By Mel Maurer, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: From 2007 to 2011, Mel Maurer filled the position of Roundtable historian. During Mel’s tenure as historian, each Roundtable meeting opened with a ‘history brief’ presented by Mel, each ‘brief’ providing a small glimpse into a less-explored corner of the story of the Civil War. This page collects the history briefs from the 2010-2011 Roundtable season. Following Mel’s tenure as historian, his successors likewise presented history briefs at the beginning of each Roundtable meeting. The history briefs that were written by Mel’s successors are also on the Roundtable’s website, each of those history briefs on a separate web page.
I have to admit that there was a time in my life, when I heard that slaves escaped the South by an Underground Railroad, I thought they all took the subway. (Not really.)
I believe that most people, when they hear the term, “Underground Railroad,” think of the great lady I wish to honor tonight: Araminta Ross. Well, that was her birth name. She later took her first name from her mother, Harriet, and her last name from her husband, John Tubman.
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland around 1820. During a ten-year period during the 1850s, she made many trips into the South and escorted, or conducted, over 300 slaves to freedom, once bragging to Frederick Douglass that “she never lost a single passenger.”
As a slave, Harriet became a house servant at age 6 and then at age 13 became a field hand. While in her early teens, she stood up to an overseer to protect another slave. The overseer picked up and threw a two-pound weight striking Harriet on the head. She never fully recovered and had spells for the rest of her life in which she would fall into a coma-like sleep.
She married Tubman around 1844 and then in 1849, afraid that she, together with the other slaves on the plantation, were to be sold, Harriet decided to run away. She escaped one night with some assistance from a friendly white woman. She made her way to Pennsylvania and soon after to Philadelphia, where she found work and saved her money. The following year she returned to Maryland and escorted her sister and her sister’s two children to freedom. She again made the dangerous trip back to the South soon after to rescue her brother and two other men. She went to save her husband on her third return, only to find he had taken another wife, so she found other slaves seeking freedom and escorted them to the North.
After this, Harriet returned to the South again and again. She devised clever techniques that helped make her “forays” successful, including using the master’s horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey; leaving on a Saturday night, since runaway notices couldn’t be placed in newspapers until Monday morning; turning about and heading south if she encountered possible slave hunters; and carrying a drug to use on a baby if its crying might put the fugitives in danger. Harriet even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, “You’ll be free or die.”
By 1856 her capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. On one occasion, she overheard some men reading her wanted poster, which stated that she was illiterate. She promptly pulled out a book and pretended to read it. The ploy worked to fool the men.
Harriet made trips to slave country 19 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. She eventually became known as “Moses.” Frederick Douglass said in a letter to Harriett, “Excepting John Brown…I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.” And John Brown, who conferred with the person he called “General Tubman” about his plans to raid Harpers Ferry, once said that she was “one of the best and bravest persons on this continent.”
During the Civil War Harriet worked for the Union as a cook, a nurse, and even a spy. After the war she settled in Auburn, New York, where she would spend the rest of her long life. She died in 1913 at around the age of 93 – one of the most courageous women in our history.
Source: information from internet sites.
In 1861, when the 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived in the capital after the Baltimore riots, this lady, a worker at the Patent Office, organized a relief program for the soldiers, thus beginning a lifetime of philanthropy for Clara Barton.
When she learned that many of the wounded from First Bull Run had suffered not from lack of attention but from need of medical supplies, she advertised for donations in Worcester, Massachusetts and started an independent organization to distribute these supplies. It was so successful that the following year the U.S. surgeon general granted her a general pass to travel with army ambulances “for the purpose of distributing comforts for the sick and wounded, and nursing them.”
Then for three years she followed army operations throughout the Virginia Theater and in the Charleston, South Carolina area. Her work in Fredericksburg, Virginia hospitals caring for casualties attracted national attention. She also formed her only formal Civil War connection with any organization when she served as superintendent of nurses in Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s command.
She also expanded her concept of soldier aid, organizing a program for locating men listed as missing in action. Through interviews with Federals returning from Southern prisons, she was often able to determine the status of some of the missing and to notify their families.
Clara was born on December 25, 1821 in Oxford, Massachusetts, the youngest of five children in a middle class family. She was educated at home and at age 15 started teaching school. Her most notable achievement before the war was the establishment of a free public school in Bordentown, New Jersey. Though she is remembered as a nurse and eventually as the founder of the American Red Cross, her only prewar medical experience came when for two years she nursed an invalid brother.
By the end of the war Clara had performed most of the services that would later be associated with the American Red Cross, which she founded in 1881. She resigned as head of that organization in 1904, retiring to her home at Glen Echo, outside Washington, D.C., where she died on April 12, 1912.
Summarized from Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War edited by Patricia L. Faust. (Click on the book link to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)