Harriet Tubman's Jacksonville story
Born Araminta Ross and known as “the Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman escaped enslavement and rescued hundreds through a network of safe houses and antislavery activists known as the Underground Railroad. What’s not taught in the local history books is that she served in North Florida during the Civil War, providing intelligence that allowed the Union to capture Jacksonville without a shot.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP
“General Harriet”: Tubman in the Civil War
Carte-de-visite showing a considerably younger Harriet than normally seen in the known images of her, just coming off her work during the Civil War during the late 1860s. (Wikipedia)
By the fall of 1861, in the early months of the Civil War, federal troops occupying the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor area of coastal Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina ran into a problem. As plantation owners fled, they left behind thousands of the formerly enslaved, who desperately flocked to Union camps for safety. With the camps in danger of being overrun, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew asked Harriet Tubman for help. Viewing a Union victory as crucial to abolishing slavery, Tubman agreed to being assigned as a “spy, scout, or nurse, as the circumstances required.”
Arriving in South Carolina in May 1862, Tubman learned that Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson was assembling the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized Black regiment in the Union Army. The First South Carolina was made up of former enslaved from South Carolina and Florida, with three hundred recruits arriving from Fernandina and St. Augustine, North Florida towns that remained under Union control from March 1862. Tubman went to work with them.
A few months later, Higginson and the First South Carolina were joined by Colonel James Montgomery and the Second South Carolina. Like the First South Carolina, the Second South Carolina comprised former enslaved, many of whom Montgomery had recruited in Key West. Both abolitionists who knew Tubman prior to the war, Higginson and Montgomery suggested establishing a spy network in the region.
The First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment.
Following the January 1, 1863 implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation, Tubman became the head of a group of ten local scouts and river pilots, making her the only woman in the Civil War to lead men into combat. Successfully learning the local Gullah dialect, she was trusted by freedom seekers in the region, making the Black regiments led by Higginson and Montgomery especially effective at conducting raids due to their familiarity with the terrain. With Tubman’s scouts, the Union had information about Confederate positions and movements that were used to guide Union operations.
Tubman in Northeast Florida
Also well respected for her knowledge of roots and herbs and ability to cure sick soldiers, Tubman was sent to Amelia Island, Florida to help remedy a large dysentery outbreak. On January 26, 1863, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers became the first Black Union regiment to set foot on the island. There, they joined other Union forces in conducting plantation raids along the St. Marys River to free more enslaved.
With her espionage operation under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Tubman also provided information to Brigadier General Rufus Saxton concerning Jacksonville, the region’s largest town. Jacksonville was a haven for white Unionists and Black freedom seekers, and was a key strategic stronghold in controlling Florida. The Union occupied the town twice in 1862, but withdrew both times. Still, holding Jacksonville remained a goal for the federal forces in Florida.
Tubman’s spy ring gathered crucial intelligence on the situation in Jacksonville in 1863, opening the door for another assault on Jacksonville. In March 1863, Saxton wrote confidently to Stanton concerning his plan for the city: “I have reliable information that there are large numbers of able-bodied Negroes in that vicinity who are watching for an opportunity to join us.”
Black Union troops occupying Jacksonville during the Civil War (State Archives of Florida)