Harriet Tubman Biography
Life as a Spy
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With the start of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman ended her work on the Underground Railroad and set out to help the enslaved who had ran away during the war. Escaped enslaved who made it to the Union lines were called "contraband." The United States Congress had passed laws that said escaped enslaved that made it the Union lines would not be returned.
Thousands of "contraband" enslaved made their way north and into Union army camps. They often went to work for the Union as laborers, helping to build walls, digging trenches, cooking meals, and repairing uniforms. Eventually, many of the men would become soldiers and fight in the war.
Harriet knew the escaped enslaved would need help and protection. Despite being free from slavery, army camps would not be safe places for children and young women. Harriet also felt that if the Union won the Civil War, slavery would be abolished. She wanted to do whatever she could to help.
Author: Lindsley, Harvey B
In 1862, Harriet headed to Port Royal in South Carolina. Her first official job at Port Royal was as a nurse. Over the years, Harriet had become knowledgeable in treating various diseases with roots and herbs. The majority of soldiers who died during the Civil War, died from diseases that had nothing to do with wounds they received in battle. Harriet treated both soldiers and escaped enslaved alike, waging her own war on diseases such as typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever, and malaria.
Harriet also worked to improve the lives of the escaped enslaved at Port Royal. At one point she had a local laundry house built using some of her own savings. Here she trained some of the women to work as laundresses, teaching them a skill they could use for employment once the war ended.
Creating a Spy Ring
After serving as a nurse for around a year, Harriet took on a new job for the Union. She created a spy and scouting network using knowledge from escaped enslaved and local water pilots. Harriet's experience moving around undetected and blending into the scenery made her a perfect candidate for the job. Her group of spies soon provided the local army with maps of the region, troop movements, and other important information for the war. In March of 1863, information provided by Tubman's scouts led to a successful raid on Jacksonville, Florida.
Combahee River Raid
In the summer of 1863, Tubman and her scouts learned of a large group of the enslaved being held near the Combahee River. She began to plan and organize a raid of her own. She infiltrated the region, making sure that the enslaved knew she was coming to get them. She discovered military intelligence and planned the timing such that reinforcements would not have time to arrive.
On June 2, 1863, Tubman guided three Union steamships up the Combahee River in the dead of night. Just like when she rescued the enslaved on the Underground Railroad, she used the advantage of stealth and darkness to slip in unnoticed. Tubman had earlier mapped out the mines in the river and was able to guide the Union ships safely through.
When the ships arrived, 150 black Union soldiers disembarked and set fire to several plantations in the area. They also confiscated a significant amount of food and supplies. At the same time, the steam ships blew their whistles, signaling their arrival to the local enslaved. Hundreds of enslaved people began to poor out of the plantations and onto the ships. Just like Harriet at planned, the ships conducted their attack and were on their way home before Confederate reinforcements could arrive.
Harriet's Combahee River Raid was a huge success. More than 750 enslaved people were liberated. Many of the men went on to join the Union Army, bolstering the local troops and weakening the South's economy.
Harriet continued to work for the Union throughout the rest of the war both as a nurse and spy. She often struggled with health issues due to the head injury she had suffered as a enslaved person, but returned to the front lines as often as her health permitted.
Harriet Tubman Biography Contents
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- Overview and Interesting Facts
- Born into Slavery
- Early Life as an Enslaved Person
- Dreaming About Freedom
- The Escape!
- The Underground Railroad
- Freedom and the First Rescue
- The Conductor
- The Legend Grows
- Harper's Ferry and the Civil War Begins
- Life as a Spy
- Life After the War
- Later Life and Death
More Civil Rights Heroes:
Susan B. Anthony
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Booker T. Washington
Ida B. Wells
More women leaders: