Flashback Friday – Harriet Tubman’s Overlooked Story as a Nurse

 In Nurses Weekly

The new film “Harriet” introduces many viewers to the courageous life of Harriet Tubman, born into slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland, who escaped in 1849 and became a fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she served the Union Army as spy and scout, but Hollywood blithely overlooks an integral part of her identity: she was also a nurse.

“She nursed our soldiers in the hospitals, and knew how, when they were dying by numbers of some malignant disease, with cunning skill to extract from roots and herbs, which grew near the source of the disease, the healing draught, which allayed the fever and restored numbers to health,” wrote Sarah H. Bradford in her 1886 biography Harriet: The Moses of Her People. Serving in Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., Tubman used home remedies learned from her mother, boiling cranesbill and lily roots to make a bitter-tasting brew to treat malignant fever, smallpox, and other infectious diseases.

In 1862, Tubman traveled to Beaufort, South Carolina, to be a nurse and teacher to the many Gullah people who had been abandoned by their owners on South Carolina’s Sea Islands. And in 1865, she was appointed matron of a hospital at Fort Monroe in Virginia, where she cared for sick and wounded Black soldiers.

Other African American women and men also served as nurses during the war, including Sojourner Truth and Susie King Taylor, an escaped slave who worked as laundress and nurse for the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry. African Americans tended to the sick and wounded on the hospital ship Red Rover.

But Tubman received neither pay nor pension as a nurse during the Civil War.

It was not until 1892 that a Union Army Nurses Pension Act was passed–but it required that women show they were approved as nurses by the Surgeon General, governors, or military officers. Pensions were not given to the thousands of women who worked as cooks and laundresses, though many of these women did the same work that nurses did. (A more liberal pension law passed several years later allowed some cooks and laundresses to argue that their work was comparable.)

Even the U.S. Secretary of State, William H. Seward, petitioned Congress on Tubman’s behalf for a pension, but her case was rejected. In 1899, her widow’s pension–based on her husband’s service in the Civil War–was increased from $8 to $20 a month, in consideration of her personal services to the country. That was the extent of the acknowledgment.

Despite such setbacks, Tubman pursued her dream of providing a charity home for the elderly.

“For many years, even long before the war, her little home has been the refuge of the hunted and the homeless, for whom she has provided,” Bradford recalled. “It has always been a hospital, but she feels the need of a large one, and only prays to see this, ‘her last work,’ completed ere she goes hence.” Bradford, who called Tubman “my heroic friend,” prepared another edition of her book to raise money for the project.

The Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly was built in 1908 on property adjacent to her farm in Auburn, New York, and Tubman continued to care for its residents until her death in 1913. Both are now National Historic Landmarks.

This Flashback Friday is brought to you by the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, with special thanks to Center Director Barbra Wall and UVA professor emerita Arlene Keeling.

(This story originally appeared in UVA’s School of Nursing.)

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