Civil War Profiles: Harriet Tubman: Union spy

A frail, sickly black woman was the most successful conductor of slaves to freedom along the so-called Underground Railroad. This remarkable person not only freed herself from slavery, but also guided her two children and sister, as well as her aged mother and father, along the treacherous paths from south to north.

Harriet Tubman is credited with freeing 300 slaves in all in her lifetime. Following passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Law that authorized the capture and return of escaped slaves, she guided these beleaguered people all the way to Canada.

Tubman’s name is enshrined in history for her remarkable achievements, despite physical limitations that would have prevented a less tenacious individual from carrying out her mission in life. Not as well known, however, is Tubman’s service to the Union army during the Civil War, as a scout and spy.

In “From Slavery to Freedom,” historian John Hope Franklin identifies Tubman as “a spy for Union troops at many points on the eastern seaboard.” In 1863, at age 50, Tubman unofficially joined the Union army operating in South Carolina and performed a variety of tasks as cook, nurse, scout and spymaster.

In the latter role, Tubman’s responsibilities were to organize a network of spies comprising former slaves. Specifically, in June 1863, she helped plan a raid to free slaves from the plantations along the Combahee River.

Thomas Allen, author of “Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent,” elaborated in an interview with Liane Hansen of National Public Radio on Aug. 30, 2009. He explained that the Union army wanted to damage the economy of South Carolina by interrupting shipment of products from the plantations — especially cotton — that flowed along the rivers.

The plan was to send troops up the rivers to spread out onto the plantations, confiscate the cotton and send it in small boats down the river. They would round up the slaves while “setting fire, destroying the plantations.”

The captured slaves were to be transported to Union warships awaiting their arrival downriver. Freed male slaves were enlisted into the Union army.

Allen explained that Union military personnel questioned captured slaves to acquire useful information about the enemy. In particular, slaves helped pinpoint the locations of mines that the Rebels placed in the rivers to sink Union gunboats patrolling the waters.

Tubman was working with Col. James Montgomery, a jayhawker from Kansas before the Civil War, who commanded a brigade that included the 2nd South Carolina, a unit of black troops he recruited in January 1863. With Tubman’s help, Montgomery carried out the planned attack at Combahee Ferry that resulted in the capture of 800 slaves.

In “Spies & Spymasters of the Civil War,” Donald Markle cites an article in the Commonwealth, a Boston newspaper that heralded the story:

“Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black 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 brought off nearly 800 slaves and thousands of dollars’ worth of property without losing a man or receiving a scratch.”

Tubman’s died in 1913, at age 91 — remarkable longevity considering her health issues and arduous lifestyle. Her burial took place at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, N.Y., with military honors.

In more recent years, the states of Maryland and Delaware honored this woman who dedicated her life to the freedom and betterment of others. A byway named for Harriet Tubman runs from Cambridge, Md., to the Delaware border at Sandtown, and continues northward to the Pennsylvania border through a series of communities including Dover and Wilmington. (More information is available at

Although her work as a spy for the Union army during the Civil War is less well known, Harriet Tubman joins the ranks of other more prominent females, such as Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew, who engaged in espionage for the Confederacy and the Union, respectively.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (available at Bethany Beach Books). It is a History & Military Book Club selection, and rated five stars on Contact him at, or visit his website