Chapter 30: Harriet Tubman
September 1862 – South Pennsylvania
Work was hard to come by in the early months after we moved to New York. I had my folks that relied on me to feed and clothe them and they didn’t need much, but still. My brothers had all found work in the stores and farms, Robert stayin’ in the lumberin’ business. The Civil War had broke out in the spring of ’61 when the damned Confederates bombarded Union soldiers in Fort Sumter, South Carolina. I followed as much politics as I could and realized I was needed to fend for the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed and that gave us blacks the opportunity to sign up for the Army. We only made $7 a month to the whites’ $11, but it was steady work.
Eleven territories refused to become states and merged into the Confederate States of America. Lincoln wanted it to be the United States of America. An influx of some 180,000 negroes gave the union a solid advantage. I signed up to be a cook. It wasn’t hard work, I’d done harder. Durin’ busy times, I helped with the wounded even though I had no formal trainin’ as a nurse. The old folk remedies from Ouma came in handy then; I was able to find some herbs and roots that helped the wounded.
Terrible diarrhea was plaguin’ the troops. I remembered that crane’s bill and water lilies could help. One night after everyone had bunked down for the night, I searched the woods until I found just what I was lookin’ for, the tips of my fingers findin’ what I needed just like Ouma taught me. I mixed it up in a bitter brew and gave it to the men sufferin’ the most. They started healin’ right away, just like I knew they would.
One afternoon while we were servin’ up dinner to the higher ranked men, I couldn’t help but overhear them talkin’ about needin’ a scout. The liquor had started to flow and they were brainstormin’ ideas on how to scope the best route from where we were in Southern Pennsylvania, right on through Maryland, and down to Virginia.
“’Scuse me,” I said, “I don’t mean to interpose, but…” I paused to see what their reaction would be. Two of the four looked utterly disgusted to be intruded upon, one looked confused, and one smiled and invited me to continue. “I’ve had some, er, um… experience travelin’ by night down to Maryland. I know navigation from the north star and could find my way further south if’a need be.” The smilin’ man and the curious one looked at each other. The two with the scowls seemed to soften a bit.
“Do you know who this woman is?” the smilin’ man asked the others. They all shook their heads and I could feel a blush go to my cheeks. “This here is Mrs. Harriet Tubman, or Moses to her people.” There seemed to be a note of recognition in their faces. “Indeed, I believe you do know the terrain better than any of my men.” He chuckled deep and lit a large cigar, “What it is we’re needin’ is a scout to go down and find where the Confederates are camped, as well as any militia groups that may be out there bunked down.” I kept my mouth shut but nodded a bit. All eyes were on him. “We’d have you go out no more than six hours up front of us, then cut back and lead us the direction we need to go to skirt around the graybacks. Think you could do that?”
I felt a smile pull at my face. “Yes sir, I sure could.” I joined up the ranks after that. Almost immediate, I found myself right on the front line of this war.
Durin’ those few years I served in the Army, I met Nelson Davis. He was a private. At the time, I was a corporal. It was in 1863 both us served under Colonel James Montgomery, the smilin’ man.
In South Carolina, we did a gunboat raid. I made a bit of history on that day as no woman, black or white, had ever lead a battalion to battle up to that point. We had the element of surprise as I had scouted the area days in advance and were successful in takin’ the boats, docks, and a little harbor area. No one on our side died neither.
When the run-away black folk seen they could be freed with our gunboats they came runnin’ out the forest. I never saw such a sight. They were carryin’ whatever they could slung over their shoulders or tied around their waists.
The war only lasted a few years but there were a lot of casualties, 620,000 or so. That’s a lot of Americans fightin’ Americans over the freedom of other Americans.