W.F. Carlton

The Story of Harriet Tubman
and the American Civil War

(January 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 1, 3 January 1944, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

The American capitalist class knows that it won its own freedom by a revolution in 1776. The modern industrial and financial magnates know that the Civil War was in reality the Second American Revolution whereby the power of the slaveowners was broken once and for all. But the capitalists, having gained their power by revolution, now spare no pains in denouncing revolution and turning the minds of the workers from any radical solution of their problems.

One way of doing this is to suppress the role played by the masses of the American people in the great revolutions which helped to give power to their masters.

The book, Harriet Tubman, by Earl Conrad, is a case in point. The author tells us that the white capitalist publishers refused to publish it. He finally had to go to a Negro publishing company, the Associated Publishers, Inc., Washington, D.C., in order to get his work to the public.

The book tells the story of one of the greatest women in American history, a Negro revolutionary, Harriet Tubman. It tells the story of what the Negro masses did in the Civil War, how much they contributed to the victory. For this very reason it is of enormous interest and importance to the American working class.

A Heroic Figure

Harriet Tubman was one of the most extraordinary figures who have ever appeared on any great stage of history. She was born a slave and escaped to the North when she was about thirty years of age. She could neither read nor write and never had any schooling. But she made up her mind to spend her life in freeing as many Negroes as possible from slavery.

Nineteen times she made the journey into the South and brought away in all some three hundred slaves. Never once did she lose any of the persons she was bringing to freedom. At one time sums of money amounting to $40,000 were placed upon her head by the Southern slaveowners. But she continued to go to the very plantation where she had been born and reared.

Once she saw her former master coming along the road. She had some chickens tied to a string ready for just such an emergency. She now let them go and ran after them to catch them. Thus she escaped recognition. On another occasion when the pursuit was hot, she took a train going into the South. Her pursuers paid no attention, for they were confident she would be heading North.

On yet another occasion she took out a book and the Southern police watched her and passed her by because it was known that Harriet could not read. Harriet devoutly hoped that the book was right side up. Thus she played with death for ten years.

Long before the Civil War began she was a national figure. She plotted the Harper’s Ferry raid with John Brown, who always referred to her as “General Tubman.” Only illness prevented her from going on the raid with him. She was an intimate friend of Seward, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and the other great figures of the time. She was welcome for long periods at their houses, where she did a ceaseless propaganda and agitation on behalf of the Southern slaves. She considered herself their representative and they treated her as such.

Among all these learned and skillful politicians, Harriet Tubman, the activist, held to a consistent policy. They can talk peace as much as they like, she said, I know it is going to be war. When Northern capitalists and their supporters were looking for a compromise, Harriet, who knew the South well, understood the political situation perfectly.

This is one of the great merits of this scholarly book. The writer realizes the tremendous political consequences of this mass flight of the slaves and the role that Harriet played in it. She operated chiefly in Maryland.

A Heroine of the Slaves

Since 1857 the flight of slaves from Maryland by the Underground Rairoad was front-page news, in some neighborhoods nearly the whole slave population had made their escape. The Maryland slave-owners held a state-wide convention in 1859. They had to stop this drain on their property and the panic that had set in. All their measures proved useless. They held a meeting in one of the large cities of Maryland and put a special price on Harriet’s head, threatening to burn her alive if they caught her.

The leaders of the Abolitionists begged her not to go back. She continued to go. In Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania everybody, slaves in particular, talked about her. The slaves called her Moses. She was the scourge of the Eastern slave-holders. Her fame spread over the country and crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

By 1859 the failure of John Brown’s raid seemed at first to be a setback to the Abolitionist cause, but in the spring of 1860 Harriet Tubman led a brilliant and daring raid to rescue a fugitive slave from the armed hands of the law in Troy Town, New York State. She held on to the prisoner for half an hour, and though terribly beaten by the police and guards did not let go until they were exhausted and released the prisoner. She had to go into hiding for weeks afterward.

During the Civil War she joined the Northern army, being in all probability the first American woman to do so. She acted as spy and nurse and was present at some of the great battles. She was active in the struggles for women’s rights and spoke on many a platform with Phillips, Garrison and the rest. She rejoiced when, during the Civil War, she not only carried a rifle but wore a pair of long bloomers. She lived on to 1913, active to the last in a variety of causes.

Labor’s Great Tradition

No wonder the present ruling class does not want the life of this great revolutionary women known to the workers. The capitalists want the workers to remain docile. But particularly they want the Negroes to be thought of as religions or jazz-playing elements of society, as people unable to display revolutionary initiative and heroism in the struggle for liberty.

As the working class begins to realize its responsibility for reorganizing society, it begins to be interested, in its past history. Only when it actually rules the country will it be able to make the necessary investigations and popularize the truth about the great role played by the masses and the Negroes in the development of American history. The American workers and the American Negroes in particular have a great revolutionary tradition of their own. In it Harriet Tubman holds a foremost place. In studying her role in the Second American Revolution, we prepare for the great tasks of the future.

Last updated on 14 October 2015