Harriett Tubman was known as the female Moses for leading more than 70 slaves to freedom before the Civil War. During the war she was a nurse and a spy behind enemy lines for the Union Army. Working with Colonel James Montgomery in the 1863 raid on Combahee Ferry, the female Moses was instrumental in leading more than 750 slaves to freedom.
The Female Moses Emerges From Slave To Soldier
Volumes have been written about Tubman’s solo escape to freedom in 1849, her subsequent work on the Underground Railroad and remarkable service during the Civil War where she distinguished herself further. These efforts combined with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ultimately led to the end of legal slavery.
While accounts vary, all agree that Tubman was a profound force on the front lines of freedom. The female Moses remains widely known and revered for her natural intelligence, ferocity and unflinching bravery.
Despite her contributions on the front line and her personal sacrifice to the nation, Tubman was not financially compensated. She petitioned numerous times to be paid for her service as a soldier. As a woman, and a black woman at that, her multiple petitions were refused.
Tubman was finally awarded a pension, but only as the widow of a black Union soldier she married after the war. The female Moses struggled financially until the end of her life.
Harriet Tubman’s First-Hand Accounts
Sarah Hopkins Bradford (August 20, 1818 – June 25, 1912) was best known for her children’s literature. She also wrote two groundbreaking historical works about Harriett Tubman. Both were published in hopes of raising funds direly needed by Tubman.
Bradford was a contemporary of Harriet Beecher Stowe who was best known for her 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They were among the first Caucasian writers to deal with African-American topics.
Bradford’s first historical work, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, was published in 1869, four years after the Civil War. In 1886, she published Harriet Tubman, Moses of Her People, again to assist in Tubman’s financial support. Both works have been published in many editions and are still available.
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman was written largely from Bradford’s personal interviews with Tubman. It also compiles numerous letters written in praise of the female Moses. Among her supporters were the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, William H. Seward and Colonel James Montgomery.
In her preface Bradford wrote:
“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,,, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life.“ (p. 1)
Bradford compares Tubman to Joan of Arc, Grace Darling, and Florence Nightingale for her courage, power and endurance in facing danger and death to relieve human suffering.
“…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.”
The Civil War began in April of 1861. Early 1862, Tubman traveled to South Carolina, initially as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves.
“At one time she was called away from Hilton Head, by one of our officers, to come to Fernandina, where the men were “dying off like sheep,” from dysentery. Harriet had acquired quite a reputation for her skill in curing this disease, by a medicine, which she prepared from roots, which grew near the waters, which gave the disease.
Here she found thousands of sick soldiers and contrabands, and immediately gave up her time and attention to them. At another time, we find her nursing those who were down by hundreds with small-pox and malignant fevers. She had never had these diseases, but she seems to have no more fear of death in one form than another.” (p. 39)
During Tubman’s many missions back to slave territory through the Underground Railroad, she had gained valuable knowledge of covert travel through difficult natural terrain as well as towns and transportation routes. As the Civil War progressed, Union military commanders recognized her skill at subterfuge in enemy territory as an essential asset.
Tubman began working for General David Hunter as a spy and scout in Confederate territory. Tubman served as a key adviser and accompanied the raid. On the morning of June 2, 1863, Tubman guided three steamboats around Confederate mines in the waters leading to the shore
“General Hunter asked her at one time if she would go with several gunboats up the Combahee River, the object of the expedition being to take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops. She said she would go if Col. Montgomery was to be appointed commander of the expedition.” (p. 40)
Montgomery was known as a guerrilla fighter. Several Union Army infantry regiments were formed with former slaves. Among them was the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, commanded by Montgomery.
“Col. Montgomery was one of John Brown’s men, and was well known to Harriet. Accordingly, Col. Montgomery was appointed to the command, and Harriet, with several men under her, the principal of whom was J. Plowden, whose pass I have, accompanied the expedition.
Harriet describes in the most graphic manner the appearance of the plantations as they passed up the river; the frightened negroes leaving their work and taking to the woods, at sight of the gun-boats; then coming to peer out like startled deer, and scudding away like the wind at the sound of the steam-whistle.” (p. 40)
“And so they came pouring down to the gunboats. When they stood on the shore, and the small boats put out to take them off, they all wanted to get in at once. After the boats were crowded, they would hold on to them so that they could not leave the shore.
The oarsmen would beat them on their hands, but they would not let go; they were afraid the gun-boats would go off and leave them, and all wanted to make sure of one of these arks of refuge. At length Col. Montgomery shouted from the upper deck, above the clamor of appealing tones, “Moses, you’ll have to give ’em a song.” Then Harriet lifted up her voice and sang…” (p. 42)
Respected as a military operative, Tubman is regarded as the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war.
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