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General Harriet Tubman

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by Sue Davis

Only one woman in American history ever planned and led a military campaign, a campaign that was a total victory. Although she was not given the full credit she deserved for scouting, organizing and executing this maneuver, Harriet Tubman's successful battle of June 2, 1863 was later acclaimed as one of the most stirring of the Civil War.

Today we can salute Harriet Tubman properly for her role, not only in advancing the black liberation struggle, but also in providing an example of militant womanhood. Harriet Tubman dedicated her life to freeing her people and to caring for their needs. In so doing, she used her natural abilities and acquired skills. Truly, she is worthy of our highest honor and esteem, for she acted as few other American women in furthering humanity's fight for freedom, justice and equality.

Her fight began during her youth. At fifteen she refused to tie up a slave for a beating and stepped into a doorway to prevent an overseer from pursuing the black man who ran for his freedom. Enraged, the overseer hurled a two-pound weight at her which struck her in the forehead. But the black man had escaped. After many months the wound healed, but it left a large indentation in her head. Pressure on the brain caused her to suffer sleeping seizure several times each day throughout the rest of her life. Her determination to end slavery was constantly renewed by her own physical reminder of slavery's brutality.

During her convalescence, her resistance strengthened as she thought of her past years of hard work, of her frequent beatings, and of the cruelty of her master. But she also thought about her people. As she recalled in later life, "I had seen their tears and sighs, and I had heard their groans, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them." Initially, she prayed that her master be changed. But when she learned that he wanted to sell her to a chain gang, her prayer changed: "Oh Lord, if you aren't ever going to change that man's heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way." Harriet adopted the religion that inspired Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, the philosophy that promoted extensive social change. She learned to think critically within that religious framework, and through it she became determined to seek her freedom and the freedom of her people.

In 1849 she did seek her freedom. Fleeing one night from her Maryland home, Harriet Tubman left her husband of five years (Freedman John Tubman did not share her hatred of slavery) and she struck out alone across the unknown lands in search of freedom. She was aided occasionally along the way, but she relied primarily on her own intelligence, perception, and knowledge of nature to survive. Her first reaction to being in Pennsylvania was: "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such glory over everything. The sun carne like gold through the trees, and I felt like I was in heaven." Yet soon her thoughts turned to her enslaved family and nation, and she declared: "I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarters, with the old folks and my brothers and sisters. But to this solemn resolution I came. I was free, and they would be free also. I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there."

She helped to free her people by working in hotels and private homes to earn enough money to pay her expenses involved in becoming a "conductor", on the Underground Railroad. This "Railway" was set up by Abolitionists to help black people make their way north. Harriet Tubman brought not only the members of her family, but altogether 300 black men, women, and children out of bondage between 1850 and 1860. Called "Moses" by her people, Harriet used fearlessness, wit, cunning, courage, and strength to elude dogs, guns, and paid bounty hunters of the Southern slavemasters and the northern enforcers of the Fugitive Slave Act.

She carried a gun which she used only to urge on the frightened, ("Brother, you go on or die") and she sang spirituals to announce her plans ("When that there old chariot comes.. .I'm bound for the promised land.") Her people respected her and said of her: "Moses has got the chariot. The Slaveholders can't catch Moses." She scattered chickens in front of her once, to avoid being recognized by her former master; she deviated from the known underground route in response to danger signals another time, even though it meant wading through icy water in late winter; she dressed a woman in man's clothing; she hid her charges on the floor of a cart to get them across the Delaware River bridge at night. In each case she reaffirmed her determination to free her people by any means necessary. As she said, "There are two things I've got a right to, and these are death and liberty. One or the other I mean to save. No one will take me back alive. I shall fight for my liberty and when the time has come for me to go, the Lord will let them kill me."

Harriet Tubman's name became associated with the successful exodus of thousands of slaves. Perhaps the best known fact about her is that in all nineteen escape trips she led, she never lost a passenger: a remarkable, unequalled record, especially because as more black people escaped, police state repression grew more vicious and extreme. "Moses," who was the chief conductor on the east coast route of the underground railroad, who perfected that art of escape which led to the freedom of 75,000 slaves, supplied an inspiration of freedom for her people. It is no wonder that at one time $40,000 was offered for capture!

While Harriet Tubman quietly carried on her labors, her deeds became known throughout the whole Abolitionist movement at home and abroad. She worked directly with such black and white leaders as Thomas Garret in Wilmington, William Still in Philadelphia, David Ruggles and Oliver Johnson in New York , and Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony in Rochester. When John Brown wanted help in organizing freedmen for an armed invasion of the South in 1858, Harriet Tubman was recommended to him. They met in St. Catherine's, the Canadian base of Tubman's northern route, and Brown labeled her "General" with the following greeting: "The first I see is General Tubman, the second is General Tubman, and the third is General Tubman". Harriet supplied him with valuable knowledge of the Virginia terrain, of the allies in the area, and of how to conduct guerrilla movements; she got many freedmen to attend the Chatham Convention at which Brown recruited his army; and she planned to be with Brown for his campaign (Tubman was the black who most aided Brown in staging the daring raid on Harper's Ferry on October 16, 1859.) "Only sickness, brought on by her toil and exposure prevented Harriet from being present at Harper's Ferry ", says W.E.B. DuBois in his John Brown.

The words of Douglass perhaps best sum up Harriet Tubman's role in the Abolitionist struggle: "The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day--you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scared, and foot-sore bondmen and women whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whole heartfelt "God bless you" has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown--of sacred memory--I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony to your character and your works..."

Harriet Tubman was eager to fight for her people on a moment's notice. In 1860 she was traveling on her way to attend an antislavery conference in New England when, as she was passing through Troy, New York, she learned that a black man, Chares Nalle, would be turned over to his owner soon as he was arraigned on charges of being a fugitive slave. Harriet roused the black community to storm the courthouse and invited white supporters to help. She hurriedly organized a rescue plan. With Tubman the first to grab Nalle from the police, the people took the law into their own hands, and after hours of struggle, they saw to it that their justice was done and Nalle was on his way to Canada.

Harriet's prediction, "They may say, 'Peace, Peace! ' as much as they like I know there's going to be war!" came true. Although she was critical of Lincoln's war policy (her approach was "Never wound a snake, but kill it.") and of the North's refusal to enlist blacks as soldiers, she aided the North's war effort by joining the Department of the South, in 1862. She worked at Port Royal, South Carolina, among her people. Given $200 upon her arrival, she promptly proceeded to build a laundry with it and to organize a washing service so the newly-freed black women could become self-supporting. Devoting her time to such activities, Tubman taught, nursed, listened, and encouraged her brothers and sisters. "Most of those coming from the mainland (from South Carolina to the Sea Islands) are very destitute, almost naked. I am trying to work to find places for those able to work, and provide for them as best I can, so as to lighten the burden of the Government as much as possible, while at the same time they learn to respect themselves by earning their own living."

Yet her major task was organizing a spy and scouting corps for the General Staff's Intelligence. This gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy's country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation."

Harriet was severely insulted and physically abused as she made her way North at the war's end--a railroad conductor, refusing to recognize her government pass as a soldier, forced her to ride in the baggage car. But that was only a hint of the desperate, personal suffering she was to endure as a result of the government's denial of a pension or back pay for her nursing and soldiering during the war. Yet, she continued to serve her people. By speaking at public meetings, raising and selling vegetables and chickens, giving parties, and even doing domestic work, she supported her people in need, especially those who came to her home in Auburn, New York. Auburn was a center of Abolitionists and women suffragists, and she became a vital link between the two groups. She formed close bonds with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lydia Child as well as Susan B. Anthony. She helped to build the local African Methodist Church, and she maintained two schools for blacks in the South. After the government finally granted her a pension near the end of the century ($20 a month!), she founded a Home for the Aged and Indigent, and then with the purchase of 25 acres adjacent to her home, she turned over her property to black people of Auburn as a free farm to be run communally (called the Harriet Tubman Home). Her life was one of dedication, risk, and self-sacrifice, but in 1907 she was impoverished: "You wouldn't think that after I served the flag so faithfully I could come to want in its folds." She was a nationally-known figure at the time of her death on March 10, 1913, and she was buried with military honors.

Harriet Tubman's revolutionary legacy is best summarized by a story of her own telling. She recalled that in her childhood, as a slave, she had been forbidden to eat the fruit of the trees she had been made to plant. Turning to the reporter she asked him if liked apples. When he said that he did, she inquired whether he had ever planted any. He confessed that he had not. "But", she said, "somebody else planted them. I liked apples when I was young and I said to myself: 'Some day I'll plant apples myself for other young folks to eat,' and I guess I did."

Harriet Tubman sowed the seeds of revolutionary struggle that are ripening today. Let us bring in her harvest, sisters!

This article was taken from the Spring, 1970 issue of Women: A Journal of Liberation, a great quarterly publication. It is in desperate need of support, in the form of both women's articles and financial help). For information about subscriptions and other way of helping, write: 3011 Gulford Ave, Baltimore, Md. 21218