A history concerning the pension claim of Harriet Tubman

A history concerning the pension claim of Harriet Tubman  (1888) 
by Charles P. Wood
June 1, 1888
From the National Archives and Records Administration; Record Group 233: Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1789 - 2015; Series: Accompanying Papers, 1865 - 1903; File Unit: Accompanying Papers of the 55th Congress, 3/15/1897 - 3/3/1899; ARC #306575

Harriet Tubman was sent to Hilton Head—She says—in May 1862, at the suggestion of Gov Andrew, with the idea that she would be a valuable person to operate within the enemies lines—in procuring information & scouts. She was forwarded by Col Frank Howe—the Mass. State agent in New York, by the Gov’t transport Atlantic—was sent-up to Beaufort, attached to the H'Qrs of Gen’l Stevens—and rendered much, and very valuable service acting as a spy within the enemies lines—and obtaining the services of the most-valued Scouts and Pilots in the Gov’t employ in that Department.

Among the original papers in Harriet’s possession—is a list of the names of the Scouts & Pilots—

“Issac Hayward” “Mott Blake”
“Gabriel Cahern” “Sandy Sellus”
“Geo Chisholm” “Solomon Gregory”
“Peter Burns”

"Pilots who know the channels of the River in this vicinity, and who acted as such for Col. Montgomery up the Combahee River

“Cha Simmons”
“Saml Hayward”


R. Saxton,
Brig. Gen’l”

Unconscious of the great value of the official documents she had from the several officers at different times, Harriet has lost some of them—and the first documentary proof we have of her service in the Department of the South is a pass issued by Gen’l Hunter—a copy of which is hereto appended:


Headq’rs Dept’t of the South,
Hilton Head, Port Royal, S.C.,
Feb. 19, 1863.

Pass the bearer, Harriet Tubman, to Beaufort, and back to this place, and wherever she wishes to go, and give her passage at all times on all Government transports. Harriet was sent to me from Boston, by Gov. Andrew, of Mass., and is a valuable woman. She has permission, as a warrant of the Government, to purchase such provisions from the commissary as she may need.

Maj. Gen. Com’g.

H.Q. Dep’t of the South,
July 1, 1863.

Continued in force.


Brig. Gen'l Com'g.

On July 6, 1863 Col. Montgomery wrote as follows.

“HdQrs Col. Brigade

St. Helena Island

July 6, 1863

“Brig Genl Gillmore

Com’d’g Dept of the South


I wish to commend to your attention Mrs. Harriet Tubman, a most remarkable woman, and valuable as a scout. I have been acquainted with her character and actions for several years.

Walter D. Plown is a man of tried courage and can be made highly useful.

I am General

Your most obt servt”

Signed “James Montgomery

“Col Comd’g Beaufort

on the back is endorsed

"I approve of Col. Montgomery’s estimate of the value of Harriet Tubman’s service."

Signed R. Saxton
Brig Genl.”


I certify that I have been acquainted with Harriet Tubman for nearly two years, and my position as Medical officer in charge of “contrabands” in this town, and in hospitals, has given me frequent and ample opportunity to observe her general deportment, particularly her kindness and attention to the sick and suffering of her own race.

I take much pleasure in testifying hereby to the esteem in which she is generally held.

Act. Ass’t Surgeon U.S.A.
In charge “Contraband” Hosp’l

Dated at Beaufort, S.C.,
this 3d day of May, 1864.

I concur fully in the above.

R. SAXTON, Brig. Gen.

From the annexed of an original paper in Harrietts possession we find that she was still rendering valuable services at Beaufort, where she remained until the month of January or Feb'y 1865. When she came North on leave of absence to see her aged parents residing in this City—she was taken sick and so failed to return to New York City within the time specified in her leave, and for that reason was refused return transportation to Hilton Head. To remedy this difficulty she went to Washington and on representing her case at the War Dep’t she was promptly furnished with the following:

“Pass Mrs. Harriett Tubman (colored) to Hilton Head and Charleston, S.C. with free transportation on a Gov’t transport. By order of Sec’t of War

Signed Louis H. Pelonge
Asst. Agt. Gen’l

Dated Washington, March 20, 1865.

"To Bvt. Brig. General Van Vliet,

U.S.Q.M., N.Y.”

Returning with the intention of embarking at New York—she was intercepted in Philadelphia by some members of the Sanitary Commission who persuaded her to go instead to the James River Hospitals—where there was pressing need of such service as she could give in the Gov’t Hospitals. And relinquishing her plan of returning to the Dept. of the South—without a thought as to the unfortunate pecuniary result of this irregular proceeding she went to the Hospitals of the James River, and at Fortress Monroe or Hampton—where she remained until July 1865. In that month she went to Washington again to advise the Gov’t of some dreadful abuses existing in one or more of the Hospitals there. And so great was the confidence of some officers of the Gov’t in her that Surgeon Gen’l Barnes directed that she be app'd “Nurse or Matron” as appears by the following copy of an original paper in her possession.

“I have the honor to inform you that the Medical Director Dept. of Virginia, has been instructed to appoint Harriet Tubman Nurse or Matron at the Colored Hospital, Fort Monroe, Va.

Very Resp’y

Signed your obt. Servant

J. K. Barnes
Surgeon General”

To Hon. W.H. Seward

Sec. Of State

and with the following pass she returned to Fortress Monroe:

“No. 663

War Department
Washington, D.C. July 22, 1865

"Permit Harriet Tubman to proceed to Fortress Monroe, Va. on Government transport free of cost.

By order of the Secretary of War
Signed L.H. Pelonge
Asst. Adj. Genl.”

It does not appear that she rec’d the appointment above indicated and soon after this date she returned to Washington—and thence home—to devote herself since the country’s need had ceased to her aged Father & Mother who still survive at a very advanced age entirely dependent on her.

During the service of more than three years. Harriet states that she received from the Gov’t only two hundred dollars ($200) of pay. This was paid her at or near Beaufort, and with characteristic indifference to self—she immediately devoted that sum to the erection of a wash-house, in which she spent a portion of her time in teaching the freed women to do washing—to aid in supporting themselves instead of depending wholly on Gov’t aid. During her absence with an important expedition in Florida this washhouse was destroyed or appropriated by a Reg’t of troops fresh from the north to make shelter for themselves but without any compensation whatever to Harriet. When she first went to Beaufort she was allowed to draw rations as an officer or soldier, but the freed people becoming jealous of this privilege accorded her—she voluntarily relinquished this right and thereafter supplied her personal wants by selling pies and root beer—which she made during the evenings and nights—when not engaged in important service for the Gov’t.

The value and extent of Harriet’s services to the Government seems to be sufficiently attested by the papers—copies of which are herewith, and originals now in her possession. But General Saxton certifies more explicitly and under later date as follows:

Copy "HeadQrs 3' Military District

Chief & Masters office

Atlanta Go. March 21st 1888.

“Dear Madam:

I have just rec’d your letter in regard to Harriet Tubman. I can bear witness to the value of her services rendered in the Union Army during the late war in South Carolina and Florida. She was employed in the Hospitals and as a spy. She made many a raid inside the enemy’s lines displaying remarkable courage, zeal and fidelity.

She was employed by Gen’l Hunter and I think both by Generals Stevens and Sherman—and is as deserving of a pension from the Government for her services as any other of its faithful servants.

Signed very truly yours, Rufus Saxton

Bvt. Brig. General
U. S. A.
To Mrs. Mary Derby Auburn, N.Y.

When in Washington in July 1865 Harriet was in need of money, and applied to Mr. Sec. Seward to present her claim to the proper Department. Gen'l Hunter being then in Washington, Mr. Seward refered the matter to him in a note, of which the annexed is a copy:

Letter from Sec’y Seward

Washington, July 25, 1865.

Major Gen’l Hunter—My Dear Sir:

Harriet Tubman, a colored woman, has been nursing our soldiers during nearly all the war. She believes she has claims for faithful services to the command in South Carolina, with which you are connected, and she thinks that you would be disposed to see her claim justly settled.

I have known her long as a noble, high spirit, as true as seldom dwells in the human form. I commend her therefore to your kind attention.

Faithfully your friend,

Wm. H. Seward.

Major Gen. Hunter

But no pay whatever was obtained—and another attempt has been made since—I believe with the same result.

This letter of Mr. Seward shows the estimate of Harriet Tubman by all who know her—she is known throught this State and New England as an honest, earnest and most self-sacrificing woman. The substance of this statement has been obtained from her lips and in making it up I have before me the original papers in her possession, which are copied.

That Harriet is entitled to several thousands of dollars pay—there can be no shadow of doubt—the only difficulty seems to be in the facts that she held no commission, and has not in the regular way and at the proper times and places, made proof and application of and for, her just compensation. On such certificates as she holds she should have it without further delay.

Chas P. Wood

Auburn, June 1st 1868