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Harriet Tubman Biography - From Slavery to Freedom [3]

Civil War Service: Nurse, Scout, Spy


Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

MPI / Archive Photos / Getty Images
Harriet Tubman in the Civil War

Picture of Harriet Tubman during her Civil War Service, from Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah Bradford, published 1869.

Adapted from a public domain image, modifications by Jone Lewis, 2009

Previous: 2: Underground Railroad Conductor, Abolitionist, Women's Rights

After war broke out, Harriet Tubman went South to assist and work with "contrabands" -- escaped slaves who were attached to the Union Army. She also briefly went to Florida on a similar mission.

In 1862, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts arranged for Tubman to go to Beaufort, South Carolina, as a nurse and teacher to the Gullah people of the Sea Islands who had been left behind by their owners when they fled the advance of the Union Army, which remained in control of the islands.

The next year, the Union Army asked Tubman to organize a network of scouts -- and spies -- among the black men of the area. She not only organized a sophisticated information-gathering operation, she led several forays herself in pursuit of information. Not so incidentally, another purpose of these forays was to persuade slaves to leave their masters, many to join the regiments of black soldiers. Her years as "Moses" and her ability to move about secretly were excellent background for this new assignment.

In July of 1863, Harriet Tubman led troops under the command of Colonel James Montgomery in the Combahee River expedition, disrupting Southern supply lines by destroying bridges and railroads. The mission also freed more than 750 slaves. Tubman is credited not only with significant leadership responsibilities for the mission itself, but with singing to calm the slaves and keep the situation in hand. Tubman came under Confederate fire on this mission. General Saxton, who reported the raid to Secretary of War Stanton, said "This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted." Tubman reported later that most of the freed slaves joined "the colored regiment."

Tubman was also present for the defeat of the 54th Massachusetts, the black unit led by Robert Gould Shaw.

Catherine Clinton, in Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War, suggests that Harriet Tubman may have been allowed to go beyond women's traditional boundaries more than most women, because of her race. (Clinton, p. 94)

Tubman believed that she was in the employ of the U.S. Army. When she received her first paycheck, she spent it to build a place where freed black women could earn a living doing laundry for the soldiers. But then she wasn't paid regularly again, and wasn't given the military rations she believed she was entitled to. She was paid only a total of $200 in three years of service. She supported herself and her work by selling baked goods and root beer which she made after she completed her regular work duties.

After the war was over, Tubman was never paid her back military pay. In addition, when she applied for a pension -- with the support of Secretary of State William Seward, Colonel T. W. Higginson, and General Rufus -- her application was denied. Harriet Tubman did eventually receive a pension -- but as the widow of a soldier, her second husband.

Next: 4: Later Years of Activism and Reform

Harriet Tubman Biography: From Slavery to Freedom

  1. Harriet Tubman's Life in Slavery
  2. Harriet Tubman as Underground Railroad Conductor, Abolitionist, Women's Rights Advocate
  3. Harriet Tubman's Civil War Service: Nurse, Scout, Spy
  4. Harriet Tubman's Later Years of Activism and Reform

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  7. Harriet Tubman Biography - From Slavery to Freedom [3]

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