Harriet Tubman: Civil War Spy
By Catherine Clarke Fox
Harriet Tubman is well known for risking her life as a
conductor in the Underground Railroad, which led escaped
slaves to freedom in the North. But did you know that the former
slave also served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War
and was the first woman in American history to lead a military
a time when women were usually restricted to traditional roles
like cooking and nursing, she did her share of those jobs. But
she also worked side-by-side with men, says writer Tom Allen,
who tells her exciting story in the National Geographic book,
Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent.
Tubman decided to help the Union Army because she wanted freedom
for all of the people who were forced into slavery, not just the
few she could help by herself. And she convinced many other
brave African Americans to join her as spies, even at the risk
of being hanged if they were caught.
In one of her most dramatic and dangerous roles, Tubman helped
Colonel James Montgomery plan a raid to free slaves from
plantations along the Combahee (pronounced KUM-bee) River in
South Carolina. Early on the morning of June 1, 1863, three
gunboats carrying several hundred male soldiers along with
Harriet Tubman set out on their mission.
Tubman had gathered key information from her scouts about the
Confederate positions. She knew where they were hiding along the
shore. She also found out where they had placed torpedoes, or
barrels filled with gunpowder, in the water.
As the early morning fog lifted on some of the Souths most
important rice plantations, the Union expedition hit hard. The
raiders set fire to buildings and destroyed bridges, so they
couldnt be used by the Confederate Army. They also freed about
750 slavesmen, women, children, and babiesand did not lose one
soldier in the attack.
Allen, who writes about this adventure and many others, got to
know Tubman well through the months of research he did for the
book. The historic details he shares bring Tubman and many other
important figures of her time to life.
To gather the facts, Allen searched libraries and the Internet,
and even walked in Tubmans footsteps. I went on the river just
south of the area where the raid took place, he says. You are
in that kind of country she would have known, with plenty of
mosquitoes and snakes, and there are still dirt roads there
todayso you get a feeling of what it was like.
Allen says his most exciting moment came when a librarian led
him to written accounts by people who actually saw Tubman and
the raiders in action.
She was five feet two inches (157 centimeters) tall, born a
slave, had a debilitating illness, and was unable to read or
write. Yet here was this tough woman who could take charge and
lead men. Put all that together and you get Harriet Tubman. I
got to like her pretty quickly because of her strength and her
spirit, Allen says.
To find out more about this courageous and adventuresome woman,
read the book, Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent.
Harriet Tubman Timeline
1619 The first African slaves are brought to Virginia
1808 The US bans the import of slaves
1820 Araminta Harriet Greene (Tubman) born in Maryland
1844 Harriet marries John Tubman, a free black man
1849 Harriet Tubman escapes to the North
1850 Harriet Tubman starts rescuing slaves via the Underground Railroad
1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision - slaves did not have the right
to bring a case to court
1858 Harriet Tubman buys a farm near Auburn, New York
1859 John Browns raid on Harpers Ferry
1861 Abraham Lincoln elected President of the US; Civil War starts
1863 Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation
1865 Civil War ends; Lincoln is assassinated; 13th amendment to
Constitution abolishes slavery
1868 14th amendment to Constitution grants citizenship to former slaves
1870 15th amendment to Constitution prohibits states from denying the
right to vote because of race
1913 Harriet Tubman dies on March 10, 1913, Auburn, N.Y
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