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News | April 22, 2016

Harriet Tubman - Intelligence Operative

By Greg Elder

On April 18, the Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will be honored with the placement of her picture on the new $20 bill.  A slave, cook, maid, field hand, and nurse, Tubman was also a leader of the Underground Railroad for nearly a decade and – over the course of her life – helped hundreds of slaves make their way to freedom, earning the title “the Moses of her people.” Beyond these endeavors, DIA would like to recognize Harriet Tubman’s excellence in defense of the nation through her efforts as a spy, recruiter, handler, scout, operational planner, and combat leader during the American Civil War. Tubman, who died in 1913, at the age of 92, received full military honors and was acknowledged by the Smithsonian Institution in 1982 as “the only American woman to plan and lead a military raid.”              

Harriet Tubman began her clandestine work in 1849 after fleeing Maryland in the abolitionist led Underground Railroad to avoid being sold. Rather than seeking a normal life in the North, Tubman instead advanced to the position of conductor in the Underground Railroad, returning to Maryland more than a dozen times to rescue family and other slaves. Using disguises, codes, and secret routes, she escorted nearly 100 slaves to their freedom. A activist in the Boston-based Freedman’s Aid Society recalled of Tubman, “[S]he has needed disguises so often that she seems to have command over her face, and can banish all expression from her features, and look so stupid that nobody would suspect her of knowing enough to be dangerous; but her eyes flash with intelligence and power when she is roused.” Her exploits eventually resulted in rewards in the South for her capture amounting to $40,000. During this time working with the Underground Railroad, she developed the skills that would benefit her greatly as an operative during the war. She also developed relationships with key abolitionist benefactors.  

Several months after the Civil War began in 1861, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts – a passionate abolitionist – recruited Tubman to join with Union forces occupying Beaufort, SC, to provide support as a spy and scout. Upon her arrival, she was provided a military pass, access to Secret Service funds, established relationships with local slaves for the collection of information, and rapidly recruited a team of scouts who knew the region intimately. She was tasked in 1862 - 1863 with mapping the region and identifying Confederate outposts and vulnerabilities, which bore fruit when a black unit of Union soldiers – using intelligence provided by Tubman – conducted successful raids throughout the region.   

Tubman’s most renowned clandestine activity came in mid-1863 with her direct support to the Combahee Raid. Union General Dave Hunter asked if Tubman was willing to travel with several gunboats up the Combahee River to disrupt Confederate logistics and identify the locations of mines placed in the river. She gave an ultimatum that she would only participate if Colonel Montgomery – a confidant and associate of Tubman’s – would lead the expedition, which Hunter approved. Tubman and Montgomery would effectively act as co-commanders, and Tubman had authority to act independently to collect intelligence. Using honed clandestine tradecraft, she identified slaves who placed the mines, and offered them freedom if they would identify where the mines were located; this complete, the gunboats steamed up the river on June 2 1863. Undetected, the Union forces destroyed a Confederate depot, burned the homes and holdings of Confederate sympathizers, seized crops, and liberated nearly 800 slaves from local plantations. Many of the freed slaves, recruited by Tubman, joined Union 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry. A Confederate report after the raid highlighted “[T]he enemy seems to have been well posted as to the character and capacity of our troops and their small chance of encountering opposition, and to have been well guided by persons thoroughly acquainted with the river and country.” Colonel Montgomery, in a letter to General Quincy Gilmore on July 6 noted, “I wish to commend your attention Mrs. Harriet Tubman, a most remarkable women, and invaluable as a scout.” Tubman actively supported military efforts for another year until becoming ill while on leave to visit her family.

Following the war, Tubman was not provided back pay for her support of the military; in 1890 Congress finally allotted her a small pension, but as the widow of a soldier, her second husband. Nevertheless, Tubman never stopped fighting for her beliefs. A staunch advocate for women’s suffrage, she worked with Susan B. Anthony and spoke frequently at suffrage events. She saved money for years to purchase land to support the construction of a home for the indigent – the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, opened in 1908. At the end of her life she was penniless and committed to the home she helped found.              

Today, DIA commends Harriet Tubman for her work supporting the United States. She routinely risked her life for the cause of freedom. As a successful intelligence operative during the Civil War, she will be remembered for her outstanding service to this country.  

“Of all the whole creation in the east or in the west, the glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best.” - Harriet Tubman    


A Civil War Treasury of Tales, Legends, and Folklore.  Edited by B. A. Botkin.  New York, NY: Promontory Press.  1960.  Pgs. 149-151  

Garrison, Webb.  Curiosities of the Civil War: Strange Stories, Infamous Characters, and Bizarre Events.  Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.  2011. Pg. 504  

Markle, Donald E.  Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War.  New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc.  2004. Pgs. 58-59  

Winkler, Donald H.  Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War.  Naperville, IL: Cumberland House.  2010.  Pgs. 143-158