The Civil War found Tubman condemning a reluctant President Abraham Lincoln, agitating for immediate emancipation, and spending 1862 in Union-occupied areas nursing white soldiers and black "contrabands" injured while fleeing enslavement. In 1863, when blacks joined the military, Tubman hand-picked and commanded a black corps of spies, scouts, and river pilots who conducted daring surveillance, espionage, and intelligence operations throughout the southeastern seaboard. She strategized and guided a band of black soldiers (under Colonel James Montgomery) into the Confederate-held Combahee, South Carolina, region and successfully disabled their supply line.
It is proposed in this little book to give a plain and unvarnished account of some scenes and adventures in the life of a woman who, though one of earth’s lowly ones, and of dark-hued skin, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life. Her name (we say it advisedly and without exaggeration) deserves to be handed down to posterity side by side with the names of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale; for not one of the women has shown more courage and power of endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering, than has this woman in her heroic and successful endeavors to reach and save all whom she might of her oppressed and suffering race, and to pilot them from the land of Bondage to the promised land of Liberty. Well has she been called “Moses,” for she has been a leader and deliverer unto hundreds of her people.
Worn down by her sufferings and fatigues, her health permanently affected by the cruelties to which she has been subjected, she is still laboring to the utmost limit of her strength for the support of her aged parents, and still also for her afflicted people – by her own efforts supporting two schools for Freedmen at the South, and supplying them with clothes and books; never obtruding herself, never asking for charity, except for “her people.”
It is for the purpose of aiding her in ministering to the wants of her aged parents, and in the hope of securing to them the little home which they are in danger of losing from inability to pay the whole amount due – which amount was partly paid when our heroine left them to throw herself into the work of aiding our suffering soldiers – that this little account, drawn from her by persevering endeavor, is given to the friends of humanity.
The writer of this story has till very lately known less personally of the subject of it, than many others to whom she has for years been an object of interest and care. But through relations and friends in Auburn, and also through Mrs. Commodore Swift of Geneva, and her sisters, who have for many years known and esteemed this wonderful woman, she has heard tales of her deeds of heroism which seemed almost too strange for belief, and were invested with the charm of romance.
During a sojourn of some months in the city of Auburn, while the war was in progress, the writer used to see occasionally in her Sunday-school class the aged mother of Harriet, and received answers telling of her untiring devotion to our wounded and sick soldiers, and of her efficient aid in various ways to the cause of the Union.
By the graphic pen of Mrs. Stowe, the incidents of such a life as that of the subject of this little memoir might be wrought up into a tale of thrilling interest, equaling, if not exceeding, anything in her world-renowned “Uncle Tom’s Cabin;” but the story of Harriet Tubman needs no the drapery of fiction; the bare unadorned facts are enough to stir the hearts of the friends of humanity, the friends of liberty, the lovers of their country.
There are those who will sneer, there are those who have already done so, at this quixotic attempt to make a heroine of a black woman, and a slave; but it may possibly be that there are some natures, though concealed under fairer skins, who have not the capacity to comprehend such general and self-sacrificing devotion to the cause of others as that here delineated, and therefore they resort to scorn and ridicule, in order to throw discredit upon the whole story.
Much has been left out which would have been highly interesting, because of the impossibility of substantiating by the testimony of others the truth of Harriet’s statements. But whenever it has been possible to find those who were cognizant with the facts stated, they have been corroborated in every particular.
A few years hence and we seem to see a gathering where the wrongs of earth will be righted, and justice, long delayed, will assert itself, and perform its office. Then not a few of those who had esteemed themselves the wise and noble of this world, “will begin with shame to take the lowest place;” while upon Harriet’s dark head a kind hand will be placed, and in her ear a gentile voice will sound, saying: “Friend! come up higher!”
No one knows exactly when Harriet Tubman was born, but it was on the eastern shore of Maryland and not much less than a hundred years ago. She knows that her mother’s mother was brought in a slave ship from Africa, that her mother was the daughter of a white man, an American, and her father a full-blooded Negro.
Harriet was not large, but she was very strong. The most strenuous slave labor was demanded of her; summer and winter she drove oxcarts; she ploughed; with her father she cut timber and drew heavy logs like a patient mule. About 1844 she was married to a freedman named Tubman. He proved unworthy and deserted her. She determined to try to escape from slavery, and induced her two brothers to go with her. The three started together, but the brothers soon became frightened and turned back. Harriet went on alone. All through the night she walked and ran alone. When she reached a place of safety it was morning. She says: “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free – there was such glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven!” Not one to enjoy heaven alone was that generous heart. Nineteen times did she return to the land of slavery, and each time brought away to Canada groups of men, women, and children, her parents and brothers among them, about three hundred in all. A prize of $40,000 was offered for her capture, but Harriet was never caught. She delights to recall the fact that on all those long and perilous journeys on the “Underground Railroad” she never lost a passenger! Her belief that she was and is sustained and guided by “de sperit of de Lord” is absolute. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts appointed her scout and nurse during the war. She is now receiving a pension.
One of the most important episodes in which Harriet took a leading part and proved the saving factor was Colonel Montgomerie’s exploit on the Combahee River. General Hunter secured Harriet's assistance for the great undertaking. The plan was to send several gunboats and a few men up the river, in an attempt to collect the slaves living near the shores and carry them down to Beaufort, within the Union lines. It is worth a day’s journey to hear Harriet herself describe the vivid scene—throngs of hesitating refugees, a motley crowd, men, women, children, babies—(“Pears like I nebber see so many twins in my life”)— and pigs and chickens, and such domestic necessities as could be “toted” along. The slave-drivers had used their whips in vain to get the poor refugees back to their quarters, and yet the blacks were almost as much in dread of the stranger soldiers. How deal with this turbulent mass of humanity? The colonel realized the danger of delay, and calling Harriet to the upper deck in a voice of command said: “Moses, you’ll have to give ‘em a song!” Then the power of the woman poured forth— Harriet lifted up a voice full of emotional fervor in verse after verse of prophetic promise. She improvised both words and melody:
The glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best!
Come along! Come along! Don't be alarm,
Uncle Sam's rich enough to give us all a farm!
Come along! Come along! Don't be a fool,
Uncle Sam's rich enough to send us all to school! etc., etc.
As she chanted to refrain “Come along! Come along!” she raised her long arms with an imperious gesture impossible to resist. The crowd responded with shouts of “Glory! Glory!” The victory was won— about eight hundred souls eagerly scrambled on board the gunboats and were transported to freedom.
Among the many men of note who trusted and encouraged the intrepid little woman were Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Garrett, William H. Seward, Emerson, Alcott, Dr. Howe and Gerrit Smith. Frederick Douglass wrote of her, “Excepting John Brown, I know no one who has encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people.” John Brown said, “Mr. Phillips, I bring you one of the best and bravest persons on this continent, ‘General Tubman,’ as we call her.” He also said, “She is the most of a man, naturally, that I ever met with.” This war-time general now speaks with tender reverence—“John Brown, my dearest friend”—and she whom he called “the most of a man” is also more of a mother than most women. She founded and maintains a home for colored men and women. She “dwells in the midst of them, singing.”
Harriet Tubman Davis was esteemed by such men as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Philips Brooks, Horace Mann, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and John Brown, while on the other hand planters and slave owners offered rewards of from $12,000 to $40,000 for her capture during the fifties, at the time when she was taking slaves out of the United States. She had served as scout, nurse, and spy in the Union Army.