Profile: Harriet Tubman

By | 2022-02-14T17:52:47-05:00 April 29th, 2011|0 Comments

Though Harriet Tubman is best known for guiding slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad and for her civil rights efforts after the war, she also served during the war as a nurse, scout and spy for the Union. Soon after the war started in 1862, Tubman went with a group of Northern abolitionists to South Carolina, where she nursed black soldiers and hundreds of newly liberated slaves who flooded into Union camps during the war. When dysentery hit the camps, according to some accounts, Tubman treated her patients with a bitter brew of boiled roots and herbs based on folk remedies she had learned in her native Maryland.

Because Tubman could not read or write, much of her Civil War work was described by others in the form of commendations. “I have been acquainted with Harriet Tubman for nearly two years,” wrote Henry Durrant, the assistant surgeon in charge of the Union’s Contraband Hospital in Beaufort, S.C., in 1864. (“Contraband” was the Union’s word for escaped slaves.) “My position as medical officer in charge of contrabands in this town, and in hospitals, has given me frequent and ample opportunity to observe her general deportment, particularly her kindness and attention to the sick and suffering of her own race.”

Like most black women, Tubman’s duties included cooking and laundry, and her title was “laundress.” But she took on other responsibilities for the Union as well. She became the first woman to command a military raid, guiding a black regiment into Confederate territory, where they destroyed stores of food, cotton and weapons and freed more than 750 slaves.

Despite poor health, Tubman continued caring for wounded soldiers in the Washington, D.C., area and was appointed matron of the Colored Hospital at Fortress Monroe, Va.

For much of her military career, Tubman worked for little or no pay, and was denied a pension. Eventually, she received a pension for her husband’s war service and, after great outcry from supporters who were appalled a Civil War heroine had been left penniless, a nursing pension. — Cathryn Domrose

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