On June 23, 1908, there was a grand celebration in Auburn, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. At the center of the festivities was a seemingly delicate, elderly woman. “With the Stars and Stripes wound about her shoulders, a band playing national airs and a concourse of members of her race gathered about her to pay tribute to her lifelong struggle on behalf of the colored people of America, aged Harriet Tubman Davis, the Moses of her race, yesterday experienced one of the happiest moments of her life, a period to which she has looked forward for a score of years,” wrote The Auburn Citizen.
For 15 years, an increasingly frail Tubman had dreamt of a rest home for elderly and infirm Black folks in New York and had worked tirelessly to achieve its opening. Officially called the Harriet Tubman Home, it was just one more selfless act in a lifetime of service. “I did not take up this work for my own benefit, but those of my race who need help,” she said humbly that day. “The work is now well started, and I know God will raise up others to take care of the future. All I ask is united effort, for united we stand divided we fall.”
Tubman has long been famous throughout the world for her work as a brilliant, daring guide for the Underground Railroad. She escaped her own slavery in 1849 but returned to the South and over the next decade rescued dozens of fellow enslaved people. “She's 5 feet tall,” Elizabeth Cobbs, author of The Tubman Command told NPR. “She's a tiny little thing, like a strong wind might blow her away…And she looks kind of like nobody. But she must have had one of these faces that's very changeable. She was also very good at disguise. She was able to get in and out of places that someone else would have been stopped and accosted.”
It was this adaptability that would lead Tubman to excel in her post-Underground Railroad endeavors. Over the next half-century, she would work as a Union Army General, a liberator, a nurse, a cook, a scout, a spy-ring chief, a celebrated orator, a caretaker and a community organizer.
Tubman took care of 'contrabands' in the South during the Civil War
According to Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 initially seemed to Tubman an unnecessary step. If President Abraham Lincoln would only free enslaved people across the South, they would rise up and destroy the Confederacy from within, thus negating the need for thousands of senseless deaths. "This Negro can tell Mister Lincoln how to save the money and the young men," she told friend Lydia Maria Child. “He can do it by setting the Negroes free.”
Despite her disappointment and misgivings, in May 1861, Tubman – now in her late thirties – arrived at the Union-controlled Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia, overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. Enslaved people, known as “contrabands,” were pouring into Union held facilities, and Fort Monroe was no exception. Tubman set about cooking, cleaning and nursing the sick back to health, overlooking the very clear danger she was in as a wanted fugitive slave in the South.
In May 1862, at the request of the U.S. government, Tubman traveled to Port Royal, in Beaufort County off the South Carolina coast. Thousands of enslaved people had flooded into the Union-held Sea Islands of Carolina, and a humanitarian crisis was brewing. A white volunteer named Elizabeth Botume, described the scene at the Beaufort port:
Negroes, negroes, negroes. They hovered around like bees in a swarm. Sitting, standing, or lying at full length with their faces turned to the sky. Every doorstep, box, or barrel was covered with them, for the arrival of a boat was a time of great excitement.
Still going by the code name of “Moses,” Tubman’s reputation preceded her in Union circles. Although Union officers “never failed to tip their caps when meeting her,” she soon refused to take rations, so as not to insult the displaced Black population. Instead, after long days working as a root doctor, nurse and cook, she would make her own “pies and root beer” to sell and make ends meet. According to Clinton, she even used her own meager earnings to build a laundry so that she could teach female refugees the trade.
She led a group of emancipated Black Americans as Union spies
On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation officially set enslaved people in the Confederacy free. The Union brass realized that they now had a huge network of emancipated Black Americans who could become soldiers, munitions workers and rebel leaders. Tubman’s amazing skills as a spy and scout could now be used to its full advantage. According to Clinton:
By early 1863, after ten months spent ministering to the sick, Tubman had been given the authority to line up a roster of scouts, to infiltrate and map out the interior. Most of her agents were men recruited directly from the surrounding low country. Several were trusted water pilots, like Solomon Gregory, who could travel upriver by boat undetected. Her closely-knit band became an official scouting service for the Department of the South.
Tubman and her spies quickly learned that there were thousands of newly freed Black people all over the South eager to leave the low country and join the Union. Formerly enslaved people felt comfortable talking to Tubman and her scouts and trusted their instructions. “They had lived their lives as invisible people,” writes Thomas B. Allen in his book Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent. “That quality of invisibility, which Harriet Tubman knew so well, became the basis for using ex-slaves as spies for the Union.”
Using the Tubman spy ring’s information, on the night of June 22, 1863, the Union Army launched the Combahee River Raid. Leading the 150 Black Union troops and a trio of federal ships was no other than Tubman herself. Into the morning of the 23rd, an armed Tubman navigated her men through 25 miles of riverfront, home to the most aristocratic plantations of the Old South.
All along the river, formerly enslaved people were waiting, having heard Moses was coming. “I never saw such a sight,” Tubman recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”
A master storyteller, Tubman would later joke that she had such difficulty with two slippery pigs that she resolved to never wear skirts on a mission and wrote her friends in the North for bloomers. Confederates scrambled to respond to the raid, but they had been taken by complete surprise. By daylight, over 750 people had joined the Union. Tubman (who could not write) dictated a summation of the raid to journalist Franklin Sanborn:
We weakened the rebels somewhat on the Combahee River by taking and bringing away seven hundred and fifty-six head of their most valuable livestock, known up in your region as “contrabands,” and this, too, without the loss of a single life on our part, though we had good reasons to believe that a number of rebels bit the dust.
After the triumph of the raid, Tubman now had to find a way to care for the new refugees at Port Royale. While she often used her own money to make sure new residents didn’t starve, news of the successful raid was spreading around the country. In a July 1863 edition of the abolitionist paper Commonwealth, Tubman’s friend Sanborn finally unveiled the legendary Moses of the UGRR and U.S. Army as Tubman. However, Tubman had no time to revel in her new-found fame – the nearby Second Battle of Fort Wagner, where the legendary Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth lost 40 percent of their men – brought hundreds of new soldiers directly under Tubman’s care.
With her health failing, Tubman retreated to Auburn where she continued to serve the community
Tubman, who suffered from recurring illnesses, including narcolepsy because of an old head injury (caused by a slave owner hitting her with a metal weight), found her health failing by the spring of 1864. Worried about her family up in Auburn, she requested leave to go to her adopted hometown in the summer. She then went back to work with refugees at Fort Monroe, before officially retiring in 1865. However, on her train ride home, Tubman was the victim of a racist attack, because railroad officials believed her U.S. Army papers were forged. Clinton writes:
She was asked to leave her seat. Tubman politely refused. When she failed to move, the conductor called in assistance. Her stubborn resistance took four men altogether to eject her from her seat. She was dumped unceremoniously into the baggage car for the rest of her trip, let out of her imprisonment only when she reached her destination.
Not surprisingly, Tubman was thrilled to go back to the loving embrace of her extended family and friends in Auburn. She welcomed a network of parents, siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces, with whom she was finally able to enjoy quality time.
“Once while she was playing in the long grass,[her great-niece] Alice was taken by surprise when her great-aunt suddenly popped up in the meadow beside her,” Clinton writes. Tubman had stealthily slid out of her “rocking chair, flattened herself against the ground, and silently slithered up to the little girl to surprise her — a trick she had learned from her days with the Underground Railroad."
In her comfortable, rambling home, Tubman took in elderly, infirm and mentally disabled African Americans and cared for them free of charge. “All these years her doors have been open to the needy... The aged... the babe deserted, the demented, the epileptic, the blind, the paralyzed, the consumptive all have found shelter and welcome,” one Auburn friend wrote. “At no one time can I recall the little home to have sheltered less than six or eight wrecks of humanity entirely dependent upon Harriet.”
Often barely making ends meet, Tubman was constantly involved in community projects; raising money for schools, nurseries and churches. One friend wrote that “while Harriet has never been known to beg for herself, the cause of the needy will send her out with a basket on her arm to the kitchens of her friends, without a show of hesitation.”
Tubman also married a second time, after the death of her first husband, from whom she had been estranged for decades. Her new husband was Nelson Davis, a young, handsome Union veteran originally from North Carolina. The two were married in Auburn on March 18, 1869. It was reported:
The audience was large, consisting of the friends of the parties and a large number of first families in the city. Ladies and gentlemen who were interested in Harriet, and who for years had advised and assisted her, came to see her married. After the ceremony Rev. Mr. Fowler made some very touching and happy allusions to their past trials and apparently plain sailing the parties now had, when the ceremony ended amid the congratulations of the assembly, and the happy couple were duly embarked on the journey of life.
Over the years, Tubman would become a forerunner to today’s inspirational circuit speaker, talking to groups throughout the Northeast. “As a raconteur, Harriet herself, has few equals,” a friend recalled.
“I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” she once said.
Tubman also became a passionate suffragette, attending local meetings and national conferences. When asked if she believed in women’s suffrage she quipped; “I suffered enough to believe it.”
Amazingly, this revered, honored woman was nearly penniless for much of her life. For 30 years, the U.S. government denied Tubman a pension for her service during the Civil War, despite her extraordinary efforts. After her husband’s death in 1888, she was finally granted a widow’s pension, which increased to $20, because of her special service, in 1899.
However, Tubman’s last great dream was not for herself but for others. That was the 1908 opening of the Harriet Tubman Home, next to her estate in Auburn. Tubman herself moved into the home in 1911 and died there on March 10, 1913. Always the caretaker, always the leader, Tubman’s last words to her loved ones were unsurprising: “I go, to prepare a place for you.”