Harriet Tubman: Underground Railway Pioneer & Union Army Fighter

Harriet Tubman: Who Was She?

Born as a slave, Harriet Tubman became the woman who led the most slaves to their freedom.

She also underwent brain surgery without anesthetics and was also the first woman to lead an attack in the U.S. military.

These are just ways to describe Harriet Tubman, a woman who was born a slave, managed to escape, and instead of enjoying the life of freedom in the North – devoted her life to helping others.

Tubman was one of the leaders of the abolition movement, along with Sojourner Truth, who was also a former slave. The Grimke sisters were also prominent leaders in the movement, but they were white. 

Harriet Tubman: Early Life

She was born in 1822 on a farm in Maryland.

Both of her parents were slaves.

As a teenager, she suffered a severe head injury when the overseer at the farm threw a metal rod at a slave trying to escape but accidentally hit her.

The farm manager saw her injured and bleeding, refused to get her medical treatment, and forbade the other slaves from helping her. 

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So began the head injury that tortured Harriet throughout her life.

She suffered from headaches, seizures, sudden bouts of sleep, delusions, long periods of insomnia, and more

The blow to Tubman’s head resulted in permanent damage to her brain and left her with debilitating headaches for much of her life. 

It’s amazing to think that everything she managed to achieve was done while she was suffering from severe head trauma. 

Harriet Tubman: Underground Railway

In 1849, the owner of Tubman’s farm tried to sell her, but he struggled to find a buyer, and she decided that it was time to escape.

She prayed for his death, and to her surprise, he died suddenly not long after. Tubman felt guilty for her prayers but saw it as proof of God’s support. 

Unfortunately, he left a massive debt in his passing, and his daughter was determined to sell some of the slaves, no matter what.

Tubman decided that it was time to move from prayers to actions.

She escaped in the middle of the night and managed to reach the North. But Tubman quickly realized that she couldn’t enjoy a life of freedom as her family remained enslaved. 

So she joined the “Underground Railway,” a network of abolition activists that risked their lives to smuggles slaves from the South to the North.

Anyone caught helping slaves escape was sent to prison and forced to pay hefty fines for ‘property damage.’

Tubman quickly became the most successful “conductor” as she managed to smuggle over 300 slaves without being caught – more than anyone else on the Railroad.

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Harriet Tubman: Life After the Unground Railway

Her condition worsened when she was in her 70s, and she needed to undergo brain surgery in Boston.

For various reasons, Tubman refused to receive anesthesia and decided to go through the surgery while fully conscious.

She bit down on a bullet to deal with the pain, a habit which she adopted from Northern soldiers going through field amputations in the Civil War. 

Harriet Tubman: First American Woman To Lead A Military Attack  

Tubman was also the first woman who led a military attack in the United States. As soon as the war broke out, Tubman, along with many other liberated Blacks, volunteered to serve in the Northern army.

As a woman, she initially operated primarily as a nurse and cook.

Her familiarity with the conditions of the Southern terrain enabled her to lead the liberation operations of slaves from the south to the north and to dispense herbs that aided the wounded soldiers.

During the war, Tubman, like many other Black volunteers, began to revolt over the little effort the Northern Army had put into freeing slaves from Southern farms.

Tubman wasn’t one to stay silent.

She recruited 300 liberated Blacks and three armed ships for a raid on South Carolina farms. The attack led to the liberation of over 700 slaves.

And so she became the first woman to command a military operation in the United States. 

Despite her actions, the federal government refused to give her a veteran’s allowance (because she was a woman, and a Black one at that).

She initially received only $8 due to her husband’s service.

She didn’t give up.

She waged a lengthy battle with the federal government, and after 34 years, they agreed to raise her pension to $20.

Even then, her retirement was increased based on her widow status rather than in acknowledgment of her as a soldier, lest a “dangerous precedent” be set. 

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Harriet Tubman: Her Head Injury

It is believed that Harriet Tubman suffered from traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result of a blow to the head.

In 1849, Tubman was a slave working as a housekeeper and nanny for a family in Maryland when the slave owner stuck a metal rod at her head.

The man hit her in the head with a heavy metal weight, which caused her to fall into a deep sleep from which she never fully recovered.

The blow to Tubman’s head resulted in permanent damage to her brain.

She suffered from seizures and headaches for the rest of her life.

In addition, Tubman began to experience vivid hallucinations and nightmares.

These experiences were likely due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is often comorbid with TBI.

Harriet Tubman: Marriages & Adoption of Gertie Davies

It’s interesting to note that, despite her incredible achievements, very little is known about Harriet Tubman’s personal life.

We do know, however, that she was married to a man named John Tubman in 1844. John was a former enslaved free black man who worked as a ship carpenter.

The couple lived together for several years, but John Tubman eventually died of an illness in 1851. 

In 1857, Tubman adopted a young girl named Gertie Davis.

Gertie was the daughter of a slave woman who had recently escaped from a plantation in Maryland.

Tubman raised Gertie as her own, and the two were very close. Gertie continue to live with Tubman until Tubman died.

In 1869, Tubman married a man named Nelson Davis.

Nelson was also a free black man, and he worked as a railroad conductor.

Nelson Davis died in 1888 of tuberculosis.

After the death of her second husband, Tubman continued to live in Auburn, New York. 

Tubman lived with Gertie and her family until her death in 1913.

Harriet Tubman, Gertie Davis and Nelson Davis in their home in Auburn, New York

Harriet Tubman: Her Death

Harriet Tubman passed away in 1913. 

She received recognition after her death when she was buried in a cemetery for famous people in Fort Hill, New York.

Today, her grave serves as a pilgrimage location.

In 2019, several Democrats proposed that 20-dollar bills containing the image of Andrew Jackson, a president who supported slavery, be replaced with bills containing the likeness of Tubman.

Sadly, President Trump vetoed the proposal. 

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