Did you know Harriet Tubman was a Union army spy and war hero of the American Civil War? This information is unsung to many in the American historical narrative. Instead, we imagine United States Commanders, Generals and Colonels such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, or George Custer. It is really hard to place an African American face to our instant connotation to the words “Civil War General” or “Army.”
Yet according to www.mrnussbaum.com, “African Americans played a prominent role in the Union Army during the Civil War. Over 200,000 African Americans, equaling 10% of the entire military force, served in the Union military. 37,000 died fighting for the Union. Most were escaped slaves who served in segregated units under white officers.”
In other words, one out of every 10 Union soldiers were African American mostly ex-slaves. But this was not always the case. At first, blacks were not even permitted nor seem to be capable of being a part of the army. This was due to the deep racial perspective that had infiltrated even those in the most northern regions of the nation.
A Divine Act of GOD would have to occur before these men would be seen as safe or competent enough to join forces against the Confederate army, who was at this time seeming to dominate the war.
And that was exactly what occurred. Fitting to her affectionate name, Moses, Harriet Tubman would, in one sweep reflect the same paramount and heroic acts that Moses had conducted thousands of years before as he brought his people group out of a similar slavery.
The chattel slavery of the Jews was a strong, physically oppressive system, empowering the Egyptians to live strong, lavish lives as the major world power. Alike the Biblical narrative, Harriet Tubman would find herself chosen to free her people “down by the riverside”.
For Moses, it would be the Red Sea bordering Egypt and housed betwixt the continents Africa and Asia. For Harriet, it would be the Combahee River of South Carolina.
Harriet Tubman had traveled down to South Carolina in the year 1861 (around 46 years of age) with “a group of other abolitionists who headed south to assist refuge slaves who (had) escaped to safety behind Union lines.” She was known as a nurse, a scout, a teacher and was about to become a famous spy in the Union army.
She has already escaped from slavery herself, in the year 1849, twelve years prior to coming down to South Carolina in service. She then freed at least 70 slaves through the same Underground Railroad system. This heroic act would prepare her for the next purpose in her daring calling.
In the year 1863, two years after having arrived to this coastline in the deep south, she would be used in a unheard of manner as both a female and African American.
Sarah Bradford, a contemporary of Harriet Tubman, agreed to write her biography in Harriet’s latter years. She was in need of money and facing poverty as a large benefactor to her community. In Sarah’s book, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, she wrote of Harriet’s “first hand account of the Combahee River expedition” in which Harriet and others would free over 700 slaves:
When our armies and gun-boats first appeared in any part of the South, many of the poor negroes were as much afriad of “de Yankee Buckra” as of their own masters. It was almost impossible to win their confidence, or to get information from them. But to Harriet they would tell anything; and so it became quite important that she should accompany expeditions going up the rivers, or into unexplored parts of the country, to control and get information form those whom they took with them as guides.
In other words, the black slaves were being so mistreated and experienced such degradation that they did not trust a single white soul, including the Union army. Yet they were more than likely the ones made to place the underwater mines (“torpedoes”) into the river. Their confederate masters would have put them to this dangerous work.
But it would not be long before this would all work against the Confederate army.
Harriet worked closely with Colonel Montgomery, who also aided the John Brown raid only four years prior (October 16, 1859). Largely in spite of Union army hesitancy and general battle practices (lining up in two straight lines to combat), Montgomery and Tubman would lead a covert operation behind enemy lines.
And Harriet had the inside information which only she, a trusted black woman, could receive.
In the spring of 1863 she ingeniously worked with Montgomery to gain two gun-boats with the very first group of black men placed in military uniform. This would have been unheard of and never seen. History was in the making.
She took these men across the span of nine separate plantations across the South Carolina border. On June 3, 1863 they would burn and flood these money making hub of rice fields, destroying a major store of Confederate income.
In conjunction, about 170 slaves were rushed into these boats in a panicky, frantic somewhat humorous scene, also described by Harriet as completely out of the control of their master’s drivers, “In vain, then, the drivers used their whips in their efforts to hurry the poor creatures back to their quarters; they all turned and ran for the gun-boats.”
It was a great moment of rejoicing as she recalled how they “laughed, an’ laughed, an’ laughed.” These women, mirroring the visual of skilled African women, carried pails of rice on their heads, fresh off the fire, children hanging onto their dresses and pigs brought on board.
They beat on the side of the jam packed boats, desperate to never be left behind to the misery they had been experiencing. And Harriet would sing songs of deliverance as they responded back with a loud shout, “Glory!”
The Confederates were held back as Montgomery arranged black soldiers with guns to shoot off into the woods holding them back in fear. As if this story could get any more amazing, not one person died in all this warfare, except the Confederate soldier named Fripp.
Because of Harriet’s willingness and great work, black soldier would be admitted into the Union army becoming 1 in every 10 soldiers as they proudly died for the free land we can now all experience.
This is the land in which we can release a huge smile on our faces as we shop in a retail store, looking down, getting our change and seeing the face of the woman of many firsts…Harriet Tubman. The great pioneer and leader is now on our currency as a reminder of her still relevant words,
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.