Service in the American Civil War
“I’d go to the hospital, early every morning. I’d get a big chunk of ice, I would put it in a basin, and fill it with water; then I’d take a sponge and begin. First man I’d come to, I’d thrash away the flies, and they’d rise, they would, like bees round a hive. Then I begin to bathe their wounds, and by the time I’d bathed off three or four, the fire and heat would have melted the ice and made the water warm, and it would be as red as clear blood.”
In October 1861, Harriett Tubman met the new governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, a staunch abolitionist. Governor Andrew and Tubman discussed how she could contribute to the war effort. In January 1862, he arranged for Tubman to travel to South Carolina so that she could provide assistance to the burgeoning contraband population at the Union camps in the occupied Port Royal area, outside Beaufort, South Carolina.
Starting in spring of 1862 and until the end of the Civil War, Tubman served as a spy, nurse, cook, laundress, recruiter, and scout, for the Union forces stationed in Beaufort. Working largely without remuneration, Tubman supported herself through selling baked goods and root beer, taking in laundry, and working as a domestic. Starting in the early winter of 1863, she began scouting the interior regions along the rivers and streams in the Port Royal area to assess Confederate troop activities.
In June 1863 under the command of Colonel James Montgomery (a supporter of John Brown and a member of the Kansas raids under Brown), Tubman helped to plan and participated in the famed Combahee River raid. With Union forces, she attacked Confederate forces, helping to free approximately 700 slaves on upriver plantations, and participating in the destruction of bridges and railroad tracks and the rice plantations along the river.
After the disastrous battle at Fort Wagner, Tubman cared for wounded soldiers from the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and assisted with burying the dead. For the next two years, Tubman continued her labor as scout and laborer for the Union army. After the Civil War, Tubman petitioned the federal government for back payment for her services. It would take her nearly thirty years to receive an Army pension.
Quotation: Harriet Tubman to Sarah Hopkins Bradford. Published in Bradford’s Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869), page 37.
Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine, 2004), 203-210 and 212-228; Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Boston: Little, Brown, 2004), 151-156; and Lois Horton, Harriet Tubman and the Fight for Freedom: A Brief History with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013), 56-74
Jeff W. Grigg, The Combahee River Raid: Harriet Tubman & Lowcountry Liberation (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2014), 21-24 and 64-80 and Kristen T. Oertel, Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in the 19th Century (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 59-75.