Harriet Tubman, a slave, was born about 1820 in the small village of Bucktown, Maryland.
Very early in her life Tubman witnessed the inhumanities of slavery. By age six, she had already personally endured hard labor, whippings, scars and beatings.
When Tubman was 15, she saw another slave trying to escape. She deliberately got in the way of the overseer, who was giving chase. In a rage, the man savagely struck her in the head with a two-pound iron weight. She was bleeding and unconscious for two days. For months after this attack, Tubman was near death.
Tubman never completely recovered from this incident. It left her with a dent in her skull, and caused seizures the rest of her life. It also made her desire to be free fiercer than before.
When Tubman was 29, she hatched a plan to escape. She set out at night, accompanied by her two brothers, bound for the Delaware border. The brothers soon lost heart and turned back, but Tubman endured on. She walked alone, in darkness, for 15 nights, guided by only the North Star. In the daytime she hid in barns and cellars, out of view of roving search parties. She eventually made it to Delaware, and then trekked further north, to Pennsylvania.
Years later she wrote about how it felt to cross into Pennsylvania:
“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.”
Tubman worked in Philadelphia, and became active in the Underground Railroad, an elaborate network of routes and guides and hiding places that helped runaway slaves reach safety in the northern states.
Tubman soon became one of the most active guides, or “conductors” for the railroad, earning for herself the name “Moses.” Travelling at night, in extreme secrecy, she covered hundreds of miles, but “never lost a passenger.” She is credited with over thirteen rescue missions into the south, and over 300 escapees. She even ventured back to her own hometown, where she was instantly recognizable and could easily have been captured, to bring slaves there back to freedom. “Wanted” posters with her description and rewards for her capture soon appeared in towns all over the south.
Tubman carried a revolver with her on rescue missions and was not afraid to use it. Although useful for protection against slave-catchers and their dogs, she also threatened to shoot any escaped slave who tried to turn back since that would threaten the safety of the remaining group. Tubman later told the tale of one man who insisted he was going to go back to the plantation when morale got low among a group of fugitive slaves. She pointed the gun at his head and said, "You go on or die." He went on, and he made it.
Tubman’s work became more difficult when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, allowing slaves to be recaptured anywhere in the north. She now guided slaves in long, arduous and secretive journeys all the way from the south to as far north as Canada, because the northern states were no longer safe.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Tubman volunteered her services, and she worked as a nurse, laundress, cook and spy for the Union Army in South Carolina.
In 1863, with the blessing of Union Colonel James Montgomery, Tubman personally reconnoitered, planned and led a surprise raid in South Carolina against the Confederates. Tubman guided three Union steamboats around Confederate mines in the waters of the Combahee River, leading the Union troops to shore. Once ashore, the Union troops drove off several Confederate pickets and advanced far enough to set fire and lay waste to the local plantations, destroying infrastructure and seizing thousands of dollars worth of food and supplies. During the raid over 750 slaves were freed and carried away on Union steamboats.
In a written report to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Union General Rufus Saxton stated, "This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted."
Numerous newspaper accounts reported “Tubman’s raid” and included praising comments by the commanding officers.
The Commonwealth reported:
“Colonel Montgomery and his gallant soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off nearly 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation…. The colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman who led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence her address would do honor to any man.”
After the war Tubman moved to a small home in Auburn, New York. With money from a pension she received for her service in the Union Army, she purchased land, and built nursing homes to care for elderly people. Tubman passed in 1913, and her last words were, "I am at peace with God and all mankind."
In 2015, Tubman received the most votes, more than Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks, in a national poll asking what inspirational U.S. woman should be on a new twenty dollar bill.
In her own words:
“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there's shouting after you, keep going. Don't ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”