Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

This Memorial Day, I’m setting aside my Quaker pacifism (briefly), to remember one of the most unique and valiant war veterans I know of.

Yeah, I’m talking about U.S. Army veteran Harriet Tubman.

Besides all her amazing exploits in the antebellum Underground Railroad (working very frequently with purportedly nonviolent Quakers), Tubman was no pacifist. And when the war broke out, she was eager to help the Union forces win it. After working with wounded soldiers, she also served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines.

But she got her big chance after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.

Soon she was leading a successful raiding party along coastal South Carolina’s Combahee River. The raid captured several plantations, sent the owners reeling, and freed at least 750 enslaved people there. (BTW that was hundreds more in one batch than she managed to liberate in her many Underground Railroad expeditions.)

Harriet Tubman, soldier.

Tubman stayed with the army til several months after the war ended. Later, when the Klan and other terrorists waged their wars on Reconstruction, age, health, and care for her aged parents kept Tubman at her northern home in Auburn New York.

Sometimes I imagine that if she had still been unencumbered then, and as vigorous as before and during the civil war, the course of Reconstruction could have been different too. But time gathers us all in.
We’ve been hearing about Tubman recently in connection with the plan to put her image on the twenty-dollar bill, which the current administration has vowed to stop. On this I agree with Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who wrote today that
“[T]he Trump administration’s recent snubbing of Harriet Tubman in favor of extending Andrew Jackson’s run as the face on the $20 bill is particularly revealing and especially damning.
It is revealing for who is being kept on the money — not only the proud owner of slaves, but also the political author of a vicious white man’s populism. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called the proposed replacement of Jackson “pure political correctness.”

Actually, the switch would be an example of sound moral judgment. Jackson’s defining cause was the ethnic cleansing of Native American lands to make way for more slavery-based agriculture. In pursuit of his pale-faced vision of democracy, Jackson was imperious, violent and indifferent to constitutional norms. Late at night, if Trump speaks to the portrait of Jackson he has hung on the wall of the Oval Office, I suspect the two men would find much in common.
The most damning part of the controversy for Trump, however, comes from whom he is rejecting. In opposing Tubman, Trump has messed with the wrong woman.”

I would quibble with Gerson here in only one small but not minor respect: On this Memorial Day, the administration here is messing with the wrong woman United States Army veteran. She was not afraid of blustering, posturing, draft-dodging white men in high places, even those rattling sabers.

A place on the $20 bill is a start toward an adequate memorial to her courage and service to her country and her people; but just a start.

Looking ahead, I sure hope Tubman’s spirit is still among us; certainly, her example is. And pretty soon, you can take that to the bank.


2 thoughts on “Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad”

  1. I saw on the Rachel Madow Show a person who was making Harriet Tubman stamps to put on bill, not defacing, just covering his picture. where can we get these?.

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