Harriet (Tubman) The Spy

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Harriet Tubman is most well-known for her work on the underground railroad. Prior to and during the Civil War era, she was called "black Moses" because, like Moses, she led people out of slavery. But there's another chapter in Harriet Tubman's story that's not as commonly told. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Thomas B. Allen, author of Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Harriet Tubman is most well-known for her work on the Underground Railroad. Prior to and during the Civil War era, she was called Black Moses, because, like Moses, she led people out of slavery. But there's another chapter in Harriet Tubman's story that's not as commonly told.

It caught our eye in a children's book by Thomas B. Allen called "Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent." The title says it all. Tubman led a double life as a spy for the Union. Thomas Allen is in the studio with us. Welcome.

Mr. THOMAS ALLEN (Author, "Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent"): Thank you.

HANSEN: Why is the Harriet the Spy story not well known?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, it's tough to get stories about spies, particularly in Harriet's case, unlike a lot of spies through history who write their memoirs finally when they go into retirement. She was illiterate. And so her handlers kind of put together the Harriet story, leaving out the spy because it just seemed sort of untoward that this nice young woman would be a spy. And they also kept out her connection with John Brown, meaning the original terrorist of the Civil War.

HANSEN: The abolitionist.

Mr. ALLEN: Abolitionist. And when he was arrested, he had papers connecting him to Harriet Tubman. And so there was, again, a feeling that if they got that out into her early biographies, it would look as if she was part of the John Brown system. So, as a matter of fact, he admired her to the point, oddly, he always referred to her in masculine terms. He would always say he or him about Harriet.

HANSEN: What real evidence exists that she did spy for the Union?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, she had then a friend of a couple of very active abolitionists in Massachusetts. When they get into the Union army and they get down South, they say, well, let's bring Harriet down here because she can't muster black troops - and that was her initial job. And then she and one of them comes up with the idea of a military action.

HANSEN: Really? You write that Harriet Tubman was the only woman to lead men into battle during the Civil War. When did that happen?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, they were down in South Carolina, and what the Union was doing was trying to do some economic damage, particularly, to the South by interrupting the traffic from the plantations - particularly the cotton plantations. And they were using rivers.

They would take small boats full of cotton down the rivers. And she got the idea, or at least someone with her got the idea - a group got the idea - of taking troops up the rivers, sending the troops out into the plantations on either side of the river, setting fire, destroying the plantations and freeing the slaves on those plantations, putting them aboard the Union warships, taking them back downriver and enlisting them in the Union army.

HANSEN: On page 96 of the book, you write about a colonel, Rush Hawkins, and he talks about how spies were useful. And he says if I want to find out anything here about (unintelligible) a negro, if he knows or can find out, I'm sure to get all that I want.

What was behind that sentiment? I mean, were they, you know, respected or were they just being used?

Mr. ALLEN: Wow. It's really almost a foreshadowing of what happens in other wars where you're using the natives, the people who live in the area and you're hoping they're going to be giving you the straight dope. But maybe they're working on the other side and giving you bad information.

Well, there isn't much doubt that a slave is going to give you good information. And there are things like telling you where the mines were in the rivers. They would row the boat out to put the mine in, and then they would either secretly disabled a mine or get to a Union officer and say where the mine was.

And that was one of the things that, again, Harriet was instrumental in getting put into action by the Union army.

HANSEN: How involved was President Lincoln in this kind of espionage effort?

Mr. ALLEN: Absolutely not involved at all.

HANSEN: Really? He didn't know?

Mr. ALLEN: No, he had no knowledge. In fact, she was a little critical of him. She said that he's not moving as fast as God would like him to move, and that was in terms of the Emancipation Proclamation.

HANSEN: Was Harriet Tubman paid for his espionage work?

Mr. ALLEN: No.

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah. She eventually marries a Union veteran and puts in a claim for a pension after his death. And eventually - it takes a long time - she starts getting a pension but it's really as a result of having been the widow of a Union soldier, not as a result of having been a spy.

But she mentions - she has in her estate when she dies - a musket and a U.S. canteen, a Union army canteen.

HANSEN: When Hillary Clinton was the senator from New York, she kind of rectified that payment to Harriet. Tell us what she did.

Mr. ALLEN: Yes, she did. And they figured out how much money was owed. And essentially that becomes part of the money that helps sustain the Harriet Tubman home in Auburn, New York.

HANSEN: Yeah, $11,000.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah.

HANSEN: And that took care of the money that she should have received as a…

Mr. ALLEN: Right.

HANSEN: …spy?

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah. I think it was not unusual for a spy to not be paid.

HANSEN: And she couldn't get a military burial or anything…

Mr. ALLEN: No.

HANSEN: …like that?

Mr. ALLEN: No.


Mr. ALLEN: It was more of her being a woman than being a black woman, I think. I mean, it didn't necessarily have to be black. If you were a woman, you're not going to get much attention from the Union army at that time.

HANSEN: Thomas Allen is the author of "Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent," published by National Geographic. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you.

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