The first American woman to lead a military operation in the Civil War was Harriet Tubman
One of the first women to lead a military op might not meet your stereotype. Instead, envision the Civil War, and a woman who has been working as a spy for the Union Army. She has been gathering valuable information to help the Union turn the tide in the war. She has come to be relied on by generals for the information that she supplies. And with that, she is given the opportunity to lead a military operation called the Combahee Ferry Raid.
Do you have the woman pictured in your mind?
Her name is Harriet Tubman and you might have learned her story as one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad. Even referred to as the "Moses of her people," but being a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad is just part of her story.
Harriet was born into slavery between 1820 and 1825. In 1844, even though it wasn't allowed, she married a free, Black man named John Tubman. She was ready to escape slavery in 1849, but her husband did not want to leave Maryland. She left anyway and eventually he remarried in 1851. It was after she was freed from slavery that she began to go back countless times to help other slaves find their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She is remembered in history for never being caught or losing a passenger on the road to freedom.
But this is only the beginning of her story.
Because of her extensive knowledge of the South due to the Underground Railroad, Tubman became a key informant for the North (Union Army). She knew the towns and transportation routes of the South and long before GPS or reliable maps, this made her insight an invaluable tool. Not only would she dress up as an aging woman and wander Confederate streets and talk to enslaved people and gather information such as troop movement/placement and supply lines, but her work made her a respected guerrilla operative. So much so that in 1963 she began to plan a military operation under the command of Colonel James Montgomery.
The Union officers knew that the people of the South didn't trust them, but did trust Harriet. Her demeanor and way with people were just part of the asset she provided to the military. Although she was illiterate, she was able to capture intelligence with her memory. To make the Combahee Ferry Raid a success, they traveled upriver in three boats: the John Adams, Sentinel and Harriet A Weed. They relied on Harriet's memory where the slaves were at strategic points to collect the fleeing slaves while also using those points as places; they could destroy Confederate property. She also helped them navigate around known torpedoes.
At approximately 2:30 AM on June 2, they were down to two ships as the Sentinel had run aground early on in the mission. The two remaining ships split up to conduct different raids. Harriet Tubman led 150 men on the John Adams toward the fugitives. Once the signal was given, there was chaos. Slaves running everywhere. Angry slave owners and rebels tried to chase down the slaves, even firing their guns on them. As the escaped slaves ran to the shore, black troops waited in rowboats to transfer them to the ships. In the chaos, Tubman broke out into popular songs from the abolitionist movement to help calm everyone down. That night, more than 700 slaves escaped. The troops also disembarked near Field's Point, torching plantations, fields, mills, warehouses, and mansions. Overall, it was a huge success and caused a humiliating defeat for the Confederacy.
The first story written by a Wisconsin State Journal noted Harriet as the "She Moses," but didn't actually include her name. A month later Franklin Sanborn, the editor of Boston's Commonwealth newspaper picked up the story and named Harriet Tubman, a friend of his, as the heroine.
Even with the mission's success, Harriet was not paid for her contribution. She petitioned the government many times and was denied because she was a woman.
After the war, she dedicated her life to helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly. She also continued to petition for recognition from the military with a military pension. She also remarried a Black Union soldier, Nelson Davis. And eventually, Tubman received military compensation after his death. Although she often found herself in financial constraints, she was always giving her time and money.
If you would like to learn more about Harriet Tubman you can check out these resources and books:
- Bound for the Promise Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero by Katie Clifford Larson
- Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton
- Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People by Sarah Bradford