Harriet, in her costume as scout, was furnished by the kindness of Mr. J. C. Darby.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman – Part 11

This fearless woman was often sent into the rebel lines as a spy, and brought back valuable information as to the position of armies and batteries; she has been in battle when the shot was falling like hail, and the bodies of dead and wounded men were dropping around her like leaves in autumn; but the thought of fear never seems to have had place for a moment in her mind. She had her duty to perform, and she expected to be taken care of till it was done.

Would that instead of taking them in this poor way at second-hand, my readers could hear this woman’s graphic accounts of scenes she herself witnessed, could listen to her imitations of negro preachers in their own very peculiar dialect, her singing of camp-meeting hymns, her account of “experience meetings,” her imitations of the dances, and the funeral ceremonies of these simple people. “Why, der language down dar in de far South is jus’ as different from ours in Maryland, as you can think,” said she. “Dey laughed when dey heard me talk, an’ I could not understand dem, no how.”

She described a midnight funeral which she attended; for the slaves, never having been allowed to bury their dead in the day time, continued the custom of night funerals from habit.

The corpse was laid upon the ground, and the people all sat round, the group being lighted up by pine torches.

The old negro preacher began by giving out a hymn, which was sung by all. “An’ oh! I wish you could hear ’em sing, Missus,” said Harriet. “Der voices is so sweet, and dey can sing eberyting we sing, an’ den dey can sing a great many hymns dat we can’t nebber catch at all.”

The old preacher began his sermon by pointing to the dead man, who lay in a rude box on the ground before him:

“Shum? Ded-a-de-dah! Shum, David? Ded-a-de-dah! Now I want you all to flec’ for moment. Who ob all dis congregation is gwine next to lie ded-a-de-dah? You can’t go nowheres, my frien’s and bredren, but Deff ‘ll fin’ you. You can’t dig no hole so deep an’ bury yourself dar, but God A’mighty’s far-seein’ eye ‘ll fine you, an’ Deff ‘ll come arter you. You can’t go into that big fort (pointing to Hilton Head), an’ shut yourself up dar; dat fort dat Sesh Buckner said de debil couldn’t take, but Deff ‘ll fin’ you dar. All your frien’s may forget you, but Deff ‘ll nebber forget you. Now, my bredren, prepare to lie ded-a-de-dah!”

This was the burden of a very long sermon, after which the whole congregation went round in a sort of solemn dance, called the “spiritual shuffle,” shaking hands with each other, and calling each other by name as they sang:

My sis’r Mary’s boun’ to go;
My sis’r Nanny’s boun’ to go;
My brudder Tony’s boun’ to go;
My brudder July’s boun’ to go.

This to the same tune, till every hand had been shaken by every one of the company. When they came to Harriet, who was a stranger, they sang:

Eberybody’s boun’ to go!

The body was then placed in a Government wagon, and by the light of the pine torches, the strange, dark procession moved along, singing a rude funeral hymn, till they reached the place of burial.

Harriet’s account of her interview with an old negro she met at Hilton Head, is amusing and interesting. He said:

“I’d been yere seventy three years, workin’ for my master widout even a dime wages. I’d worked rain-wet sun dry. I’d worked wid my mouf full of dust, but would not stop to get a drink of water. I’d been whipped, an’ starved, an’ I was always prayin’, ‘Oh! Lord, come an’ delibber us!’ All dat time de birds had been flyin’, an’ de rabens had been cryin’, and de fish had been sunnin’ in de waters. One day I look up, an’ I see a big cloud; it didn’t come up like as de clouds come out far yonder, but it ‘peared to be right ober head. Der was tunders out of dat, an’ der was lightnin’s. Den I looked down on de water, an’ I see, ‘peared to me a big house in de water, an’ out of de big house came great big eggs, and de good eggs went on trou’ de air, an’ fell into de fort; an’ de bad eggs burst before dey got dar. Den de Sesh Buckra begin to run, an de neber stop running till de git to de swamp, an’ de stick dar an’ de die dar. Den I heard ’twas the Yankee ship firin’ out de big eggs, an dey had come to set us free. Den I praise de Lord. He come an’ put he little finger in de work, an’ dey Sesh Buckra all go; and de birds stop flyin’, and de rabens stop cryin’, an’ when I go to catch a fish to eat wid my rice, de’s no fish dar. De Lord A’mighty ‘d come and frightened ’em all out of de waters. Oh! Praise de Lord! I’d prayed seventy-three years, an’ now he’s come an’ we’s all free.”

The last time Harriet was returning from the war, with her pass as hospital nurse, she bought a half-fare ticket, as she was told she must do; and missing the other train, she got into an emigrant train on the Amboy Railroad. When the conductor looked at her ticket, he said, “Come, hustle out of here! We don’t carry niggers for half-fare.

Harriet explained to him that she was in the employ of Government, and was entitled to transportation as the soldiers were. But the conductor took her forcibly by the arm, and said, “I’ll make you tired of trying to stay here.” She resisted, and being very strong, she could probably have got the better of the conductor, had he not called three men to his assistance.

The car was filled with emigrants, and no one seemed to take her part. The only words she heard, accompanied with fearful oaths, were, “Pitch the nagur out!” They nearly wrenched her arm off, and at length threw her, with all their strength, into a baggage-car. She supposed her arm was broken, and in intense suffering she came on to New York.

As she left the car, a delicate-looking young man came up to her, and, handing her a card, said, “You ought to sue that conductor, and if you want a witness, call on me.” Harriet remained all winter under the care of a physician in New York; he advised her to sue the Railroad company, and said that he would willingly testify as to her injuries. But the card the young man had given her was only a visiting card, and she did not know where to find him, and so she let the matter go.

Previously: Some Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman — Part 7
Next: Some Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman — Part 9

This is part of a multi-part series published to celebrate Black History Month in 2012. The list of published posts can be found at Book Directory: Scenes In The Life Of Harriet Tubman. Use the Stay In Touch box below to recieve e-mail notifications about new posts.

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