The Legacy of Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman’s legacy at the end of the 19th century has caused controversy because of her service in the Civil War as a nurse and a spy. It is important to mention that Harriet Tubman is profoundly known for her service in the underground railroad helping many slaves escape to freedom. It was on this basis that she requested a pension from the federal government for her service as a cook, spy, and nurse in the Civil War. These primary sources are documents sent to Congress by Harriet Tubman and highly ranked civil war veterans demanding payment for her service. These records reveal insight into Harriet Tubman’s Civil War service to the government and her petition to Congress for compensation. Despite the endorsements of a number of highly ranked Civil War officials indicating her service, Tubman ultimately got a pension only as a widow of a Civil War veteran, not on the basis of her own service. This is was a time period when African Americans were finally obtaining their freedom after slavery. To Harriet Tubman, freedom meant that she got compensated for her service in the Union Army. Although over 4 million slaves were given their freedom after a Union victory in the Civil War, racism was still extremely prevalent. This is why it took Harriet Tubman a whopping 34 years till she received a pension.
When Harriet Tubman returned home to Auburn, New York in the summer of 1865 from the Civil War, she served in a hospital near Fort Monroe taking care of her ill parents. For those that were less fortunate, she welcomed them to take refuge in her home. Because of this, it was difficult for Tubman to get by without a steady income. All Tubman had received was $200 for 3 years of service. She decided to appeal to the federal government for the first time in 1865 and then a second time in 1867. Letters were constantly published in newspapers by community leaders and influential friends advocating that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension. Specifically, an Auburn banker named Charles P. Wood stated that he documented Tubman’s war service and military assignments. This document took years to make it to the top decision maker in Congress. When it finally got there, it was rejected due to a lack of “official documentation” of her service.
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Finally, in 1899, a bill was passed granting a pension to Harriet Tubman Davis. Congress passed Bill HR4982 which stated: “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the Secretary of interior be authorized and directed to place on the pension roll, subject to the provisions and limitations of the pension laws, the name of Harriet Tubman Davis, widow of Nelson Davis, late private in Company G, Eighth United States Colored Infantry and pay her a pension at the rate of twenty dollars per month in lieu of what she is now receiving”(Compensation for Civil War Services). The fact that she couldn’t get a pension until her later years speaks to the overall theme of racism in the united states. These letters were during the Reconstruction period, a period when African Americans faced numerous challenges regarding their freedom. It was extremely difficult for African Americans to have any rights, thus it took 34 years for Harriet Tubman to get the pension she surely deserved.
This racism Tubman faced was a continuation of the prejudice many black soldiers faced during the Civil War. According to Budge Weidman’s article, Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War, Racial discrimination was prevalent even in the North and discriminatory practices permeated the U.S. military. Black soldiers were initially paid $10 per month from which $3 was automatically deducted for clothing, resulting in a net pay of $7. In contrast, white soldiers received $13 per month from which no clothing allowance was drawn.”
Racism is one of the biggest issues society still faces and these documents highlight that. It took an iconic historical figure until her dying days to secure a pension after risking her life to fight for our nation simply because she was black. It is highly unlikely it would have taken till 34 years after her service to get her pension had she been a white woman. These documents remind one that there is still a lot of work to be done to heal the wounds of slavery in this country.