Harriet Really Was a Spy

This is the sixth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

While the history of slavery in America was covered in my schooling, that education was largely superficial. I do have vivid memories of learning about Harriet Tubman and the “underground railroad” that helped smuggle slaves out of the slave-owning Confederacy into freedom (such as it was) in the United States and Canada during the Civil War. What I didn’t know is that there is so much more to Harriet Tubman. She was the first woman to lead a U.S. military expedition and she was a spy (and recruiter) for the Union army!

During the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward, whose house was a stop on the underground railroad, ran a spy ring that recruited former slaves. The key to the success of this endeavor was the invisibility of blacks to white Confederates. They didn’t see them and they didn’t even consider that they might be intelligent enough to be working against them.

Their invisibility didn’t mean this work was without risk though. These former slaves were not legally free; they were still considered fugitives under the law. Moreover, Tubman was a well-known abolitionist, so her travels into enemy territory were exceptionally risky.

Harriet Tubman was incredibly brave, leading raids on rice plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina, taking out Confederate infrastructure and freeing slaves along the way. She recruited many of them to join the Union army too. She also ventured into Confederate territory on her own, gathering information from local slaves about Confederate plans, troop movements, and where mines had been placed in the rivers.

Harriet Tubman was a badass!

Sadly—but unsurprisingly—she never got paid for her work as a spy during her lifetime. In 2003, however, then-Senator Hillary Clinton did issue a payment to Harriet Tubman’s estate as a way to posthumously repay her for her efforts and bravery (and the pension she never received).

After the war, Harriet Tubman took up the cause of women’s suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. Sadly, the role of black women in the suffragist movement has also been undermined and downplayed. We need to remember and celebrate their contributions too.

For more about Harriet Tubman’s wartime history, check out the book Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent and listen to “The Raid” from Uncivil.


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