Justice  /  Retrieval

When Harriet Tubman Met John Brown

Looking back at the short but deep friendship of John Brown and Harriet Tubman, who gave their lives to the abolitionist cause.

Tubman said of her friend John Brown, “He done more in dying than 100 men would in living.” But Tubman went on to live another fifty-three years, and she did more in living than Brown did in dying.

During the Civil War she served as a nurse at Port Royal, South Carolina. She lobbied (unsuccessfully at first) for President Abraham Lincoln to form the first regiment of black soldiers. She served as an armed scout and spy in the Union Army, without pay. After the war she worked to secure a higher quality of life for emancipated black Americans, fought for her own pension from the US government, joined in the suffragist fight to secure the vote for women, and gave her time to her African Methodist Episcopal Church congregation in Auburn, New York.

If you ask an American for one fact about John Brown, they might know about the failed raid on Harpers Ferry and the role it played in sparking the Civil War. If you ask about Harriet Tubman, they’ll probably know something about the Underground Railroad.

But when I think about these two stubborn, radical, prophetic friends and the world they both wanted, I think about a plantation raid that Tubman led on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina, three and a half years after Brown’s execution.

The raid took place on June 1 and 2, 1863, five months after the Emancipation Proclamation, when word had still not reached many people living under South Carolina’s slave regime. Tubman was joined that day by the Union’s Colonel James Montgomery, a Midwestern abolitionist radical who had once fought alongside John Brown and had even planned a raid to rescue Brown while he was awaiting trial in Virginia. In fact, Tubman later told a biographer she would only agree to lead the raid if Montgomery was appointed commander of the expedition:

Gen. Hunter asked her at one time if she would go with several gunboats up the Combahee River, the object of the expedition being to take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops. She said she would go if Col. Montgomery was to be appointed commander of the expedition. Col. Montgomery was one of John Brown’s men, and was well known to Harriet.

On the day the raid began, Tubman guided Union gunships through the swampy lowlands, relying on the same practical knowledge she had used to navigate Maryland’s Eastern Shore along the Underground Railroad. Through word of mouth and covert operations, she had learned the location of Confederate torpedoes along the Combahee River.