Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820; her birth name was Araminta Harriet Ross. As a child, she was beaten daily by those to whom she was “hired out” to do domestic work.
A field hand in her early teens, Tubman defied an overseer’s order to restrain another field hand, and blocked a doorway so the man could escape. When the overseer threw a two-pound weight at her, it broke her skull and left her with lifetime seizures and narcolepsy. Around 1844, she married John Tubman, a free Black man.
In 1849, she and her two brothers escaped from the plantation, but they faced great dangers and returned. Although alone on her second attempt to flee, Tubman succeeded. After arriving in Philadelphia, she worked and saved money to bring her family members and others out of slavery.
The well-organized Underground Railroad had been functioning for 50 years when Tubman joined it. She became a “conductor” and went on 19 missions to the South, escorting more than 300 people out of bondage. So determined was she that she threatened to shoot anyone who tried to turn back, insisting, “You’ll be free or die.”
Tubman was so successful that the Southern slavocracy offered a $40,000 bounty for her capture. Years later, she said, “I was a conductor of the Underground Railway for eight years. I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Known as ‘General Tubman’
The great anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass had enormous respect for Tubman. Another ally was white abolitionist John Brown, who advocated armed struggle to destroy slavery. Tubman helped him recruit supporters. Brown, who referred to her as “General Tubman,” found her knowledge of support networks and resources to be important contributions to his raid at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in 1859. While the action failed, it was seen by anti-slavery forces as a symbol of proud resistance.
By 1861, Tubman saw the Union victory in the Civil War as an important step in the abolition of slavery, and she joined the Union Army. She condemned President Abraham Lincoln’s inaction in outlawing slavery.
“General Tubman,” as she was known, was the first woman to plan and lead an armed assault in the Civil War. In 1863, she guided a regiment of 300 Black soldiers in a raid at Combahee Ferry, S.C., and commanded the gunboats around Confederate mines in the river. The battle was won; 756 enslaved people were liberated.
Tubman also served as a healer. She organized a hospital for Black soldiers and cured many of dysentery using herbal remedies learned from Indigenous healers. Butch Lee, author of “Jailbreak out of History: The Re-Biography of Harriet Tubman,” explains that “for every Black Union soldier who died in battle, ten died from diseases. … To them, a healer was as militarily essential as a skilled artilleryman or sharp shooter.”
Harriet Tubman was a warrior, leader, guerrilla fighter and military commander. Her contributions were great in the struggle to abolish slavery and as a fighter for women’s and workers’ rights.