Leader, Warrior, Military Intelligence Operative: Harriet Tubman Davis Honored in Women's History

By Meredith Mingledorff, U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence Public AffairsMarch 3, 2021

Mrs. Harriet Tubman Davis 1868-1869
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A midlife portrait of Mrs. Harriet Tubman Davis 1868 or 1869 by Benjamin F, Powelson. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (Photo Credit: Benjamin F. Powelson ) VIEW ORIGINAL
Portrait of Mrs. Harriet Tubman Davis 1871-1876
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Portrait of Mrs. Harriet Tubman Davis 1871-1876 by Harvey B. Lindsley. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (Photo Credit: Harvey B. Lindsley) VIEW ORIGINAL
Mrs. Harriet Tubman Davis
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Older portrait of Mrs. Harriet Tubman Davis by H. Seymour Squyer 1885. (Photo Credit: H. Seymour Squyer ) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. – This June, the Military Intelligence Corps will induct Harriet Tubman Davis and four others from the Class of 2021 into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence here, where she will join 278 other Military Intelligence professionals recognized for their service, 17 of whom are women.

Born a slave with so little regard for her life, her birth was unrecorded and she suffered torture and starvation for much of her childhood. Hit in the head by an anvil as a young girl, she would also suffer seizures for the rest of her life, yet her disability and situation would not define her. A woman of remarkable strength and courage, Harriet Tubman Davis succeeded in gaining her freedom, and the freedom of thousands more. She would go on to serve the Union Army as a spy, scout, and military leader using her skills and experience to move freely and undercover, aiding the Union with significant battlefield successes that helped win the Civil War.

She was born Araminta Ross and called “Minty” by those who knew her before she escaped from a Maryland slaveholder in 1849. Braving the cold and bitter winter she arrived in Philadelphia alone with help from the Underground Railroad. Despite her success, she continued to risk her own life by returning to Maryland repeatedly to free others. She immediately showed the strength and wisdom of a seasoned warrior prepared to eliminate any threat to mission success as evidenced in her accounts of threatening to shoot anyone who considered abandoning the escape once it was underway.

By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, she already had twelve years of personal experience leading clandestine operations back and forth from North to South. She was well-connected and could safely navigate the dangerous paths time and time again. She was proud of her service and is recorded as saying she “never lost a passenger and never ran her train off the tracks,” but lesser known is her service to the Union Army.

In 1861, Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts recruited Harriet officially to spy for the Union. He assigned her to Maj. Gen. David Hunter, commander, Department of the South, who had responsibility for the Union’s activities in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. She was given documents of service, which provided her access to travel on all Union transportation without charge, and received cash to operate from secret service funds. She used these funds to hire and recruit black spies along her needed route. They scouted waterways along the coast and provided Harriet with valuable intelligence she could use to plan operations and report to Union officials.

General Hunter ordered all slaves in his territory free, which allowed thousands of former slaves to flock to the Union Army for service. The 2nd South Carolina Infantry Division proved the effectiveness of black Soldiers when they snuck into Confederate territory along the St. Mary’s River and seized valuable assets from their enemy. Their raid was successful in part due to Harriet’s ring of spies and the valuable intelligence they provided on the area.

Following this success, Gen. Hunter asked Harriet to go up the Combahee River to cut off more supplies headed for Confederate territory. She led 300 Soldiers along with Hunter and Col. James Montgomery in the mission. Described as a “special operation,” Harriet was tasked with discovering the placement of explosives along the route to prevent them from being used against Union forces.

With only two of the three gunboats assigned to the mission making it through to their target, Harriet found herself fired upon by Confederate forces, and her team fired back. Meanwhile, troops on the ground were successfully raiding all of the food supplies on local plantations to prevent future Confederate successes. What they could not take, they burned, causing significant losses to the Confederacy that would last for years.

When the mission was complete, the boats blew their whistles and slaves descended on the fleet to escape to freedom. They took everything they could carry. Fearing the chaos, one of the gunboat captains asked Harriet to speak to the freed slaves and calm them before they took the mission down with their frenzy. After some thought, she sang to them. True to her reputation, the singing worked and calm ensued for a successful trip to freedom.

Harriet’s clandestine service continued for several years, and after the war, she remained in the South to continue gathering intelligence and aiding slaves with adjusting to freedom. Despite having to “take leave” to visit family up North, Harriet was never provided a pension by the War Department for her service. She filed a claim for $1,800.00 in the State of New York under the name Harriet Davis and cited her service during the war under the direction and orders of Secretary Edwin M. Stanton, War Department, but her claim was denied and her employment as a spy went largely unrecognized. It was not until the death of her second husband, Nelson Davis, a Union Soldier, that she received any compensation, and at the time of his death it was for his service, not hers.

She was given recognition by Queen Victoria for her service, but until now, U.S. recognition has been less than she earned through her dangerous work as a Soldier, a spy, and an operative for the Union government. In 2020, the Military Intelligence Corps made her an honorary member.

There can be no doubt that women have had active roles in the nation’s history. Even long before the United States claimed its independence, women worldwide had been known to lead armies, fight wars, and take great personal risk to fight for the causes they believed in. Because they were women, their roles often went unbelieved or highly criticized because their actions were thought to be inappropriate or impossible for women. These traditional gender roles are now known to be false, and the U.S. military is now the most diverse the country has ever had. Leaders recognize the value every member and their family brings to the fight, and understands each individual brings into service unique skills and experiences, which can benefit military success. Harriet Tubman Davis is a testament to the capabilities of African Americans, women, and the disabled alike.

Thanks to thousands of individuals who supported and defended the Constitution, the U.S. is a more free society today than it has ever been. One of those heroes was Harriet Tubman Davis. A leader, a warrior, and a Military Intelligence operative of the highest caliber. During this Women’s History Month, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence and the Military Intelligence Corps honor her service.