As an Underground Railroad heroine, Civil War espionage agent and nurse, Harriet Tubman’s roles took her up and down the eastern United States and into Canada.
Less widely recognized are her connections with Florida and the 54th Massachusetts, the Civil War volunteer infantry regiment celebrated in the motion picture Glory.
Tubman is believed to have been present at the 1864 Battle of Olustee, Florida’s most important Civil War battle, and at Fernandina Beach and Jacksonville, where she nursed wounded Union soldiers.
Given the nickname “Moses” because she led her people to freedom, Tubman is said to have made at least 19 trips south to escort escaped slaves north to safety. Traveling by night, Tubman and her charges crept along obscure paths and waded dark streams to avoid the relentless patrols hunting them.
Just 5 feet tall, Tubman’s frail appearance hid the heart of a lioness. She told escapees that if they went with her they would have to keep moving – or die. She carried a pistol to back up her policy.
“A dead fugitive slave will tell no tales,” Tubman said. To quiet fussing infants, she kept an herbal concoction handy.
Born a slave herself about 1821 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tubman, named Araminta at birth and called Minty in her early years, ran from her owners in 1849. She followed the North Star to Philadelphia and freedom. Ultimately she led more than 300 fugitive slaves north, including her parents, who were in their 70s. (Tubman changed her name to Harriet to honor her mother.)
“I never lost a passenger,” she said of her Underground Railroad exploits.
As a girl, Tubman sustained a severe head injury when an overseer hit her with a club or a rock. For the rest of her life, episodes of what were called “sleeping fits” plagued her.
Her daring and the knowledge of southern back country she accumulated while guiding fugitives led Union officers to rely upon Tubman as a wartime spy. A rather nondescript person, she sometimes would sit unrecognized under “wanted” posters offering rewards for her capture. Such virtual invisibility let her prowl unnoticed near Rebel forces, whose tactical movements she then would report to Union forces.
Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass told her: “Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.”
During one of her slave rescue trips, Tubman had to stop and pull all of her own abscessed teeth because the pain was proving a great distraction. She used an herbal formula to ease the operation – and it was her skill as an herbalist that resulted in yet another role. She became a battlefield nurse, and that was the assignment that brought her to Florida.
An acquaintance of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts, Tubman was with the famed African-American regiment when it was battered at Battery Wagner in South Carolina. She then accompanied the regiment on its deployment to Fernandina Beach and a National Park Service study said she was with the outfit when took part in the Battle of Olustee near Lake City.
Union troops were beaten back and rebel soldiers began to execute wounded African-Americans on the battlefield. In one of the war’s most valiant episodes, the 54th’s survivors roped themselves to a rail car and struggled, successfully, to pull their wounded comrades to safety. Tubman nursed them afterward.
Tubman “belongs in the pantheon of great American heroes,” historian John Creighton told USA Today. “She was born a girl; she was born enslaved; she was born an African-American; she never learned to read or write; and she had this debilitating injury. When you add it all up, it’s an incredible life.”
Tubman died in 1913 and was given a funeral with military honors
With Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer and Sojourner Truth, Tubman is listed in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.