By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Artwork By Sonja Griffin Evans

Harriett Tubman did more than just free slaves on the Underground Railroad. She was an important asset to the Union Army’s success during the civil war. Hilton Head Island, because of its strategic location between Savannah and Charleston, became the Union Army’s Headquarters of the South.

The following is an account courtesy of the official U.S. Army website,

Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew, a staunch abolitionist, was well-acquainted with Harriet’s clandestine efforts and her passion to help. He had a problem: when federal troops occupied regions of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, the white plantation owners fled, leaving behind 10,000 slaves who became “contraband of war.” They barely had clothes on their backs, much less jobs, money or education. They flocked to the Union camps, destitute and desperate. Gov. Andrew called on Harriet Tubman in the fall of 1861 and asked for her help to go south and help these former slaves adjust to their new way of life and to keep them from overrunning the camps. She agreed, telling a neighbor that he had advised her to act as a “spy, scout or nurse, as the circumstances required.” The governor arranged for her transportation and assigned her to Gen. Hunter, who gratefully accepted her help.

Once on Hilton Head, Tubman began her work as a spy and an organizer and leader of scouts. She selected and paid (out of “Secret Service money”) nine reliable black scouts, riverboat pilots who knew every inch of the local waterways, and trained them in methods of gathering intelligence. Using Tubman’s knowledge of covert travel and subterfuge and their familiarity with the terrain, these scouts mapped the shorelines and islands of South Carolina. Tubman and her scouts provided valuable intelligence to the newly formed black regiments, providing, for example, vulnerabilities and locations of Confederate sentinels. Historian H. Donald Winkler, in his book “Stealing Secrets,” writes: “Harriet and her nine-man spy team evolved into a kind of special-forces operation for the black regiments. Her team sneaked up and down rivers and into swamps and marshes to determine enemy positions, movements, and fortifications on the shoreline beyond the Union pickets.”

She was smart and strategic, devising clever disguises and playing to her strengths. She operated in winter, when nights were long and people stayed indoors, and made her return trips with the escaped slaves on Saturdays because the papers did not print runaway notices until Mondays.

An activist in the Freedman’s Aid Society wrote of her in 1865: “She has needed disguises so often, that she seems to have command over her face, and can banish all expression from her features, and look so stupid that nobody would suspect her of knowing enough to be dangerous; but her eye flashes with intelligence and power when she is roused.” These experiences not only made Harriet Tubman famous, they made her a valuable asset to the military.

Tubman stayed in the South for the next year, helping in any way she could. Sometimes this meant assisting military regiments, participating in guerrilla activities, or baking and selling pies to help the newly liberated slaves. Through it all, she communicated with her black neighbors, obtaining more intelligence from them than anyone else could, and passing that intelligence on to the commanders for action.

During her time on Hilton Head, she provided the Union Army with local area intelligence, as well as played a significant part in their military strategy. Her input was so valuable to the military, that she also influenced policies that effected how the military handled the onslaught of slaves that came to the island.

The military gave Tubman unlimited access to rations and supplies as well as access to the soldiers so that she could earn money selling root beer and her pies. After all of Tubman’s contributions to the military and Civil War, she was never paid for her service.

The fearlessness that Harriett had not only lent itself to being able to free countless slaves, but also to her sheer will and determination. Severely beaten on the head as a slave, she suffered from tremendous headaches throughout her life. Eventually, in her later years, she ultimately sought relief from the pain by having surgery on her head, without anesthesia! The surgery was somewhat successful, in that it minimized the pain, which she endured until she died, several years later.

© Lowcountry Gullah LLC and, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lowcountry Gullah and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.