Archive for March 8, 2023

SHAKO: Women’s History Month — Harriet Tubman. Union Army Scout, Spy, Nurse and Cook

THE WOMAN THEY CALLED “MOSES”

Harriet Tubman, photographed by Harvey Lindsley. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

CHURCH CREEK, Maryland — If you’ve heard about the Underground Railroad, then you’ve probably heard of Harriet Tubman.

Despite its name, the Underground Railroad wasn’t a real railroad of iron tracks and engines, but a network of people, white and black, providing shelter and other assistance to people escaping enslavement in the South before the American Civil War.

According to Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner, “the individual most closely associated with the underground railroad is Harriet Tubman.” Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1822, “this remarkable woman,” Foner notes, escaped enslavement in 1849 and during the following decade made at least 13 forays back to Maryland leading some 70 men, women and children — including members of her own family — out of bondage.

Her fame spread widely and by the late 1850s she became known as “Moses,” to fugitive slaves and those still held in bondage. After the Civil War, the great abolitionist,  orator and statesman, Frederick Douglass — himself an escaped slave from Maryland — wrote of Tubman: “Excepting John Brown–of sacred memory–I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people,” according to Foner in Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad..

But here at 4GWAR blog we’re celebrating Harriet Tubman during Women’s History month – and International Women’s Day — for her service as a scout and spy, as well as a nurse and cook, for the Union Army during the Civil War — and her battle with government bureaucracy to get paid for her service.

The Next Thing to Hell

According to Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center,  Tubman rose above the “horrific childhood adversity” of a Maryland plantation. Three of her sisters were sold to distant plantations in the Deep South. Harriet was taken from her mother at the age of 6 and hired out to other enslavers. She was nearly killed when hit in the head by a heavy iron weight thrown by an angry storekeeper at another slave. She suffered debilitating seizures for the rest of her life. Married to a free black man, John Tubman, she fled bondage after learning she could be sold away from her family to settle her deceased master’s debts. “Slavery,” she said, “is the next thing to hell.” The state park museum is located in Church Creek, Maryland amid wetlands and woods where Tubman and other escaping slaves may have fled.

Portrayal of Harriet Tubman’s rescue of fugitive slaves at the Tubman Underground Railroad State Park & Visitor Center. (4GWAR photo by Deborah Zabarenko, Copyright Sonoma Road Strategies)

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, empowering slave owners to track down runaway slaves even in free states and carry them back to enslavement. The law required U.S. Marshals and local law enforcement officers to assist in the recovery of runaways and made it a crime to hinder those efforts. No escaped slave, like Tubman, still somebody’s property in the eyes of the law, could rely on the safety of living in a northern state. That same year Tubman made her first journey back to Maryland to aid the escape of an enslaved niece and her two children north to Canada.

Over the next 10 years, Tubman used numerous methods to help the escape of other slaves. She relied on trustworthy people to hide her and fugitives. She used disguises. She bribed people. She walked, rode horses and wagons and traveled on boats and trains to make her way North with her “passengers.”. Often guided by the stars, she worked her way along rivers and through forests and swamps where she had labored as a slave. Tubman made her last rescue trek in 1860.

Warnings to escaped slaves in the North after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. (4GWAR photo by Deborah Zabarenko, copyright Sonoma Road Strategies)

New Use for Underground Skills

When the Civil War broke out, she spent the early years assisting with the care and feeding of the massive numbers of slaves who fled areas controlled by the Union Army. By the spring of 1863, however, Union officials found a more active role for Tubman. Union troops in South Carolina needed information on the strength of Confederate forces, the locations of their encampments and the designs of fortifications. They thought the needed intelligence could be acquired by short-term spying operations behind enemy lines, and that Tubman — with the skills she acquired in her underground railroad days — was the person organize and lead the effort.

Tubman started her spy organization with a selected few former slaves knowledgeable about the area to be scouted. Often disguised as a field hand or poor farm wife, she led several spy missions herself, while directing others from Union lines. She reported her intelligence findings to Colonel James Montgomery, a Union officer commanding the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a black unit involved in irregular warfare, according to intelligence professional P.K. Rose, wrote about Black Americans intelligence efforts for the Union Army in Studies in Intelligence, a journal published by the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence.

“The tactical intelligence Tubman provided to Union forces during the war was frequent, abundant, and used effectively in military operations,” Rose noted.

Raid of the Second South Carolina Volunteers, Harpers Weekly July 4 1863 edition. Click on the photo to enlarge image.

In one operation, at the behest of Union General David Hunter, Tubman guided two Union gunboats carrying Montgomery and 150 of his Black soldiers up the Combahee River in South Carolina to raid Confederate supply lines. The Rebels were taken by surprise and Union forces destroyed houses, barns and rice at nearby plantations, and liberated between 700 and 800 enslaved people.

Despite earning commendations as a valuable scout and soldier, Tubman still faced the racism and sexism of America after the Civil War, according to Kate Clifford Larson. a Tubman biographer. When Tubman sought payment for her service as a spy, the U.S. Congress denied her claim. It paid the eight Black male scouts, but not her.

She eventually was awarded a pension but only as the widow of a Civil War soldier, her second husband Nelson Davis, whom she married after John Tubman died in 1867.

Long overdue recognition is finally catching up with Harriet Tubman’s accomplishments, according to Larson. The Harriet Tubman $20 bill will replace the current one featuring a portrait of U.S. President Andrew Jackson. And in June 2021, Tubman was accepted into the United States Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. She is one of 278 members, 17 of whom are women, honored for their special operations leadership and intelligence work.

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SHAKOSHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

March 8, 2023 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment


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