The material you will see here was originally part of chapter ten in my book. But that chapter, which centered on Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, proved to be so complex that many things relating to John Brown had to be removed. The story of Harriet Tubman was one.
During the Civil War, Harriet had traveled to the Union held sea islands near Port Royal, South Carolina. While there, she witnessed the induction of one of the first black regiments in the Union Army, the First South Carolina, on January 1, 1863. The colonel of the First was another John Brown associate, Thomas Wentworth Higginson who had helped provide money and arms for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. (See The Secret Six on these web pages.)
In the extract that follows, Harriet’s actions demonstrate her unique qualities and abilities:
On the morning of October 17, 1859, Harriet Tubman was in New York having breakfast when she felt her heart beating wildly. "Something’s wrong," she told her friends. "Something dreadful has happened, or is about to happen." Her friends insisted that nothing could be wrong, but she could not shake the dreadful feeling. "It’s Captain Brown," she said, shivering. "Something is happening to him. Something dreadful has happened to him." Later that same day, they learned that Brown’s men had seized the armory and arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The news later in the week confirmed Harriet’s worst fears. Brown and his men had been captured and would soon go on trial for murder and treason. She followed John Brown’s trial with great interest, and had her friends read to her over and over again Brown’s final statement to Judge Parker until she could recite sections of it from memory. After his execution, Harriet swore that she would perform some great work in honor of Captain Brown.
She got her chance in May, 1862. Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew arranged passage for her on board the Atlantic going to Beaufort, one of the sea islands off South Carolina. There she served as a nurse in an army hospital. In February, 1863, she was attached to Colonel James Montgomery’s Second South Carolina Volunteers as a scout.
Although Montgomery came from a slave state, he had moved to Kansas in the mid 1850’s to fight for the Free Soil party. The colonel met John Brown while fighting border ruffians and pro-slavery men in that territory.
On June 2, 1863, Montgomery led his regiment on a daring raid down the Combahee River in an attempt to clear the river of torpedoes and to run off slaves in large numbers. With Harriet’s help, Montgomery carried 750 slaves to freedom inside Union lines.
After recording this information, I discovered that Harriet, who had led some 300 slaves to freedom in Canada on the Underground Railroad, never took credit for the slaves freed during the Combahee raid.
There is one other thing that needs to be said about Harriet Tubman. More than one historian has suggested that the reason she did not go with John Brown on the Harper’s Ferry raid was that Frederick Douglass had persuaded her not to go on the suicidal mission. I believe that if she had, the newspapers of the day might have reported a long and bloody siege such as the one in Waco, Texas, instead of a small guerilla war that lasted 36 hours. With her remarkable ability to motivate slaves to fight for their freedom, she could easily have drawn hundreds of slaves into the Harper’s Ferry insurrection. I also believe, however, that the end result would have been the same. Brown and his men still would have been killed or captured and hanged for treason.
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