How Harriet Tubman Led a Civil War Raid That Freed More Than 700 From Slavery

How Harriet Tubman Led a Civil War Raid That Freed More Than 700 From Slavery


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They called her “Moses” for leading enslaved people in the South to freedom up North. But Harriet Tubman fought the institution of slavery well beyond her role as a conductor for the Underground Railroad. As a soldier and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed military operation in the United States in what is known as the Combahee Ferry Raid.

By January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Tubman had been in South Carolina as a volunteer for the Union Army. With her family behind in Auburn, New York, and having established herself as a prominent abolitionist in Boston circles, Tubman, at the request of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, had gone to Hilton Head, South Carolina, which had fallen to the Union Army early in the war.

Tubman Becomes Military Leader

For months, Tubman worked as a laundress, opening a wash house, and serving as a nurse, until she was given orders to form a spy ring. Tubman had proven herself invaluable at gathering clandestine information, forming allies and avoiding capture, as she led the Underground Railroad. In her new role, Tubman assumed leadership of a secret military mission in South Carolina’s low country.

“First and foremost, her priorities would be to defeat and destroy the system of slavery and in doing so, to definitely defeat the Confederacy,” said Brandi Brimmer, a history professor at Spelman College and slavery historian.

Tubman partnered with Colonel James Montgomery, an abolitionist who commanded the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a Black regiment. Together, the two planned a raid along the Combahee River, to rescue enslaved people, recruit freed men into the Union Army and obliterate some of the wealthiest rice plantations in the region.

Montgomery had around 300 men, including 50 from a Rhode Island Regiment and Tubman rounded up eight scouts, who helped her map the area and send word to enslaved people when the raid would take place.

“She was fearless and she was courageous,” said Kate Clifford Larson, historian and author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. “She had a sensibility. She could get Black people to trust her and the Union officers knew that they were not trusted by the local people.”

Overnight Raids Launch From the River

The night of June 1, 1863, Tubman and Montgomery, on a federal ship the John Adams, led two other gunboats, the Sentinel and Harriet A. Weed, out of the St. Helena Sound towards the Combahee River. En route, the Sentinel ran aground, causing troops from that ship to transfer to the other two boats.

As explained in Catherine Clinton’s book, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Tubman, who was illiterate, couldn’t write down any intelligence she gathered. Instead, she committed everything to memory, guiding the ships towards strategic points near the shore where fleeing slaves were waiting and Confederate property could be destroyed, all while leading the steamers away from known torpedoes.

“They needed to take gunboats up the river,” said Clinton. “They could have been blown up if they hadn’t had her intelligence.”

Around 2:30 a.m. on June 2, the John Adams and the Harriet A. Weed split up along the river to conduct different raids. Tubman led 150 men on the John Adams toward the fugitives. Tubman, later commenting on the raid, said once the signal was given, she saw slaves running everywhere, with women carrying babies, crying children, squealing pigs, chickens and pots of rice. Rebels tried chasing down the slaves, firing their guns on them. One girl was reportedly killed.

As the escapees ran to the shore, Black troops in rowboats transported them to the ships, but chaos ensued in the process. Tubman, who didn’t speak the region’s Gullah dialect, reportedly went on deck and sang a popular song from the abolitionist movement that calmed the group down.

More than 700 escaped slavery and made it onto the gunboats. Troops also disembarked near Field’s Point, torching plantations, fields, mills, warehouses and mansions, causing a humiliating defeat for the Confederacy, including the loss of a pontoon bridge shot to pieces by the gunboats.

Tubman Was Recognized a Hero (But Not Paid)

The ships docked in Beaufort, South Carolina, where a reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal heard what had happened on the Combahee River. He wrote a story without a byline about the “She-Moses” but never mentioned Tubman’s name. He wrote that Montgomery’s “gallant band of 300 soldiers under the guidance of a Black woman, dashed into the enemies’ country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary store, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror to the heart of the rebeldom brought off bear 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch.”

But Tubman’s anonymity came to an end in July 1863 when Franklin Sanborn, the editor of Boston’s Commonwealth newspaper, picked up the story and named Harriet Tubman, a friend of his, as the heroine.

Despite the mission’s success, including the recruitment of at least 100 freedmen into the Union Army, Tubman was not compensated for her efforts on the Combahee Ferry Raid. She had petitioned the government several times to be paid for her duties as a soldier. “She was denied because she was a woman,” says Larson.

“By the time we get to the Emancipation Proclamation, we have Lincoln setting out concrete spaces for Black men and their recognition in military service,” said Brimmer. “But there's not really a vision for the work of women who function in the military bearing arms, particularly Black women.”

Tubman would eventually get a pension, but only as the widow of a Black Union soldier she married after the war, not for her courageous service as a soldier.

READ MORE: Harriet Tubman: 8 Facts About the Daring Abolitionist


Harriet Tubman and the Lowcountry river raid that liberated more than 700 enslaved people

After the Civil War started, Harriet Tubman joined the Union Army and led a raid up the Combahee River between Charleston and Beaufort, liberating more than 700 enslaved people. The movie Harriet premeires in November.

By the time Harriet Tubman arrived in the Lowcountry in 1863, she was already known as the “Moses” of her people for guiding enslaved African Americans to freedom, much as her Biblical namesake helped the Jewish escape Egypt. Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman emancipated herself a decade before the first shots of the Civil War were fired and led at least 70 enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad network.

After war was declared, she returned to the South, joining the Union Army as a nurse and later as a team leader of scouts. Tubman gathered intelligence about Confederate troop locations and assets from African Americans who worked on the plantations and relayed it to Union generals.

She is celebrated for her role as the first woman to plan a military assault in the June 1863 Combahee River Raid. Tubman, alongside white troops and the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (a unit of African American soldiers), traveled up the river on two gunboats, stopping along the way to destroy plantations and liberate more than 700 enslaved people.


After the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman Led a Brazen Civil War Raid

They called her “Moses” for leading enslaved people in the South to freedom up North. But Harriet Tubman fought the institution of slavery well beyond her role as a conductor for the Underground Railroad. As a soldier and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed military operation in the United States in what is known as the Combahee Ferry Raid.

By January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Tubman had been in South Carolina as a volunteer for the Union Army. With her family behind in Auburn, New York, and having established herself as a prominent abolitionist in Boston circles, Tubman, at the request of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, had gone to Hilton Head, South Carolina, which had fallen to the Union Army early in the war.


Tubman Becomes Military Leader

During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served as a spy and militia leader with the Union forces.

For months, Tubman worked as a laundress, opening a wash house, and serving as a nurse, until she was given orders to form a spy ring. Tubman had proven herself invaluable at gathering clandestine information, forming allies and avoiding capture, as she led the Underground Railroad. In her new role, Tubman assumed leadership of a secret military mission in South Carolina’s low country.

“First and foremost, her priorities would be to defeat and destroy the system of slavery and in doing so, to definitely defeat the Confederacy,” said Brandi Brimmer, a history professor at Spelman College and slavery historian.


Tubman partnered with Colonel James Montgomery, an abolitionist who commanded the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a black regiment. Together, the two planned a raid along the Combahee River, to rescue slaves, recruit freed men into the Union Army and obliterate some of the wealthiest rice plantations in the region.

Montgomery had around 300 men, including 50 from a Rhode Island Regiment and Tubman rounded up eight scouts, who helped her map the area and send word to the slaves when the raid would take place.

“She was fearless and she was courageous,” said Kate Clifford Larson, historian and author of Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. “She had a sensibility. She could get black people to trust her and the Union officers knew that they were not trusted by the local people.”


Overnight Raids Launch From the River
The night of June 1, 1863, Tubman and Montgomery, on a federal ship the John Adams, led two other gunboats, the Sentinel and Harriet A. Weed, out of the St. Helena Sound towards the Combahee River. En route, the Sentinel ran aground, causing troops from that ship to transfer to the other two boats.

As explained in Catherine Clinton’s book, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Tubman, who was illiterate, couldn’t write down any intelligence she gathered. Instead, she committed everything to memory, guiding the ships towards strategic points near the shore where fleeing slaves were waiting and Confederate property could be destroyed, all while leading the steamers away from known torpedoes.


“They needed to take gunboats up the river,” said Clinton. “They could have been blown up if they hadn’t had her intelligence.”

Around 2:30 a.m. on June 2, the John Adams and the Harriet A. Weed split up along the river to conduct different raids. Tubman led 150 men on the John Adams toward the fugitives. Tubman, later commenting on the raid, said once the signal was given, she saw slaves running everywhere, with women carrying babies, crying children, squealing pigs, chickens and pots of rice. Rebels tried chasing down the slaves, firing their guns on them. One girl was reportedly killed.

As the escapees ran to the shore, black troops in rowboats transported them to the ships, but chaos ensued in the process. Tubman, who didn’t speak the region’s Gullah dialect, reportedly went on deck and sang a popular song from the abolitionist movement that calmed the group down.

More than 700 escaped slavery and made it onto the gunboats. Troops also disembarked near Field’s Point, torching plantations, fields, mills, warehouses and mansions, causing a humiliating defeat for the Confederacy, including the loss of a pontoon bridge shot to pieces by the gunboats.

Tubman Was Recognized a Hero (But Not Paid)

The July 4, 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly illustrating slaves escaping to a Union ship on the Combahee River, as buildings burn in the distance.


The ships docked in Beaufort, South Carolina, where a reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal heard what had happened on the Combahee River. He wrote a story without a byline about the “She-Moses” but never mentioned Tubman’s name. He wrote that Montgomery’s “gallant band of 300 soldiers under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemies’ country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary store, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror to the heart of the rebeldom brought off bear 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch.”

But Tubman’s anonymity came to an end in July 1863 when Franklin Sanborn, the editor of Boston’s Commonwealth newspaper, picked up the story and named Harriet Tubman, a friend of his, as the heroine.

Despite the mission’s success, including the recruitment of at least 100 freedmen into the Union Army, Tubman was not compensated for her efforts on the Combahee Ferry Raid. She had petitioned the government several times to be paid for her duties as a soldier. “She was denied because she was a woman,” says Larson.

“By the time we get to the Emancipation Proclamation, we have Lincoln setting out concrete spaces for black men and their recognition in military service,” said Brimmer. “But there's not really a vision for the work of women who function in the military bearing arms, particularly black women.”

Tubman would eventually get a pension, but only as the widow of a black Union soldier she married after the war, not for her courageous service as a soldier.


Resistance

Emancipation was not the product of one act, but many Americans, enslaved and free, chipped away at slavery through daily acts of resistance, organized rebellions, and political pressure. Some were small steps, others were organized actions taking advantage of national debates to fracture and destroy the peculiar institution.

Acts of Defiance

Enslaved black southerners fought slavery in ways large and small—from open rebellion to subtle acts of resistance. Some ran away, poisoned food, or preached freedom at religious services held in secret. Yet for many people survival itself was a form of resistance. While their lives were curtailed by the institution of slavery, freedom was never far from their thoughts.

Harriet Tubman escaped the bonds of slavery as a young woman in the early 1800s. She returned to the South many times as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad to lead other African Americans to freedom. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a spy, nurse, and cook for Union forces. In 1863, she helped free more than 700 African Americans during a raid in South Carolina—a feat that earned her the nickname “General Tubman.”

Runaway Notice

Against great odds, enslaved African Americans ran away. They ran to family, to friends, or north to freedom. A runaway risked brutal punishment and retribution against loved ones left behind.
National Museum of African American History and Culture

Slave Rebellions

Slave rebellions carried bloody consequences. Rebels were executed. Family, friends, and neighbors might be beaten and killed. In some cases, slaveholders placed the bloodied and dismembered bodies in public view to remind passersby of slavery’s awful power. Nevertheless, against terrible odds, enslaved people rebelled.

The largest slave rebellions included Stono (South Carolina, 1739), New York City (1741), Gabriel’s Rebellion (Richmond, Virginia, 1800), St John’s Parish (Louisiana, 1811), Fort Blount (Florida, 1816), Vesey’s Rebellion (Charleston, South Carolina, 1822), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (Southampton County, Virginia, 1831), Amistad Mutiny (slave ship, 1839), and the Creole Revolt (slave ship, 1841).

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In the North, many runaways published life stories to focus national attention on the horrors of slavery. These autobiographies became known as “slave narratives.” Perhaps the most well known was written by Frederick Douglass. He used his life story as a political tool directed at the conscience of white America. Emphasizing classic American values such as individualism, freedom, and the self-made man, Douglass held a mirror to America and asked the public to speak out against slavery.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Elizabeth Cassell

Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Enslaved people rose up against slaveholders in Southampton County, Virginia, on August 21, 1831. Led by Nat Turner, rebels moved from plantation to plantation, murdering roughly 55 whites and rallying enslaved people to their cause. They planned to move on to Jerusalem, Virginia, seize supplies, and then make a permanent home in the Great Dismal Swamp. By August 23, the rebels had been defeated. More than 200 black men and women, both enslaved and free, were executed. Nat Turner’s Rebellion alarmed Americans and inflamed the debate over the future of slavery.

Nat Turner's Bible

It is thought that Nat Turner was holding this Bible when he was captured two months after the rebellion. Turner worked both as an enslaved field hand and as a minister. A man of remarkable intellect, he was widely respected by black and white people in Southampton County, Virginia. He used his talents as a speaker and his mobility as a preacher to organize the slave revolt. This Bible was donated to the museum by descendants of Lavinia Francis, a slaveholder who survived the rebellion.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Maurice A. Person and Noah and Brooke Porter

Abolitionist Allies

In the North, abolitionists used many strategies to attack slavery. Like William Lloyd Garrison, some advocated the gradual emancipation of enslaved people. Others took direct action, such as Harriet Tubman who led enslaved people to freedom. John Brown attacked slavery with guns, swords, and pikes. Some tried politics, writing so many letters to Congress that work in the Capitol ground to a halt. Black or white, radical or conservative, abolitionists formed a small but potent force that shifted the political rhetoric in the United States and helped end slavery.

John Brown Pike Head

John Brown attempted to ignite a slave insurrection in Virginia. He and a small band of men raided the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859 to seize weapons for the uprising. He brought 1,000 pikes with him to help arm the people he freed. Brown was captured and executed, but his raid stoked the fears of white southerners. With one third of the southern population held in bondage, whites lived in fear of an armed insurrection.
National Museum of American History, gift of Luther M. Divine


June 2, 1863: Harriet Tubman Led Armed Raid, Rescued Over 700 Slaves

June 2, 1863: In the early morning hours, Harriet Tubman guided three steamboats around Confederate mines in the waters leading to the shore. Once ashore, the Union troops set fire to the plantations, destroying infrastructure and seizing thousands of dollars worth of food and supplies.

When the steamboats sounded their whistles, slaves throughout the area understood that it was being liberated. Tubman watched as slaves stampeded toward the boats. “I never saw such a sight,” she said later, describing a scene of chaos with women carrying still-steaming pots of rice, pigs squealing in bags slung over shoulders, and babies hanging around their parents’ necks.

Although their owners, armed with handguns and whips, tried to stop the mass escape, their efforts were nearly useless in the tumult. As Confederate troops raced to the scene, steamboats packed full of slaves took off toward Beaufort.

More than 700 slaves were rescued in the Combahee River Raid. Newspapers heralded Tubman’s “patriotism, sagacity, energy and ability,” as well as her recruiting efforts – most of the newly liberated men went on to join the Union army.


Combahee River Raid (June 2, 1863)

On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman led 150 black Union soldiers, who were part of the U.S. 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, in the Combahee River Raid and liberated more than 700 enslaved people. Tubman, often referred to as “the Moses of her people,” was a former slave who had fled to freedom in 1849. Throughout the 1850s, she returned to her native Maryland to bring other enslaved people north into freedom, first to Pennsylvania and then eventually to Canada.

Tubman had worked mainly through the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. By 1862, however, she left her home in Auburn, New York to work in the Union-occupied Hilton Head area of South Carolina as a nurse and spy during the Civil War. In 1863, Colonel James Montgomery asked her to lead a secret military mission against Confederates in South Carolina. With the support of Union gunboats, she and members of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers traveled into Confederate territory to free enslaved people and destroy wealthy rice plantations. Some of the formerly enslaved men were recruited into the army.

On the night of June 1, 1863, three federal gunboats set sail from Beaufort, South Carolina traveling up the Combahee River. Tubman had gained vital information about the location of rebel torpedoes planted along the river from slaves who were willing to trade information for freedom. Because of this information, Tubman was able to steer the Union ships away from any danger. She led the ships to specific spots along the shore where fugitive slaves were hiding and waiting to be rescued. At first, many of the slaves were frightened by the Union soldiers’ presence, but Tubman was able to convince them to come aboard.

As “Lincoln’s gun-boats” traveled up river, more slaves were rescued and eventually 750 boarded the vessels. The boats, however, also had a specific military mission. They carried Union troops who came on shore and succeeded in destroying several influential South Carolina estates owned by leading secessionists, including the plantations of the Heyward, Middleton, and Lowndes families. Many of the Union soldiers who took part in the raid were former slaves who saw the burning and pillaging of these estates as an opportunity to enact revenge on the master class.

By the time Confederate forces learned of the raid, much of the damage had been done. Hundreds of slaves, including women and children, were able to escape. A company of Confederate troops was sent to challenge the raiders, but they were not successful. They managed to stop only one slave from escaping to the gunboats by killing her. Confederate artillery proved almost as ineffective since none of the rounds they fired hit any of the gunboats.

Harriett Tubman was the only woman known to have led a military operation during the American Civil War. Thanks in great part to the intelligence she provided, the Union boats and over 700 slaves escaped unharmed , including 100 men who joined the Union Army. The Combahee River Raid was a major military and psychological blow to the Confederate cause.


Black Abolitionists

Profiles. Zinn Education Project. 2014.
Brief biographies of 25 Black abolitionists.

Textbooks and state curricula devote little attention to the abolition movement, let alone to Black abolitionists. To counter the invisibility of Black abolitionists who were central to the abolition movement and the ending of slavery, we feature two dozen Black abolitionists here. This collection is not comprehensive, indeed there are many more Black abolitionists who fought against slavery, assisted people in the Underground Railroad, or supported the movement in a myriad of ways. Learn more about the abolition movement, outside the textbook, in the lesson, “‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement.”

William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown was born in bondage in 1814. Much of his childhood was spent working in St. Louis, Missouri. In one of his numerous attempts to escape, he and his mother were caught. She was shipped south to New Orleans and he never saw her again. Brown was finally able to escape on New Year’s Day in 1834. He went to Buffalo, NY, where he worked on steamboats and assisted in the work of the Underground Railroad.

In the 1840s, Brown joined the abolitionist movement, attending conventions, working on committees, and giving speeches. In 1847 he was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society as a public speaker and moved to Boston. That same year he published his “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave,” which was widely read and revered.

Due to the threat of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, he went to England for five years. After the end of the Civil War, Brown continued to write, publishing three volumes on Black history, a novel, travelogues, a play, and a collection of abolitionist songs. Before Brown passed away in 1884, he was regarded as the foremost Black writer in the United States. He also became a physician.

Learn more at the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Paul Cuffee

No Taxation Without Representation!

On Feb. 10, 1780, Paul Cuffee and others petitioned the Massachusetts government either to give African and Native Americans the right to vote or to stop taxing them. The petition was denied, but the case helped pave the way for the 1783 Massachusetts Constitution, which gave equal rights and privileges to all (male) citizens of the state.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of the petition submitted to the Mass. legislature:

To the Honorable Council and House of Representatives, in General Court assembled, for the State of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England: The petition of several poor negroes and mulattoes, who are inhabitants of the town of Dartmouth, humbly showeth,—That we being chiefly of the African extract, and by reason of long bondage and hard slavery, we have been deprived of enjoying the profits of our labor or the advantage of inheriting estates from our parents, as our neighbors the white people do, having some of us not long enjoyed our own freedom yet of late, contrary to the invariable custom and practice of the country, we have been, and now are, taxed both in our polls and that small pittance of estate which, through much hard labor and industry, we have got together to sustain ourselves and families withall. . . .

This is the copy of the petition which we did deliver unto the Honorable Council and House, for relief from taxation in the days of our distress. But we received none. JOHN CUFFE.

Luís Gama

Luís Gama (June 21, 1830—August 24, 1882) abolitionist, journalist, lawyer, and poet. Gama was born in Salvador, Brazil in 1830, his biological father a wealthy Portuguese man and his mother, Luisa Mahin, a revolutionary Black woman from Ghana. Mahin played a major role in a number of slave uprisings, including the Malê Revolt.

At the age of 10, Gama’s father sold him into slavery. In 1848, Gama escaped his enslavement and was able to win his legal freedom after proving to a court that he was born free. As noted on the AfroEurope International blog, “Gama published a collection of poems, mocking Pardos (mixed race) who wanted to be white and sold out their Black brother and sisters by denying their roots so they could join the elite.”

Gama gained a reputation in Brazil as a Rabula, or a lawyer without a law degree who represented people who were enslaved against their “masters.” By the end of his life, he had helped to free upwards of 1,000 enslaved people and become one of Brazil’s most prominent abolitionists and revolutionaries.

Read much more about Gama’s life at the AfroEurope International blog.

William Howard Day

Attorney, newspaper editor, minister, and abolitionist William Howard Day traveled to Britain in 1859 where he lobbied for a boycott of cotton from the U.S. to break the economic profitability of human bondage. Read a report on those talks from the Black Abolitionist Archive.

On July 4, 1865, he gave a speech on the White House grounds to thousands of people including African Americans recently freed from bondage, congressmen, and government officials. Day reminded those assembled that “the Declaration of Independence is not yet fully carried out, nor will it be, until…the Black man, as well as the white, is permitted to enjoy all the franchises pertaining to citizens of the United States of America.” Day later worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, orator, writer, newspaperman, and statesman, selected February 14 to mark the day of his birth, 1818. Here is a free downloadable lesson for teaching about Douglass’ fight for freedom and a video clip of Danny Glover reading his July 4 speech.

Given the breadth of Douglass’s scholarship and activism, he is also included in other lessons on the Zinn Education Project website such as the role plays on the Seneca Falls Convention and the U.S.-Mexico War, see these and more here.

On Dec. 3, 1847, Frederick Douglass, along with Martin R. Delany, started the North Star (newspaper). Here is an excerpt from the paper on the War with Mexico (from Voices of a People’s History of the United States) read by Benjamin Bratt and a related lesson. We also recommend the book, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.

Henry Highland Garnet

Henry Highland Garnet was born in captivity in Maryland in 1815. When he was nine, his family secured their freedom via the Underground Railroad. Garnet entered the African Free School in New York City in 1826.

In 1834, Garnet and some of his classmates formed their own club, the Garrison Literary and Benevolent Association. Because the society was named after a controversial abolitionist, the public school where the group wanted to meet insisted that the group first change their name. To do otherwise would be to risk mob violence. The club decided to keep their name and instead change their venue. The first meeting of the group garnered over 150 African Americans under 20.

Garnet is perhaps most famous for his radical speech of 1843, “An Address to the Slaves of the USA.” In this speech, Garnet speaks directly to those enslaved, urging them to rebel against their masters.

Because of Garnet’s outspoken views and national reputation, he was a prime target during the 1863 New York City draft riots. Rioters mobbed the street where Garnet lived and called for him by name. Fortunately several neighbors helped to conceal Garnet and his family. Garnet was also involved in the fight to desegregate streetcars.

This description is from The New York African Free School Collection. Read more here and here. Photo from National Portrait Gallery.

Leonard Grimes

Leonard Grimes (1815-1873), born in Virginia, was an abolitionist and pastor who played an active role on the Underground Railroad. After witnessing the horrors of slavery as a young man, Grimes determined to do all he could to help people escape.

He got a job as a hackman (horses and carriages for hire) to provide cover for his work on the Underground Railroad. In 1839 he was arrested in Washington, D.C. (yes, our nation’s capitol) for transporting a family to freedom and sent to Virginia, where he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in the Richmond penitentiary.

After his release, he and his family moved to Boston, where he became the first pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church, known as The Fugitives Church. There he continued his abolitionist work and open defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He was credited with helping hundreds of freedom seekers make their way to Canada. [Description adapted from Cultural Tourism DC.]

We highly recommend this short essay about his life by Deborah A. Lee.

Charlotte Forten Grimké

Abolitionist and educator Charlotte Forten Grimké was the granddaughter of Philadelphia abolitionist James Forten. She was active in the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. After the start of the Civil War, Forten taught a community of African Americans living on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina who had been liberated in 1862. She wrote about the experience in her article “Life on the Sea Islands,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1864.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1825. After teaching in Pennsylvania and Ohio for two years, she traveled the U.S. speaking on the abolitionist circuit and assisting in the Underground Railroad. In addition, Harper was a prolific and celebrated writer. Throughout her life she published numerous collections of poetry, including Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects and Sketches of Southern Life. In short time, Harper became the most celebrated female African American writer in the United States. Here is an excerpt from a poem she wrote about slavery:

And mothers stood with streaming eyes
And saw their dear children sold
Unheeded rise their bitter cries,
While tyrants bartered them for gold.

After the end of the Civil War, Watkins supported the advancement of civil rights for African Americans, women’s rights, and equality in education for all. Read more at the Archives of Maryland and ExplorePAHistory.com. Image source: New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Lewis Hayden

Lewis Hayden was born in bondage in 1811 in Lexington, Kentucky. His first wife and son were sold by U.S. Senator Henry Clay into the deep south and Hayden never saw them again. He married Harriet Bell in 1840. The couple escaped on the Underground Railroad in 1844, fleeing to Canada before they made their way to Boston. (The two abolitionists who assisted Hayden’s escape were arrested and jailed.)

In Massachusetts, Hayden and his family ran a clothing store where they held abolitionist meetings and provided refuge for people escaping from slavery. It was rumored that the Haydens’ stored two kegs of gunpowder in their home in the case that slave catchers would ever attempt to capture the people they sheltered —- they’d have rather blown up the house than surrender the persons they were protecting.

Hayden assisted high profile people including Ellen and William Craft, Shadrach Minkins, and Anthony Burns. Additionally, Hayden raised funds for John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry Raid. During the Civil War Hayden helped recruit Black soldiers and later served a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He worked for a monument to honor Crispus Attucks and supported women’s suffrage.

Hayden passed away in 1889. On Harriet Hayden’s death, she bequeathed funds to form a scholarship for African American students at Harvard Medical School.

Josiah Henson and his wife Nancy Henson in Glasgow, Scotland.

Josiah Henson

Born into slavery in 1789 in Maryland, Josiah Henson fled to Canada with his family where he founded the Dawn Institute, a settlement house which taught trades to people who had escaped enslavement. A Methodist preacher, he traveled throughout the United States and Great Britain lecturing against slavery. With the underground railroad he assisted over two hundred people in their flight to Canada. [Description from the National Park Service.]

Henson’s description of his experiences, an early slave narrative, served as the basis for the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Read more about Josiah Henson at the Documenting the American South website.

Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings (1799 – 1874) was held in bondage by President James Madison during and after his White House years. After securing his freedom in 1845, Jennings published the first White House memoir. His book, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, is described as “a singular document in the history of slavery and the early American republic.” Read excerpts at Documenting the American South.

Jennings also played a lead role in planning the Pearl incident “the largest recorded escape attempted by people from enslavement in U.S. history.” Read more at the Zinn Education Project.

John Mercer Langston

“It has been discovered, at last, that slavery is no respecter of persons, that in its far reaching and broad sweep it strikes down alike the freedom of the Black man and the freedom of the white one. This movement can no longer be regarded as a sectional one. . . it must be evident to every one conversant with American affairs that we are now realizing in our national experience the important and solemn truth of history, that the enslavement and degradation of one portion of the population fastens galling festering chains upon the limbs of the other. For a time these chains may be invisible yet they are iron-linked and strong and the slave power, becoming strong-handed and defiant, will make them felt.”

John Mercer Langston (abolitionist, politician, and attorney) in a speech delivered in August of 1858. Read full speech at the The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue website.

Read Langston’s bio at BlackPast.org. Photo from Brady-Handy Collection at the Library of Congress.

Robert Morris

Robert Morris (June 8, 1823 – Dec. 12, 1882) was one of the first African American lawyers in the U.S. He was one of the abolitionists who helped Shadrach Minkins escape from the courthouse on Feb. 15, 1851, where he had been brought under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Morris was tried and acquitted for his role in the Minkins escape. Morris was also one of the attorneys for Benjamin Roberts who filed the first school integration suit on Feb. 15, 1848 (Roberts v. Boston) after Roberts’ daughter Sarah was barred from a white school in Boston, MA. Read more in the book Sarah’s Long Walk (Beacon Press) and at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Read more about Robert Morris at BlackPast.org. Photo in public domain.

William Cooper Nell

William Cooper Nell, African-American abolitionist, journalist, author, and civil servant was born on December 16, 1816. Nell was one of the first people to record extensive African American history (a people’s historian!) and an activist for school desegregation in Boston. Read more on BlackPast.org.

Solomon Northup

Solomon Northup was born free in upstate New York in 1808. The story of his enslavement was told in his book 12 Years a Slave and has been made into films by Gordon Parks (1984) and Steve McQueen (2013). His book and the movie tell the story of Northup’s enslavement for twelve years on plantations in Louisiana before he was able to regain his freedom.

Missing from the film was his abolitionist activity after his emancipation. Northup wrote his book to expose the brutal conditions of enslavement and he spoke across the U.S. His campaign for reparations, supported by Frederick Douglass and Free Soil Party U.S. Congressman Gerrit Smith, was a precursor to the national reparations campaign for all African Americans. Read “We Need to Include Reparations in the Story of Solomon Northup.”

Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers

On September 13, 1858, group of the citizens of Oberlin, Ohio, stopped Kentucky “slave-catchers” from kidnapping John Price. Oberlinians, Black and white, from town and from the local College, pursued the kidnappers to nearby Wellington at word of his abduction. Read more about the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.

Sarah Parker Remond

Born into a family of abolitionists who were also active in the Underground Railroad, Sarah Parker Remond gave her first abolitionist speech at the age of sixteen. This was a radical action at the time not just because she was young and black, but also because she was a woman.

Remond was a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, in addition to other antislavery organizations. When Remond was 27 she refused to accept segregated seating at an event at Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. While being forcibly removed, Remond was pushed down a flight of stairs by a police officer. After taking the city of Boston to court she was awarded a settlement of $500 in a case that drew national attention. Remond traveled across the country as an abolitionist lecturer and also to England. She eventually moved to Italy and became a physician.

Read more at the BlackPast.org. Photo: © Peabody Essex Museum, 1865.

Charles Lenox Remond

Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873) joined the abolitionist movement while in his early twenties, working as an agent for Garrison’s Liberator in 1832 and later as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. These experiences helped earn him a nomination as the only African American delegate to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

During this conference and his subsequent United Kingdom lecture circuit, he developed a reputation as an eloquent orator, additionally demonstrating his commitment to women’s rights by protesting the conventions rejection of female delegates.

Upon his return to the United States, Remond labored not only to end slavery, but to improve the lives of free-Blacks in the north, lobbying the Massachusetts House of Representatives to end segregation on trains.

Biography from the Colored Conventions Project. Read more about Charles Lenox Remond at BlackPast.org. Photo from Boston Public Library.

David Ruggles

“David Ruggles (1810-1849) was an abolitionist, editor, writer, organizer of the New York Committee of Vigilance and famed conductor of the Underground Railroad. He was renown for his unflinching courage in the battle against kidnappers and illicit traders of enslaved people. He was the first Black bookseller and operated the first Black lending library in the nation. His magazine, the Mirror of Liberty, was the first periodical published by an African American. . . . New York’s economy depended directly or indirectly on slavery. Mobs did not hesitate to attack abolitionists, especially one as provocative as Ruggles. His store was burned down three times he was beaten in jail twice and once nearly kidnapped to be sold into slavery.”

Description by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, author of David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City. Read full interview and learn more about the book at the University of North Carolina Press website. Learn more about his work fighting the police in the Time article, “The Black New Yorker Who Led the Charge Against Police Violence in the 1830s” by Jonathan Daniel Wells.

Mary Ann Shadd

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1823 where her parents were abolitionists and their home was a station on the Underground Railroad.

They moved to Pennsylvania so that their children could attend school because the education of Black children was illegal in Delaware. Cary studied at a Quaker school and became an educator, teaching for 12 years. After the passage of Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was a threat to the safety of all African Americans, the Shadds moved to Canada.

Cary wrote and published a pamphlet encouraging other Blacks to settle in Canada and founded Canada’s first anti-slavery newspaper, the Provincial Freeman. She supported John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and helped Osborne P. Anderson publish his firsthand account of the raid.

She returned to the U.S. where she became active in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and she studied law at Howard University. After initially being denied access to the bar, she received her law degree in 1883.

For more information on Shadd Cary’s life, read here.

William Still

Fervent abolitionist. William Still was born free in 1821 and was known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still helped more than 800 people escape slavery and continue on the road to freedom. He also served as chairman of the Vigilance Committee for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. A meticulous record keeper, Still once discovered that he aided in the escape of an older brother who was left behind when their parents escaped slavery.

Still worked with a Underground Railroad network across New Jersey, New York, New England, and Canada, and even crossed paths with Harriet Tubman.

In 1872, Still published an account of his work on the Underground Railroad in The Underground Railroad Records. A leader in the community, Still also helped to establish an African American orphanage and open the first YMCA for Blacks in Philadelphia.

For more information on William Still’s life, read here.

James McCune Smith

The African Free School opened on this day in 1788 in New York for the children of people who were enslaved and free Blacks. By the time it was incorporated into New York Public Schools in 1835, it had educated thousands of people including doctor and abolitionist James McCune Smith.

Learn more about the school’s history and see samples of student work in a New York Historical Society online archive.

Photo: Library of Congress.

Harriet Tubman

Perhaps one of the most famous abolitionists and Underground Railroad operators, Harriet Tubman, was born into slavery in the early 1820s in Dorchester County, Maryland.

In 1849 Tubman fled Maryland for the north. She would return south on countless trips to bring people to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Less known is her role during the Civil War when she led the Union army in the Raid at Combahee Ferry that freed more than 700 people from slavery. This was the only Civil War military operation led by a woman and it was extremely successful. Read more here.

Later in her life she also became active in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Read more at BlackPast.org.

David Walker

In September 1829, David Walker published his “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.” The “Appeal” was a call to action against the terrorism and brutality of slavery and racism.

At the time, the “Appeal” was the most widely read anti-slavery document in the United States. Walker, with the help of sailors, church leaders, and more was able to smuggle copies of his “Appeal” to plantations in the South. As a result, Walker’s “Appeal” was banned in the South and laws were passed which made it illegal for Blacks to learn how to read.

A bounty was put on Walker’s head. In addition to penning the “Appeal,” Walker was a leading abolitionist and noted public speaker in Boston. He wrote and helped support the first African American newspaper, “Freedom’s Journal.” Three editions of Walker’s “Appeal” were published before he passed away in 1830.

Learn more at The David Walker Memorial Project.

When teaching Walker’s Appeal, it would be important to note that Native Americans were also frequently described with non-human terms such as “beasts” or as “savages.” And the tactic of renaming a group in order to dehumanize and oppress them can be seen in other settings, such as “gooks” in Vietnam. But the wholesale renaming of a people, to the point that even today many refer to “slaves” instead of “people” continues today with reference to enslaved Africans. For example, “slaves brought from Africa” or “George Washington had slaves” when in fact “people were brought in bondage from Africa” and “George Washington ‘owned and sold’ people.”

This article is also available at Newsela. It was adapted for several additional reading levels by Newsela staff in September 2019.


Harriet (2019)

Yes. In the Harriet movie, these visions unfold before us in literal form as washed-out, crazed montages of people, birds, memories, and the future. The visions are at times strong enough to make Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) collapse. It's true she believed that the visions were spiritual messages from God. The Harriet true story reveals that they began after a head injury she received as a child between 1834 and 1836, when an enraged overseer threw a two-pound iron weight at a slave trying to run away, striking Harriet (then Minty) by accident. The impact cracked Harriet's skull and led to a lifelong battle with headaches, seizures and narcolepsy.

Did an examination of the will of Harriet Tubman's mother's former master reveal that she was legally free?

Did Harriet Tubman really walk 100 miles to escape from slavery?

Yes. A Harriet fact check reveals that Tubman escaped from slavery, fleeing Poplar Neck in Caroline County, Maryland in September 1849. Using the North Star and rivers as her guides, she made her way to Pennsylvania and then headed to Philadelphia, a total distance of roughly 100 miles.

Did Harriet Tubman's two brothers retreat back to the plantation after escaping with her?

Yes. She invited her two brothers and her free husband, John Tubman, to flee to the North with her via the Underground Railroad. Her husband refused her invitation and decided instead to remain in Maryland. Her siblings fled with her but turned back out of cowardice.

Is Joe Alwyn's character, slave master Gideon Brodess, based on a real person?

No. Gideon (Joe Alwyn), the young slave owner who is portrayed as having been a childhood companion of Tubman, is entirely fictional. The character represents the many young people who grew up alongside the slaves owned by their parents. Gideon does share the same last name as Edward Brodess, Harriet's former owner who died in March 1849. In real life, Edward's death is what prompted Harriet to escape, since she was about to be sold to a new master farther south. In the movie, the fictional Gideon continues to pursue Tubman after her escape. Gideon's mother, Eliza Brodess (Jennifer Nettles), is based on a real person, Edward's wife. -The New York Times

Does the film draw on Harriet's real-life accounts?

Yes. Some of the movie's most memorable moments were taken straight from Harriet Tubman's real-life accounts. This includes her examining her hands in the sunlight when she crosses the border into Pennsylvania. The real Tubman recalled, "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven."

Did she choose the name "Harriet Tubman" to mark her freedom?

Not exactly. Born Araminta 'Minty' Ross, the true story reveals that she changed her name to Harriet Tubman around the time of her first marriage. Tubman was the last name of the free black man she had married while enslaved, John Tubman. She chose Harriet for her first name to honor her mother.

Is Janelle Monáe's character, Marie Buchanon, based on a real person?

No. In conducting our Harriet fact check, we learned that the freeborn northern black, Marie Buchanon, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, is not based a real-life individual. However, there certainly were similar freeborn blacks who aided Harriet. In the film, Marie is a boarding house proprietor who helps Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) and teaches her how to behave like a proper free woman.

Did Harriet Tubman's husband marry someone else?

Yes. In researching the Harriet true story, we learned that following the death of her owner, Edward Brodess, in March 1849, Harriet Tubman was about to be sold. Instead of becoming the property of a new master farther south, she fled north to freedom. Her husband, John Tubman, a free man, decided to remain behind. He married a free woman, Caroline, and together they would have four free children. Like in the film, Harriet returned to rescue her husband, but he refused, preferring to remain in Dorchester County, Maryland with his new wife. He was killed there in 1867 during a roadside argument with a white man.

How many times did Harriet Tubman go back to free more slaves?

In researching how accurate the Harriet movie is, we learned that Tubman made approximately 13 trips from the South to the North, guiding slaves along the Underground Railroad to their freedom.

Did local plantations start calling her Moses?

Yes. Like in the movie, a Harriet fact check confirms that because her identity was unknown, coupled with the fact that she had freed so many slaves so quickly, local plantations began referring to her as Moses.

Did Harriet Tubman really use guns?

Yes. In the past, books and children's books about Harriet Tubman intentionally softened her image to make her seem more "ladylike". "Those books defanged her, declawed her, to make her more palatable," said Harriet director Kasi Lemmons. "Because there's something quite terrifying about the image of a black woman with a rifle." In reality, the real Harriet Tubman did carry guns. In fact, she was more closely in line with the action hero Cynthia Erivo portrays in Harriet than the toned-down, feminized versions we've seen before. The true story confirms that Tubman carried a pistol during the ten years she was a conductor with the Underground Railroad. She used it as protection against slave hunters, and, to a lesser degree, as shown in the movie, to persuade those with her not to turn back. She also carried a sharpshooter's rifle during the Civil War. -The New York Times

Was Harriet Tubman devoutly religious?

Yes. She had attended church services from the time she was a child. Prior to her freedom, she attended the churches of her masters, as slaves were often required to do. Thomas Garrett, a fellow Underground Railroad agent, said of Harriet, "[I've] never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul . . . and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great."

Was there a bounty on Harriet Tubman's head?

Yes. There was indeed a bounty on Harriet Tubman's head. In the film, we see posters citing a bounty of $200 or $300. This is far more realistic than the often-repeated myth of $40,000. That is a ridiculously high number, especially given that the bounty on John Wilkes Booth's head was $50,000. If the number was indeed that high, she would have certainly been captured. Below is an ad taken out by Eliza Brodess after Harriet's escape. Harriet is referred to by her birth name, Minty, in the ad. -The New York Times

How many slaves did Harriet Tubman free through the Underground Railroad?

After she managed to escape, Harriet was involved in freeing around 70 other slaves during the ten years she was with the Underground Railroad. It helped make her one of the most famous "conductors" on the Railroad. Harriet's 1869 biography puts the number she freed at 300, but it is now believed that the biography embellished her story in an effort to sell it.

In addition, during her time with the Union Army in the Civil War, she was involved in a large military operation that freed more than 750 slaves. -The New York Times

Did Harriet Tubman act as a spy during the Civil War?

Yes. Tubman had several alternating roles during the Civil War, including working as a nurse, scout, spy and cook for the Union Army. As a nurse, she provided care to both wounded soldiers and liberated slaves. Her duties grew to include scouting and spying behind Confederate lines. She is credited as being the first woman to lead an armed raid into enemy territory. In June 1863, she led Colonel James Montgomery and his Second South Carolina Black regiment up the Combahee River, overtaking Confederate outposts and liberating over 700 slaves along the way.

Did Harriet Tubman ever remarry?

Yes. In 1869, she married a veteran named Nelson Davis (pictured below), who was more than 20 years her junior. In 1874, they adopted a baby girl named Gertie.

As we explored the answer to, "How accurate is Harriet?" we discovered the short documentary below that provides an overview of Harriet Tubman's life. Also view the movie's trailer.


The Combahee Ferry Raid

From the Collection, Gift of Charles L. BlocksonGift of Charles L. Blockson

On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman, under the command of Union Colonel James Montgomery, became the first woman to lead a major military operation in the United States when she and 150 African American Union soldiers rescued more than 700 slaves in the Combahee Ferry Raid during the Civil War.

Tubman, often referred to as “the Moses of her people,” was a former slave who fled to freedom in 1849. Tubman worked for years to bring enslaved women, men, and children from the south to the north through the Underground Railroad.

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Watch the video: Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center - Preview Clip 2