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Underground Railroad Research Forum

Re: HARRIET TUBMAN - Union Army Spy and Scout

Kate- I am acutely aware that the ORA and ORN suffered some poor editing. I only say poor because most of the information I have seeked from the ORA and ORN has not been there. My problem comes from the supplementary material. Cleary Tubman was a spy and scout for the Union Army, I am not disputing that. I am, however, disputing the capacity to which she participated in Montgomery's raids on the Combahee river.

I cannot speak for the rest of Tubamn's story because I have not researched all of it. First of all, Bradford says Hunter asked Tubman to lead an expedition up the Combahee River and she Tubman replied yes, conditional on Montgomery's leading the raid. Now, the ORA does actually show correpondence between Saxton, Hunter, and others where they decided the black regiments would be best because they were the most trained on the guns and the slaves will willingly go with the black troops. You wrote in your book, which I have read, claims that Tubman, on the Combahee river raids, was the first woman to lead a military expedition (212).

I am assuming you took that straight from Bradford's book, because that is what Bradford wrote, but I have accounts from other troops that were there and they do not say anything about Tubman, which would seem very relevent if she had led the raid, first of all. Secondly, one of the accounts I read was written by an abololitionist soldier. It seems to me, logically, that he would have mentioned Tubman's involvement. The letter we do have from Montgomery (in Wood's Manuscript) gives a vague thank-you, but no details of the raid. I am frustrated that there is not more evidence.

Let me give you the reasons I have for discrediting the information we have regarding the raids on the Combahee river. Let us start with the Wisconsin State Journal. In my professional opinion, anything written anonymously and later corrected is not reliable, nor is the correction. My problem with Sarah Bradford's work stems from the fact that she was not there, but was writing from an oral history. As historians we know the longer we wait to get an oral history from someone, the less likely the story is to be accurate for many reasons. Bradford wrote in 1898, 30 years after the fact? Tubman, in Bradford's acccount, also claims to feed Shaw his last meal before he was killed at Fort Wagner, but Shaw writes in his journal he did not eat for two days prior to the attack.

I have read other historians that express their skepticism regarding Bradford's accounts of Tubman. I am sure there are other inconsistencies, but I really think Tubman's elusiveness in recorded history makes her stories hard to prove or disprove. I have problems with Franklin Sanborn's work, not in its entirety because that would not make sense, because Sanborn was writing with an agenda. I think of Sanborn's work as half propaganda. He is not the only one I apply this skepticism to; I am a very cynical researcher. I think, in the capacity of the Combahee river raids, Tubman was certainly there. Clearly she is familiar with the events because she was actally there, which again I am not disputing. I am sure she alerted the slaves on the banks of the Combahee of the impending attack. Saxton wanted as many slave as possible carried away to cripple the Southern plantations. I am sure Montgomery asked her to talk to the slaves.

I am sure she helped to acclimate the newly freed slaves to freedom in Darien and elsewhere. I am not convinced she "led" the raid. I am not convinced she demanded Montgomery as commander for the raids and Hunter happily obliged her, as Bradford claims or implies. It is a shame we do not have more records regarding Tubman and her activities. I also want you to understand that I am not slighting Tubman at all. She had more bravery than the bravest person on their best day. I truly believe she risked her life each and every day. Furthemore, she risked her life altruistically and whole heartedly. I also believe she was committed to her people and their freedom. I also think that, unfortunately, journalists, abolitionists, and the government exploited her ambition and contributions and quite possibly incorrectly recorded her history. It really is a shame because her story does not need enhancement; Tubman's story is incredible and heroic all by itself.

Tubman is one of America's great freedom fighters. Without people like Tubman Americans would not know the boundaries of their freedoms. American law owes a great deal to the struggles of black people who fought for freedom and equality. (One of the reasons I think Black History Month is ridiculous. Black history should be taught everyday of the year in this country.

Every American owes their legally defined freedoms, rights, and citizenship to black Americans) As a historian I feel that it is our duty to be skeptical and dig further even when the answer seems to be easy. Sometimes the answer is too easy and there is a reason for that. I verify and re-verify and re-verify my sources and I am not afraid to say I do not trust a source.

I am also comfortable saying, as I did with the Tubman case, that there is not enough evidence to prove the case one way or another. For every reason Bradford wrote Tubman was called on, I found military correspondence suggesting otherwise. The evidence is conflicting, complicated, and not rock solid in either direction, in regards to the Combahee river raids.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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