Who is Harriet Tubman? Nurse, War Hero, Women’s Right’s Activist

by Colleen Forsyth

Most Americans have heard of Harriet Tubman. She is a household name synonymous with the fight to end slavery. She was critical to the abolition movement and helped save dozens of slaves by being a conductor on the Underground Railroad. But that is just the tip of the iceberg to all the contributions Tubman made throughout her lifetime. From being born into slavery, to finding freedom, Tubman was a spymaster for Union troops in the Civil War, and eventually was a champion for women’s rights. 

Image from Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.54232/

Early Life of Harriet Tubman

Tubman was born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland around 1820. Tubman’s upbringing involved repeatedly being exposed to violence. She received whippings even as a child. A defining moment in Tubman’s life was when she suffered head trauma in her youth. A white overseer hit her in the head with a weight after she had refused to assist in detaining a slave who had tried to run away. It took months for her to heal. For the rest of her life, she had fainting spells, headaches, and seizures. But it also was a starting point for what Tubman later would say were visions from God.

In 1844, Harriet went on to marry a free black man named John Tubman. In 1849 she was ready to escape slavery and run for the North. Her husband decided to not go with her. At first, her two brothers set out with her on the journey to freedom. They both eventually decided to go back, and Tubman made the journey to find freedom alone. As she was close to her family, it could not have been an easy decision to leave them behind. 

Tubman made it to freedom and could have stayed within the safety of the North.

Instead, she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and risked her life making multiple trips to the South. On these trips, she rescued many, including several family members. Tubman was known as the “Moses” of her people. In all her journeys on the Underground railroad, she “never lost a passenger.” It was this knowledge of the towns, and transportation routes in the South, that led her to be such an asset to the North during the Civil War. 

With the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, it was necessary to re-route the Underground Railroad to get runaway slaves to Canada. It was in Canada, Tubman met John Brown. He was so impressed he called her “General Tubman.” For a time, Tubman remained in Canada for her safety. She returned to the United States in 1861 at the start of the Civil War. The Union Army was enlisting men and any women who wanted to serve as cooks or nurses. Tubman joined as a nurse. She worked tirelessly to care for her patients. 

Tubman traveled to a Union camp in South Carolina in 1862.

Her goal in going there was to assist newly freed slaves, as well as gather intelligence. It took time for Tubman to build trust between herself and other newly freed slaves. They did not receive army rations, so Tubman gave hers up. Eventually, trust did grow. And Tubman organized a group of trusted scouts to map waterways and territory. This valuable information assisted in an incredibly important military operation.

In June 1863, Tubman organized and led an expedition along the Combahee river into Confederate territory.

The information obtained from the spy ring allowed the Union ships to proceed unharmed. The Union troops knew where submerged Confederate mines had been laid. Tubman was the first woman to organize an entire military operation during the Civil War. Hundreds of slaves were freed during a raid, and Union soldiers were able to gather needed supplies. 

After the Civil War, Tubman settled down in Auburn, New York on some land she owned. She eventually remarried, and together they adopted a daughter. She always had her home open to anyone in need. Tubman later traveled around parts of the country advocating for women’s rights. She worked with one of the most vocal leaders of the Women’s Rights movement, Susan B. Anthony. The Women’s Rights movement might not have made all the progress it did without Tubman getting behind the cause. 

In 1913 Tubman passed away at the rest home she founded to help those in need.

Prior to that in 1899 efforts were made to provide Tubman an appropriate military pension. Congress voted to pay a pension of 20 dollars a month in recognition of her services to the country. Tubman also will be featured on the 20-dollar bill. 

Tubman never was paid the full amount owed to her for her service during the Civil War. In 2003 then New York Senator, Hillary Clinton, was told about the money owed. Congress calculated the amount of wages owed, and with adjusting for inflation, paid a total of $11,750 to the home Harriet Tubman founded to help those in need.

About the Author:

Colleen has over 10 years of combined experience in journalism, writing, editing, and business management in the Healthcare field. She was a contributing editor to “Spitting Fire: Your Guide to Reignite and Maintain Your Passion at Home, Work and Beyond” published in July 2018 by Lauren LeMunyan.

Colleen is a U.S. Navy Veteran and a Southern Illinois University Alum. She also enjoys craft beer, reading, and hikes in the great outdoors. 


Do you know the real story of Harriet Tubman. Her role in the underground railroad is just the beginning of her amazing story. #womenofhistory #militarywomen #womenofthemiltiary #harriettubman

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