web.archive.org/web/20161216040502/docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bradford/bradford.html#bradf40. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

Charleston Mercury. The Enemy’s Raid on the Banks of the Combahee: Daily Chronicles of the American Civil War. 4 June 1863, web.archive.org/web/20111004194604/www.cw-chronicles.com/blog/the-enemy%e2%80%99s-raid-on-the-banks-of-the-combahee/. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

“Go down Moses.” Wikipedia, 16 Mar. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_Down_Moses.

Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York, One World/Ballantine, 2005.

Library of Congress. “African American Spirituals.” The Library of Congress, 2015, http://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/. Accessed 7 Sept. 2022.

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