A legendary figure in American history, Harriet Tubman’s story is well-known and widely celebrated. But her struggle, ultimately unsuccessful, to be compensated by the federal government for her service during the Civil War is less well-known. In 1865, after three years of dedicated service to the United States Army as a nurse, spy, and soldier, she started a long quest to secure the compensation she never received from the government. House records reveal how Tubman, her influential friends, and her Auburn, New York, neighbors persisted by petitioning Congress over three decades.
Born enslaved on Maryland’s Eastern Shore around 1820, Tubman escaped North in her late twenties. She courageously returned to Maryland numerous times to lead others to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Tubman’s work against slavery continued during the Civil War. As a scout and spy in Hilton Head, South Carolina, she gathered intelligence for the Union Army’s 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, often disguised as an unassuming, elderly woman. She went to the frontlines, leading Black soldiers during the Combahee Ferry Raid in June 1863, the first African-American woman to lead troops in a military operation. This raid on several plantations in South Carolina freed more than 700 enslaved people, many of whom subsequently joined the United States Army. She also worked in Union hospitals, cooking for the ill and using her knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies to treat African-American patients. She devoted more than three years to the United States Army, only to receive about $200 in pay. Rather than use that money for herself, she built a laundry facility where she taught freedwomen valuable skills they could use to support themselves.