On December 6, 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery. Within a decade, she became the most well-known “conductor” of the infamous Underground Railroad. Aside from emerging as one of the most effective abolitionists of her day, Tubman was also instrumental in the Civil War as a secret spy and military leader. As a result, Tubman continues to inspire civil rights activists today.
Tubman was one of nine children born to enslaved parents in Maryland. Originally named Araminta Harriet Ross, her parents, who were slaves for two different owners, called her by the nickname, Minty. She endured daily degradations and violence as an enslaved person. Her three sisters were sold to a faraway plantation, but Tubman’s mother successfully resisted the sale of her youngest son. Like most other slaves, Tubman suffered from brutal beatings and physical attacks that caused her permanent damage – she had scars on her back from lashings and when at she tried to protect a fellow slave at age 13, the overseer threw a two-pound weight at her that struck her in the head. As a result, she suffered from seizures, severe headaches and narcolepsy for the rest of her life.
In 1844, she married a free black man, John Tubman. In 1849, Tubman decided to run away when she feared that she and the rest of the enslaved people on the plantation were about to be sold. With the help of a kind white woman, she followed the North Star to Philadelphia walking 90 miles by foot. After working for a year and saving money, she returned to Maryland to free her sister and her sister’s two children to freedom. Then, a year later, she returned a second time to rescue her brother and two other men. When she returned for the third time, she intended to find her husband, but he had married someone new. Upon discovering this news, she simply found other slaves that she could escort up North to freedom. In total, Tubman made 19 trips into the South and freed over 300 slaves, including her 70-year-old parents. All the while, she never lost one passenger on these treacherous trips. By 1856, slave catchers put a $40,000 bounty (the equivalent of about $1 million today) on her, yet she remained steadfast in her plan to liberate as many enslaved people as possible. Considered the “Moses of her people,” she explained, “I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”
Aside from freeing hundreds of enslaved people, Tubman played a revolutionary and crucial role during the Civil War as a spy and general. She would disguise herself as an old woman and wander around Confederate territory and speak to the enslaved population in order to get top-secret military plans for the Union army. She was also the first woman in U.S. history to plan and lead a military expedition. On the night of June 1, 1863, Tubman alongside Colonel James Montgomery guided 150 soldiers from the Second South Carolina army, an all-black Union army regiment, and white troops from Rhode Island on gunboats to carry out a liberation raid on the rice plantations along the Combahee River. As they set fire to the plantations and destroyed bridges, they liberated slaves that had been too frightened to run away to the Union army lines on their own. They liberated 750 slaves in total. Tubman also served as a nurse for the Union army during the Civil War often using herbal remedies.
After the Civil War, Tubman lived the rest of her life in Auburn, NY. She helped raise money to help the newly freed slaves, fought for women’s suffrage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, married a man twenty years her junior, adopted a daughter, and in 1896 opened up the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Despite her difficult life and many health ailments, Tubman lived until she was 93. Even though she died in 1913, the talk of her replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill is a current reminder of the civil rights pioneer’s enduring legacy.