Harriet Tubman is best known for setting up the Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses that helped black slaves reach freedom in the north, prior to the American Civil War.
But Tubman, born into slavery as Araminta Ross, was also a spy and a battlefield leader during the Civil War.
In 1862, Tubman left her home in Auburn, N.Y., and went to South Carolina to support the Union Army as a nurse, caring for black soldiers and newly liberated slaves. But that didn't last long. The kind of information about Confederate troop locations and movements she was getting from black slaves (who knew her by reputation) was proving valuable to Union commanders.
Biographers say that she would go on scouting missions behind Confederate lines. Her courage – and the intelligence she was collecting – led to one of her most dangerous, and most famous, missions.
Thomas B. Allen, author of "Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent," writes that Tubman was approached by Gen. David Hunter to lead a raid. As Allen notes, generals don't usually ask, they give orders. But Tubman was a woman and a civilian. Yes, she was spying and scouting for the Union army, but she was doing so outside the military chain of command.
Tubman agreed to the raid, but only if Col. James Montgomery – someone she knew well – would help her with it. National Geographic describes her as "the first woman in American history to lead a military expedition."
Tubman and Montgomery took three gunboats up the Combahee River in South Carolina on the morning of June 1, 1863. The mission had multiple goals: Destroy bridges and attack the plantations along the river, and free the plantation slaves.
"The raid was a key part of the Union plan to strike hard at the South's rice crops, which provided food to the Confederates and wealth to South Carolina," writes Mr. Allen.
Tubman's crew consisted of former black slaves who had piloted riverboats (delivering cotton and other farm goods) and knew where the river had been mined.
The raid was military success, and more than 700 slaves were freed. In fact, the gunboats were overwhelmed by slaves trying to clamor aboard what they called "Lincoln's gun boats." In Sarah Bradford's 1869 biography "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman," based on interviews with Tubman, she writes:
"At length, Colonel Montgomery shouted from the upper deck, above the clamor of appealing tones, "Moses [a Tubman nickname], you'll have to give them a song." Then Harriet lifted up her voice, and sang:
"Of all the whole creation in the East or in the West,
The glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best.
Coma along! Come along! don't be alarmed,
Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm."
While Google is celebrating Harriet Tubman's birthday, if you're interested in a deeper, more cultural, dive into the life of Tubman as the conductor of the Underground Railroad, you might consider a visit to Brooklyn, N.Y., where the folk opera "Harriet Tubman: When I crossed that line to freedom" is soon to be performed. According to the author of the opera, Nigerian-American Nkeiru Okoye, this is not classical opera.
"Most of the music in Harriet Tubman is rooted in traditional African-American folk idioms," she told Voice of America. "So there are elements of gospel, jazz, blues, and then you hear a “field holler,” you hear ragtime, work songs and there are things that sound like spirituals throughout the opera."