Harriet Tubman’s life is an inspirational story of a woman with an indomitable spirit, deep and abiding religious faith and steadfast courage who overcame incredible hardships to achieve a life of dignity and freedom for herself, her family and dozens of slaves whom she led to freedom as perhaps the most well known conductor on the Underground Railroad.
She was born into slavery sometime in the early 1820’s. The exact date remains unknown. She was cruelly treated. Beaten and whipped throughout her childhood, she nearly died at age 12 from a head wound suffered when a slaveowner threw a metal weight at another slave that hit her instead. The wound left her with seizures and other problems that were to plague her for the remainder of her life.
In 1849, she discovered that her owner was planning to sell her, breaking up her family. She then fled north to freedom, eventually reaching Philadelphia. It was then that her life took a turn that was to largely define her life and lead to her fame. Not content in having won her own freedom while her family and others remained in slavery, she went back to rescue them. It was an incredibly courageous decision that was fraught with peril. Were she to be captured, she would be re-enslaved, if not killed outright. She was risking more than her life by going back. Between 1849 and 1860, she made over 13 trips to the South to lead members of her family and others to freedom. After the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made it more dangerous for escaped slaves to live openly, even in states in which slavery was not legal, she took the men and women she was leading to freedom on the Underground Railroad to Ontario in Canada.
Harriet Tubman’s activities with the Underground Railroad led to a price being put upon her head by southern authorities. She was never captured, nor did she lose a single person in her charge to the slave-catchers and their dogs. She rescued her parents in 1857, and made her last trip as a conductor on the Underground Railroad in 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. It was an incredible record of courage and honor that would be more than enough for a single lifetime. But Harriet Tubman’s struggle against the evils of slavery and oppression were far from over.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Tubman first served the Union forces as a cook and a nurse. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, she took a more direct role in the war. Tubman used the skills she had honed on her trips on the Underground Railroad to serve as a spy and scout for the Union Army.
In early June of 1863, Harriet Tubman accompanied units from the 2nd South Carolina Infantry under Col. James Montgomery on a raid of plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. The unit was comprised of Black soldiers who had at long last been allowed to join the Union Army and fight for their freedom. Tubman guided the three steamships carrying the soldiers past Confederate mines in the river. The troops landed and burned several plantations and captured supplies to deny them to the Confederacy. The slaves working in the fields saw the approaching soldiers and heard the whistles of the Union steamships. They raced to the river to the ships-and freedom. Over 750 slaves were rescued in the raid, with most of the men joining the Union Army. A month later, she witnessed the assault upon Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the unit featured in the superb movie “Glory”. Harriet Tubman spent the remainder of the Civil War nursing and assisting soldiers and working in the camps of freed slaves.
After the war, she returned to her home in Auburn, New York to care for her parents whom she had brought back from Canada. She later became involved in the women’s suffrage movement, a cause that she supported until her death of pneumonia in 1913.
Harriet Tubman left a remarkable legacy. She won her freedom and then risked it repeatedly by returning to slave states to lead others to freedom. She served the cause of the Union in combat and as a spy and scout. She nursed the sick and the wounded. Her life is a record of incredible perseverance and courage. It is also a record of selfless service to others. Perhaps her greatest legacy will never be precisely known. There are any number of our fellow Americans who are descended from the men and women she led to freedom on those long night time treks through the swamps and woods with the north star as their only guide.