Books On A Shelf

Hidden History

Pretty much everyone knows who Harriet Tubman is, she was a conductor on the underground railroad. Over the course of a decade, Harriet Tubman led over 300 slaves to freedom in the northern states and Canada. She would lead slaves to freedom during the dark of night, taking her trips in the winter to take advantage of the longer nights.


Making stops at safe houses along the underground railroad, her and her party would be given food, shelter, and a safe place to rest on their treacherous trip. Tubman often had to account for the dangerous and hard to navigate environment of the south as well as avoiding the slave owners hunting them (or anyone else who might turn them in).


This part of Tubman’s life is very well known, but what other extraordinary feat of hers that has often been forgotten by history is how she served the Union army during the Civil War. Tubman was recruited to aid the Union army to act as a spy under the cover of a nurse. As if that wasn’t badass enough, Tubman was also the first black woman to command a battle in the U.S. army.


Tubman is thought to have been recruited by the Governor of Massachusetts, John Andrew, who was a staunch abolitionist in 1862. Under the cover of a group of volunteers to help freed slaves transition from slavery, Tubman traveled to Hilton Head, South Carolina where she was stationed for most of her war years.


While in Hilton Head, Tubman would teach the freed slaves how to live independently and act as a nurse for the Union army that was also stationed there. Tubman had knowledge of medicinal herbs that made her very useful as a nurse.


Great navigation skills of the local environment was also one of Tubman’s strengths. Many of the soldiers in the Union army would not have been as familiar with the environment as Tubman was who spent a decade traveling there undetected.


While stationed in Hilton Head, Tubman formed a network of spies (something she likely had much experience with on the underground railroad) in the surrounding area which she utilized in the Combahee River Raid in 1863.


The River Raid went something like this: Union ships on the Combahee River were advancing on Confederate occupied plantations where hundreds of slaves lived and worked. As the Union ships approached and the Union forces began overtaking the Confederate forces, slaves ran towards the Union ships and to freedom. Around 800 slaves were freed that day and many of the men would enlist in the Union army as a result.


Tubman’s role in this battle of the Civil War was one of authority, she spent much of the battle on one of the Union ships on the river guiding according to the knowledge she gained from her scouts of the area. According to one historian Jean McMahon Humez, “Tubman directed the advance spying activity of the scouts, and together they determined where the confederate forces had placed torpedoes. She and ‘several men under her’ were on the lead gunboat with Colonel Mongomery, helping to pilot the Union boats safely. She also played a central role in persuading the frightened contrabands to come aboard the alien boats.” (Humez 2003, 58)


Although Tubman’s Civil War years are not much mentioned by mainstream history, her actions during the Civil War were very significant. I wrote a research paper last semester on Harriet Tubman and specifically her life during the Civil War which is how I found out about this hidden history. If you would like to learn more about Harriet Tubman, check out these biographies:


Bradford, Sarah H. Harriet Tubman, the Moses of Her People. Glocester, MA: P. Smith, 1981.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: the Road to Freedom. New York,: Back Bay Books, 2005.

Conrad, Earl. Harriet Tubman. The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1943.

Humez, Jean McMahon. Harriet Tubman: the Life and the Life Stories. Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2003.