When asked, as she often is, how it was possible that she was not afraid to go back, with that tremendous price upon her head, Harriet always answers, “Why, don’t I tell you, Missus, t’wan’t me, ’twas de Lord! I always tole him, ‘I trust to you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me,’ an’ he always did.”
At one time she was going down, watched for everywhere, after there had been a meeting of slaveholders in the court-house of one of the large cities of Maryland, and an added reward had been put upon her head, with various threats of the different cruel devices by which she should be tortured and put to death; friends gathered round her, imploring her not to go on directly in the face of danger and death, and this was Harriet’s answer to them:
“Now look yer! John saw the city, didn’t he? Yes, John saw the city. Well, what did he see? He saw twelve gates–three of dose gates was on de north–three of ’em was on de east–and three of ’em was on de west–but dere was three of ’em on de South too; an’ I reckon if dey kill me down dere, I’ll git into one of dem gates, don’t you?”
Whether Harriet’s ideas of the geographical bearings of the gates of the Celestial City, as seen in the Apocalyptic vision, were correct or not, we cannot doubt that she was right in the deduction her faith drew from them; and that somewhere, whether north, south, east, or west, to our dim vision, there is a gate to be opened for Harriet, where the welcome will be given, “Come in thou blessed of my Father.”
Many of the stories told me by Harriet, in answer to questions, have been corroborated by letters, some of which will appear in this book. Of others, I have not been able to procure confirmation, owing to ignorance of the address of those conversant with the facts. I find among her papers, many of which are defaced by being carried about with her for years, portions of letters addressed to myself, by persons at the South, and speaking of the valuable assistance Harriet was rendering our soldiers in the hospital, and our armies in the field. At this time her manner of life, as related by herself, was this:
“Well, Missus, I’d go to de hospital, I would, early eb’ry mornin’. I’d get a big chunk of ice, I would, and put it in a basin, and fill it with water; den I’d take a sponge and begin. Fust man I’d come to, I’d thrash away de flies, an’ dey’d rise, dey would, like bees roun’ a hive. Den I’d begin to bathe der wounds, an’ by de time I’d bathed off three or four, de fire and heat would have melted de ice and made de water warm, an’ it would be as red as clar blood. Den I’d go an’ git more ice, I would, an’ by de time I got to de nex’ ones, de flies would be roun’ de fust ones black an’ thick as eber.” In this way she worked, day after day, till late at night; then she went home to her little cabin, and made about fifty pies, a great quantity of ginger-bread, and two casks of root beer. These she would hire some contraband to sell for her through the camps, and thus she would provide her support for another day; for this woman never received pay or pension, and never drew for herself but twenty days’ rations during the four years of her labors. At one time she was called away from Hilton Head, by one of our officers, to come to Fernandina, where the men were “dying off like sheep,” from dysentery. Harriet had acquired quite a reputation for her skill in curing this disease, by a medicine which she prepared from roots which grew near the waters which gave the disease. Here she found thousands of sick soldiers and contrabands, and immediately gave up her time and attention to them. At another time, we find her nursing those who were down by hundreds with small-pox and malignant fevers. She had never had these diseases, but she seems to have no more fear of death in one form than another. “De Lord would take keer of her till her time came, an’ den she was ready to go.”
When our armies and gun-boats first appeared in any part of the South, many of the poor negroes were as much afraid of “de Yankee Buckra” as of their own masters. It was almost impossible to win their confidence, or to get information from them. But to Harriet they would tell anything; and so it became quite important that she should accompany expeditions going up the rivers, or into unexplored parts of the country, to control and get information from those whom they took with them as guides.
Gen. Hunter asked her at one time if she would go with several gun-boats 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. Accordingly, Col. Montgomery was appointed to the command, and Harriet, with several men under her, the principal of whom was J. Plowden, whose pass I have, accompanied the expedition.
Harriet describes in the most graphic manner the appearance of the plantations as they passed up the river; the frightened negroes leaving their work and taking to the woods, at sight of the gun-boats; then coming to peer out like startled deer, and scudding away like the wind at the sound of the steam-whistle.
“Well,” said one old negro, “Mas’r said de Yankees had horns and tails, but I nebber beliebed it till now.”
But the word was passed along by the mysterious telegraphic communication existing among these simple people, that these were “Lincoln’s gun-boats come to set them free.” In vain, then, the drivers used their whips, in their efforts to hurry the poor creatures back to their quarters; they all turned and ran for the gun-boats. They came down every road, across every field, just as they had left their work and their cabins; women with children clinging around their necks, hanging to their dresses, running behind, all making at full speed for “Lincoln’s gun-boats.”
Eight hundred poor wretches at one time crowded the banks, with their hands extended towards their deliverers, and they were all taken off upon the gunboats, and carried down to Beaufort.
“I nebber see such a sight,” said Harriet; “we laughed, an’ laughed, an’ laughed. Here you’d see a woman wid a pail on her head, rice a smokin’ in it jus as she’d taken it from de fire, young one hangin’ on behind, one han’ roun’ her forehead to hold on, ‘tother han’ diggin’ into de rice-pot, eatin’ wid all its might; hold of her dress two or three more; down her back a bag wid a pig in it. One woman brought two pigs, a white one, an’ a black one; we took ’em all on board; named de white pig Beauregard, an’ de black pig Jeff Davis. Sometimes de women would come wid twins hangin’ roun’ der necks; ‘pears like I nebber see so many twins in my life; bags on der shoulders, baskets on der heads, and young ones taggin’ behin’, all loaded; pigs squealin’, chickens screamin’, young ones squallin‘.”
And so they came pouring down to the gunboats. When they stood on the shore, and the small boats put out to take them off, they all wanted to get in at once. After the boats were crowded, they would hold on to them so that they could not leave the shore. The oarsmen would beat them on their hands, but they would not let go; they were afraid the gun-boats would go off and leave them, and all wanted to make sure of one of these arks of refuge.
At length Col. Montgomery, shouted from the upper deck, above the clamor of appealing tones, “Moses, you’ll have to give ’em a song.” Then Harriet lifted up her voice and sang:
“Of all the whole creation in the east or in the west,
The glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best.
Come along! Come along! don’t be alarmed
Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm.”
At the end of every verse, the negroes in their enthusiasm would throw up their hands and shout “Glory,” and the row-boats would take that opportunity to push off; and so at last they were all brought on board. The masters fled; houses and barns and railroad bridges were burned, t’acks torn up, torpedoes destroyed, and the expedition was in all respects successful.
Previously: Some Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman — Part 6
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