Harriet Tubman was a black American abolitionist and humanitarian who led more than three hundred slaves to freedom. She escaped slavery herself in 1849 and became a spy for the Union during the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman was a freed slave who led the Underground Railroad, fought in wars for America and spied for the Union during the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman aided in the planning of a river raid in South Carolina that liberated hundreds of slaves.

Harriet Tubman had been a freedom fighter for more than a decade when the Civil War broke out. She had carried out many covert and hazardous rescues as a famous abolitionist and intrepid Underground Railroad conductor who traveled into slave country to bring people to freedom in the North and Canada. Tubman wasn’t scared to help her fugitive brothers and sisters. She assisted in the rescue of fugitive slave Charles Nalle from a slave catcher in Troy, New York, in 1860. Tubman recognized that joining forces with the Federal troops would enhance her efficacy in the battle against slavery shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms in April 1861, and she volunteered for service. She initially trained as a nurse, then went on to work for the Union as a scout and spy in occupied South Carolina. Her patriotism is unquestionable, yet her duty as a military hero was questioned at the time. Scholars and students have started to acknowledge her important contributions to the Union’s Civil War triumph throughout the years.

Araminta, her actual name, was born in 1825 to enslaved parents on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and she had a difficult childhood. “I grew up like a neglected weed,—ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it,” Tubman later lamented. When she learned that her master was going to “sell her over the river,” as her siblings had been banished to the Deep South before her, she chose to flee and embark on her own quest to freedom in 1849. She was abandoning her brother, sisters, and parents in the process, as well as her free black husband John, who refused to accompany her. She adopted her mother’s name, Harriet, and her husband’s last name, Tubman, before embarking on the trip.

Harriet Tubman, renamed and self-liberated, arrived in Philadelphia uninjured and went on to have a long and distinguished career as a member of the Underground Railroad. Tubman was the “Great Emancipator” in mythology and action, guiding thousands of fleeing African Americans to freedom, often all the way to Canada. She amassed a following of friends and lovers, including abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and William Seward, to mention a few.

The Legacy of Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter and Spy

In a photo shot soon after the war, Harriet Tubman threatened to kill any Underground Railroad “passenger” who panicked, endangering the mission. (Alamy Stock Photo/North Wind Picture Archives)

Tubman, along with thousands of other black refugees, fled to Canada as the slave authority stretched its tentacles into the North with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Tubman put her life on the line time and time again, not only by returning to the North, but also by embarking on missions into the slave South. Tubman’s exploits became even more well-known when she became a fervent admirer of John Brown, who dubbed her “General Tubman” long before Lincoln started issuing commissions.

Tubman became a member of the military unofficially early in the conflict. Benjamin Butler, a Democrat, had served in the Union Army and was a member of the Massachusetts delegation to Congress. Butler was a tough opportunist who was frequently overlooked until his bullying methods started to pay off. Butler, who had been promoted to brigadier general, led his troops into Maryland, where he threatened to arrest any lawmaker who voted for independence.

Tubman landed in the encampment at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in May 1861, trailing Butler’s all-white soldiers. The massive fort and adjacent soldier tent city quickly became a significant attraction for fugitive slaves. Tubman was back in her old stomping grounds.


BY MARCH 1862, the Union had gained enough land that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton established the Department of the South, which included Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. Tubman was invited to join the group of Massachusetts volunteers going to South Carolina by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, a strong abolitionist who pledged his support. Andrew also arranged Harriet Tubman’s military passage aboard the USS Atlantic.

The Union soldiers on the South Carolina coast were in a perilous situation. With Confederates on three sides and the ocean on the fourth, they were effectively surrounded. Nonetheless, Maj. Gen. David Hunter, the region’s newly appointed Union commander, had big plans for expanding Northern authority.

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the 1st South Carolina Volunteers landed in November 1862, while Colonel James Montgomery and the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers came in early 1863. Both regiments were packed with escaped slaves, and Higginson and Montgomery had known Tubman before to the war. Tubman had acquired important allies and supporters in those two men, both abolitionists, and they recommended that a spy network be created in the area.

Tubman had spent ten months as a nurse caring for the ill of those regiments and was ready for a more active role by early 1863. She was granted the power to assemble a team of scouts to enter the interior and map it out. Several were trusted boat pilots, such as Solomon Gregory, who were well-versed in the local waterways and could navigate them without being discovered. Her tight-knit group comprised Mott Blake, Peter Burns, Gabriel Cahern, George Chisholm, Isaac Hayward, Walter Plowden, Charles Simmons, and Sandy Suffum, and they became the Department of the South’s official scouting agency.

Stanton, who regarded Tubman to be the leader of her troops, oversaw Tubman’s espionage operation. Tubman sent intelligence to Hunter or Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton immediately. “I have solid information that there are huge numbers of able bodied Negroes in that area who are waiting for a chance to join us,” Saxton wrote to Stanton in March 1863, referring to a planned attack on Jacksonville, Fla. Colonel Montgomery launched a successful operation to take the town based on intelligence obtained by Tubman’s operatives. Tubman’s vital information and Montgomery’s boldness persuaded superiors that additional large-scale guerilla operations could be carried out.

The Legacy of Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter and Spy

In this Harper’s Weekly portrayal of the Combahee River Raid, “Linkun gunboats” offer cover fire for slaves racing to escape. (July 4, 1863, Harper’s Weekly)

The Combahee River Raid, which took place in June 1863, was a military action that represented a turning point in Tubman’s career. Until then, she had carried out all of her assaults against the Confederacy in secret. With her significant involvement in that military action, she did not stay unknown.


THE LOWCOUNTRY RICE PLANTATIONS OF SOUTH CAROLINA lay beside tidal rivers that spread inland from the Atlantic, and they possessed some of the richest land and slave populations in the South. To recruit additional black battalions, federal leaders planned to march up the rivers to destroy farms and free slaves.

The raid up the Combahee River, a winding creek about 10 miles north of Beaufort where Tubman and her companions were stationed, began just before midnight on June 2, 1863, when the Federal gunboats Harriet A. Weed and John Adams sailed into the river. Tubman sailed aboard the John Adams with 150 African-American soldiers from the 2nd South Carolina Infantry and their white commanders. The black troops were especially pleased that not only Colonel Montgomery, but also the legendary “Moses” had been entrusted with their lives.

Tubman had been told of the position of Rebel torpedoes—floating mines placed under the surface of the water—in the river and acted as a watch for Union pilots, enabling them to navigate their boats safely past the explosives. The expedition had arrived at Fields Point by 3 a.m., and Montgomery sent a platoon ashore to drive off Confederate pickets, who retreated but dispatched colleagues to alert other soldiers at Chisholmville, 10 miles upriver.

Meanwhile, two miles north of Fields Point, a company of the 2nd South Carolina, led by Captain Carver, landed and deployed at Tar Bluff. Harriet A. Weed moored at the Nichols Plantation, and the two ships proceeded upriver. She also directed the boats and soldiers to specific coastal locations where dozens of runaway slaves were hiding. The slaves rushed aboard the boats as soon as the “all clear” was given.

Tubman recalled the event, saying, “I never witnessed such a spectacle…” “Sometimes the ladies would arrive with twins around their necks; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and little ones trailing after, all laden; pigs screeching, fowl shouting, young ones squealing.”

“[Tubman] crossed safely the spot where the torpedoes were put and eventually reached the…ferry, which they immediately began cutting way, landed to all appearances a group at Mr. Middleton’s and in a few minutes his buildings were in flames,” according to one Confederate observer.

The black soldiers struck hard and deep at the proud master class, robbing warehouses and torching planter homes as a bonus. The atrocity perpetrated on the renowned Middleton estate hammered home the message. It’s possible that Dixie may fall into the hands of their former slaves. Only one lone slave was allegedly prevented from fleeing by the Confederates, who shot her as she flew.

The Confederate commander could only get a glimpse of fleeing gunboats, pallid in the dawn light, as he charged to the water’s edge. Major William P. Emmanuel, enraged, urged his troops into pursuit—and found themselves stuck between the riverbank and Union snipers. In the heat of battle,

Only four bullets were fired by Emmanuel’s gunners, all of which exploded harmlessly into the sea. After one of his men was injured, the Confederate commander became enraged and ordered his soldiers to retreat. During the nighttime raid on the Combahee, nearly 750 slaves would be liberated.

The Heywards, Middletons, Lowndes, and other South Carolina dynasties had their properties plundered by Union invaders. Tubman’s strategy worked. “The enemy seems to have been properly informed as to the nature and ability of our soldiers and their little likelihood of meeting resistance, and to have been carefully led by people well familiar with the river and country,” the official Confederate report stated.

The seizure of the “Cradle of Secession” was a big theatrical gesture, a headline-grabbing tactic that drew praise from government, military, and civilian officials throughout the North. Because the Combahee River Raid was a well-executed, stunningly successful operation, detractors from both the North and South could no longer claim that blacks were unsuited for military duty. On June 3, Hunter sent a joyful letter to Secretary of War Stanton, claiming that Combahee was only the beginning. He also wrote to Governor Andrew, pledging that Union activities would “desolate” Confederate slaveholders by “carrying away their slaves, thereby quickly filling up the four South Carolina regiments that are already in existence.” Andrew had long been a proponent of black troops and a staunch backer of Hunter’s effort to enlist ex-slaves in the military.

Harriet Tubman was a powerful secret weapon whose talents should never be underestimated, as the Confederacy learned overnight what it took the Union’s Department of the South almost a year to uncover. Federal commanders grew to rely on her, although her identity was never mentioned in official military records. She became doubly invisible as a black lady. When Union leaders dispatched her as far south as Fernandina, Fla., to help Union troops who were falling like flies from fevers and exhaustion, she used her invisibility to her advantage.


DURING THE SUMMER OF 1864, TUBMAN’S OWN HEALTH FAILED, and she returned north on a leave. In early 1865, she was on her way back to the South when peace broke out, so she returned to Auburn, where she had settled her parents and built a home. Tubman frequently lived on the streets after the war, doing odd jobs and performing domestic service to make ends meet, but she also collected money for charity. She was looking for donors to help her fulfill her goal of opening a house for black people in her hometown—for the poor, the handicapped, veterans, and the homeless.

In a July 1896 piece in The Chautauquan, the authors admonished, “It seems odd that one who has done so much for her nation and been in the heart of the fights with bullets falling all about her, should never have received acknowledgment from the Government in a significant manner…” “You wouldn’t imagine that after serving the flag so diligently, I could come to desire beneath its folds,” Tubman said.

The Legacy of Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter and Spy

In March 1913, an interracial throng gathers in Auburn, New York, to pay their last respects to Tubman. (Gift of Charles L. Blockson to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

In 1897, a petition was distributed and signed by Auburn’s most powerful residents, asking that Congressman Sereno E. Payne of New York “bring up the issue [of Tubman’s military pension] again and push it to a definitive and successful conclusion.” Payne’s new measure suggested that Congress give Tubman a $25-per-month “military pension,” the same amount as surviving troops. Tubman’s assertion that she was operating under the command of the secretary of war was subsequently refuted by a National Archives employee who later did investigation on the matter. Some members of the committee thought Tubman’s work as a spy and scout, which was documented, warranted such a pension. Others recommended that the issue of a soldier’s pension be abandoned since she might be pensioned more legally as a nurse.

W. Jasper Talbert of South Carolina, one of the committee members, may have obstructed Tubman’s pension out of spite—it was a matter of pride for this white Southern politician that a black lady not be paid her due.

Regardless, decades after she initially filed for a pension based on her service, a settlement was eventually reached. Tubman was awarded a $8-a-month widow’s pension in 1888 after the death of her second husband, USCT veteran Nelson Davis. The settlement allowed for an increase “due to exceptional circumstances.” The House allowed a $25 increase (the precise amount for surviving troops), but the Senate modified with a $20 increase—which was eventually approved by both chambers.

In February 1899, President William McKinley signed the pension into law. Tubman’s feeling of triumph was immense after 30 years of effort. Not only would the money provide her with a source of income and enable her to continue her charitable efforts, but it would also legitimize her military service. Details of Tubman’s military service were recorded in the Congressional Record, with the statement that “Congress is fully justified in raising that annuity in light of her personal services to the Government.”

Tubman’s bravery during the Civil War is now being recognized for what it was: a part of a long life of fighting for freedom and sacrificing personal liberty in the sake of patriotism.



Catherine Clinton, a member of the Civil War Times advisory board, is the Denman Chair in American History at the University of Texas in San Antonio. She is the author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, as well as a number of other Civil War-related books.


Harriet Tubman was a famous abolitionist and spy for the Union during the Civil War. She helped to free over 800 slaves in her lifetime, and she even led a raid on a Confederate prison camp. Reference: what did harriet tubman do after the civil war.

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Harriet Tubman is a former slave who led many slaves to freedom during the American Civil War.

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