February Is Black History. March Is Women’s History Month. Those Who Fought For Our Communist Future Are Kindred Spirits. Any one , or all, of those reasons can be used as the reason to honor “General” Harriet Tubman
The following is an article from the Winter 1986-87 issue of "Women and Revolution" that has some historical interest all those who wish to learn about our militant forbears. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of "Women and Revolution" during this Women's History Month.
The Revolutionary Vanguard of the Civil War
Harriet Tubman: Fighter for Black Freedom
Toward the end of her long life, the black abolitionist Harriet Tubman commented on her years of service to the liberation of black people in a conversation with a journalist:
"She looked musingly toward a nearby orchard, and she asked suddenly: 'Do you like apples?' On being assured that I did, she said: 'Did you ever plant any apple trees?' With shame I confessed I had not. 'No/ said she, 'but somebody else planted them. I liked apples when I was young, and I said, "Some day I'll plant apples myself for other young folks to eat," and I guess I did it'."
—Frank C. Drake, The New York Herald, 22 September 1907, quoted in Earl Conrad, Harriet Tubman
In this simple metaphor, Tubman recognized the vanguard role she played in laying the groundwork for black freedom in the United States in the revolution that was the Civil War. As a conductor on the Underground Railroad and a military strategist and spy during the war, "General" Tubman, as John Brown dubbed her, stood in the revolutionary insurrectionist wing of the abolitionist movement in the struggle against the Southern slavocracy. Like John Brown, the heroic martyr of the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, and the outstanding political leader of the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass, Tubman knew that freedom for the slave would come about only through blood and iron. Harriet Tubman's life is a microcosm of the struggle for black liberation in the
19th century; her life directly reflects the issues of the time.
Although the hope for a complete liberation of black people was later defeated in the cowardly betrayal of Reconstruction, Tubman's "apple orchard"—freedom for the slave—was a tremendous historical advance. The abolition of slavery and the fight for full citizenship for the black population was the great historic task of the Civil War, the second American Revolution, which carried forward the unfinished business of the first American Revolution.
The abolitionist movement was part of a broader bourgeois radicalism, the 19th century descendant of the 18th century Enlightenment, Protestant religious ideals and the American Revolution so dramatically unfulfilled in the "Land of the Free" where four million suffered in slavery. The abolitionists were part of the religious and intellectual upsurge which swept the United States after 1820, encompassing such movements as Transcendentalism and Unitarianism. Particularly among the most politically radical wing, the abolitionists were motivated by a vision of human emancipation profoundly rooted in religion. To men like the clergymen Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker, slavery was an abomination to god and the Christian Bible and a gross betrayal of the rights of man as put forth in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Although slavery was their pre-eminent concern, these radical bourgeois egalitarians also fought for many other pressing political issues of the time, such as free education, religious tolerance and workers' rights. The women's suffrage movement first began as a fight within abolitionism over the role of women anti-slavery activists. The most deeply committed and politically astute of these revolutionary democrats, like Frederick Douglass, understood that the fight against slavery must be generalized into a struggle against all oppression. As the abolitionist and women's rights leader Angelina Grimke' said at the May 1863 meeting of the Women's Loyal League, a convention of support for the North in the Civil War, "I want to be identified with the negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours" (see "The Grimke' Sisters: Pioneers for Abolition and Women's Rights," W&R No. 29, Spring 1985).
The situation of the triply oppressed black woman slave more than any other cried out for liberation. Even the right to raise their own children was often denied to these women, whose masters could sell them or any member of their family at will. The life of Harriet Tubman illustrates in a particularly acute fashion the tremendous obstacles black women faced regarding even the elementary decencies of life. Despite her courageous work for black freedom—which included years as a soldier in the Union Army—she lived in poverty all her life.
A fugitive from bondage, black and a woman, Tubman triumphed over exceptional odds to become a leader of the second American Revolution. Like Frederick Douglass, she was able to generalize her bitter and brutal experience of oppression into a revolutionary social consciousness and a determination to fight for all the oppressed. She was an advocate of militant political action and revolutionary insurrectionism. As opposed to the "moral suasion" Garrisonian wing, she was part of the revolutionary vanguard of the abolitionist movement. As the "Moses" of her people on the Underground Railroad, Tubman was famous throughout the U.S. and beyond by the time of the war.
However, many details about her work are obscure, since she operated in the secrecy of what was essentially a revolutionary underground. She was illiterate, and much of what is known about her life comes from a biography of her by Sarah Bradford, who interviewed Tubman as an old woman (quotes from Tubman which were originally printed in dialect are here transposed into modern English spelling). Thus much of the story of her life must be told by others, especially by Frederick Douglass, with whom she shared the conviction, through the bleak decade of the 1850s, that the coming war must crush the slave system and break the bonds of black oppression. She was a co-worker and friend not only to John Brown and Douglass, but to many other key figures of her time, from abolitionist William H. Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, to Sojourner Truth, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Wendell Phillips and Gerrit Smith. She knew Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and most of the leading women's rights activists of her day.
Douglass honored Tubman's role in a letter written in 1868, in which he defended her right to an army pension as a Civil War veteran:
"The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encourage¬ment at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt 'Cod bless you' has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you."
—quoted in Sarah Bradford, Harriet Tubman; The Moses of Her People
Slave vs. Free in the Antebellum U.S.
Like Frederick Douglass, Tubman was born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland, probably in 1820. At that time the country was embroiled in the first of the major fights over slavery and the expanding U.S. territory, "resolved" in this instance by the Missouri Compro¬mise of 1820.
Since the founding of the U.S. in the late 18th century, when the slave system was left intact throughout the South, two economic systems, capitalism and slavery, coexisted within one country. The inevitable clash of economic interest which must lead to the victory of one over the other was postponed in a series of "compromises" centering on the maintenance of control by the slave states over the relatively weak federal government. But. the underlying economic conflicts between the two systems eventually reached the point at which compromise was no longer possible. The development of large-scale industrial capitalism required wage labor to exploit, the source of its tremendous profits, as well as a mobile and at least somewhat educated working population. Key to capitalist expansion was control of a growing home market. In contrast, the slave system was based on primitive, labor-intensive agricultural production; the slaveowners sought new lands to increase the highly profitable slave trade and to move plantations to fresh, non-exhausted soil. The clash came to a head over the huge, expanding territories of the West: would they be slave or free?
Karl Marx described the slow but inexorable sweep of political power by the slave states in their effort to increase control of the growing U.S.:
"The last Continental Congress of 1787 and the first Constitutional Congress of 1789-90 had legally excluded slavery from all Territories of the republic
northwest of the Ohio... The so-called Missouri Compromise (1820), in consequence of which Missouri became one of the States of the Union as a slave state, excluded slavery from every remaining Territory north of 36°30' latitude and west of the Missouri. By this compromise the area of slavery was advanced several degrees of longitude, whilst, on the other hand, a geographical boundary-line to its future spread seemed quite definitely drawn. This geographical barrier, in its turn, was thrown down in 1854 by the so-called Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the initiator of which was St[ephen] A. Douglas, then leader of the Northern Democrats. The Bill, which passed both Houses of Congress, repealed the Missouri Compromise, placed slavery and freedom on the same footing, commanded the Union government to treat them both with equal indifference and left it to the sovereignty of the people, that is, the majority of the settlers, to decide whether or not slavery was to be introduced in a Territory. Thus, for the first time in the history of the United States, every geographical and legal limit to the extension of slavery in the Territories was removed."
—Karl Marx, "The North American Civil War," Collected Works, Vol. 19
In 1820, when Tubman was born, news of the first of these bitter debates undoubtedly reached even the slave quarters, however isolated the slaves were kept from news of the day. Perhaps the slaves with whom Tubman lived as a child heard rumors about the deep split in Congress over the Tallmadge Amendment, which would have prohibited the introduction of more slaves into Missouri and provided for gradual emancipation of those already there. This first great debate on slavery was a harbinger of things to come. Abandoning even his earlier, contradictory anti-slavery position altogether, Thomas Jefferson strongly opposed the Tallmadge Amendment. In 1821 he wrote, "All, I fear, do not see the speck on our horizon which is to burst on us as a tornado, sooner or later."
As a child Tubman was acquainted with all the horrors of slavery. By the age of five or six she was at •work and suffering from whippings on her face and neck by a vicious mistress. Later she worked as a field hand. She was still a child at the time of Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831, put down by the slaveholders swiftly and ruthlessly. In 1832, the opposition of the agricultural South to the federal tariff designed to protect Northern industry led to the Nullification Crisis, in ' which South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union. The slaveholders' fear of black insurrection, sparked by Nat Turner's revolt, fueled their intransigence against the federal government.
Tubman was around 15 years old when the incident that literally marked her for life occurred. While trying to defend a fellow slave from the vindictiveness of the overseer, she was struck on the head with a two-pound iron weight which cracked her skull. For months she lingered between life and death, lying on rags in her family's slave cabin. The injury left a deep scar on her head and left her subject to spells of unconsciousness, sometimes three or four times a day, which plagued her for the rest of her life.
But instead of being crushed by the brutality of her life, Tubman hardened and determined to fight. When she recovered, she built up her physical strength until she could lift huge barrels of produce as well as a man, despite her small size. Her master would exhibit her strength as one of the "sights" of the plantation. She let people think her half-witted because of her brain injury, and plotted her escape. She began to experience daily visions, which inspired her driving commit¬ment to black freedom as part of a deeply personal religion.
In 1849, although it meant leaving her husband, a freeman who refused to go with her, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery. Rumor had reached her and her family that their owners planned to sell them to the deep South, a dreaded fear of every slave in the bor¬der states. Already two of her sisters had been sent off in a chain gang, separated from their children. Her brothers lost courage for the escape; Tubman went on alone. As she later told Bradford: "I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me."
Aided by a white woman who gave her the first address of the Underground Railroad, Tubman made her way North, traveling at night. "I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarter.... But to this solemn resolution I came; I was free, and they should be free also." Cooking and laundering to support herself, she began the life of a fugitive slave in the North.
The 1850s: The Irrepressible Conflict at the Boiling Point
Tubman arrived in the North on the eve of the biggest struggle yet over the question of slavery. Congressional debate sparked over California's petition for admission to the Union as a free state continued for months, while legislatures and mass rallies North and South adopted fiery resolutions. Mississippi called for a convention of Southern states. Over time a compromise satisfactory to few on either side was worked out, largely due to the efforts of Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas and Daniel Webster, who was voted out of his Senate seat by an enraged Massachusetts legislature in 1851. Webster was replaced by the uncompromising abolitionist radical, Charles Sumner. Later a leader of the Radical Republicans, in 1856, after a stirring anti-slavery speech, Sumner was beaten into unconsciousness on the Senate floor by a Southern Congressman.
The terms of the Compromise of 1850 centered on a series of tradeoffs: while California would be admitted as a free state, no restrictions on slavery were to be made in the Mexican cession; and while Washington, D.C. ceased to be a depot for the slave trade, the 1793 fugitive slave law was to be replaced with a much tougher version. This new law was an unspeakable atrocity, a threat to the lives and freedom of black people in every state. In his scathing indictment of hypocritical American "democracy," "July Fourth and the Negro" (5 July 1852), Frederick Douglass described it:
"For black men there is neither law nor justice, humanity nor religion. The Fugitive Slave taw makes mercy to them a crime; and bribes the judge who tries them. An American judge gets ten dollars for every victim he consigns to slavery, and five, when he fails to do so. The oath of any two villains is sufficient, under this hell-black enactment, to send the most pious and exemplary black man into the remorseless jaws of slavery! His own testimony is nothing. He can bring no witnesses for himself. The minister of American justice is bound by the law to hear but one side; and that side is the side of the oppressor. Let this damning fact be perpetually told. Let it be thundered around the world that in tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America the seats of justice are filled with judges who hold their offices under an open and palpable bribe, and are bound, in deciding the case of a man's liberty, to near only his accusers.'
—The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2
Many Northerners vowed to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter. Congressman Joshua Giddings of Ohio, a long-time anti-slavery radical, defied even the army to enforce the statute: "Let the President... drench our land of freedom in blood; but he will never make us obey that law" (quoted in James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction). When the fugitive slave Anthony Burns was kidnapped in 1854 under the law in Boston by a gang of thugs organized by the federal government and Burns' Virginian master, the city erupted in seething conflict from the halls of government to the men in the street. The local vigilance committee, dedicated to helping fugitive slaves, organized mass rallies; a badly coordinated assault on the federal courthouse failed to rescue Burns. The federal government and the slaveholders succeeded in returning Burns to slavery. But he was the last fugitive to be returned from anywhere in New England. In fact, nine Northern states passed per¬sonal liberty laws, effectively nullifying the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1859, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court struck down the personal liberty laws as unconstitutional.
One of Harriet Tubman's most publicized actions was the courageous rescue of a fugitive slave, Charles Nalle, from the Troy, New York court where he was pronounced guilty in 1860 under the Fugitive Slave Law. For several hours a battle raged between the abolitionists and the authorities until Tubman, with the help of others, seized Nalle and started him off on the journey to Canada.
But the North was by no means free of pro-slavery or racist forces. Many states had "black laws"; Indiana, Oregon, Illinois and Iowa all eventually passed statutes banning black migration into the state. These measures reflected not only the racism of many whites in the states, but were an open conciliation to the South, stating in effect that fugitives would not be welcome.reflected not only the racism of many whites in the states, but were an open conciliation to the South, stating in effect that fugitives would not be welcome.
Indeed, opposition to slavery was all too often based on the wish to exclude blacks altogether. And throughout the 1850s, as the abolitionist movement grew in strength, so did the pro-slavery mob. Tubman had first¬hand experience with the violence of the Northern racists when she was part of a defense guard for Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison at a Boston meeting in 1860, raided by pro-slavery hooligans.
The Underground Railroad
Under these conditions of mounting assaults on blacks, free and slave, Harriet Tubman began her work with the Underground Railroad. Marked by her scarred head and subject to spells of unconsciousness, she faced incredible dangers which grew greater as the years passed. She raised money for her trips through her own labor and by fundraising among abolitionists. Given the secrecy of her missions and the price on her head—the slaveholders offered rewards totaling $40,000, an enormous sum in those days—there were few records of her 19 trips back South. She always carried a pistol and threatened to use it on those whose courage failed, on the principle that dead men carry no tales. In her native Maryland, where she returned many times to rescue dozens, including all but one of her entire family, so many slaves escaped that a panic broke out among the slaveholders, leading to the 1858 Southern Convention in Baltimore. Ancient laws were resurrected to crack down on escaping slaves; 89 free blacks were re-enslaved under a new law.
But Tubman continued her work up to the Civil War. She personally brought out some 300 people altogether, from all parts of the South. In the 1880s, she spoke of
these years at a meeting of women's suffragists in Rochester, New York: "Yes, ladies...I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." As Frederick Douglass said of the Underground Railroad:
"I never did more congenial, attractive, fascinating and satisfactory work. True, as a means of destroying slavery, it was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, but the thought that there was one less slave, and one more freeman—having myself been a slave, and a fugitive slave—brought to my heart unspeakable joy."
—Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Indeed, the political impact of the Underground Railroad spread beyond the comparatively small numbers it freed, which have been estimated at probably less than 1,000 a year out of a total slave population of four million. As an interracial network of activists who were willing to risk imprisonment or death in their work, it was a rallying point in abolition work. Speaking tours of ex-slaves, who described the horrors of their lives in bondage, won over many to abolition.
The vigilance committees not only helped to settle newly arrived blacks, but tried to fight the racism of the North.
Most importantly, the Underground Railroad effectively allowed the crystallization of a black abolitionist vanguard in the North. As the black historian W.E.B. DuBois wrote:
"Nowhere did the imminence of a great struggle show itself more clearly than among the Negroes themselves. Organized insurrection ceased in the South, not because of the increased rigors of the slave system, but because the great safety-valve of escape northward was opened wider and wider, and the methods were gradually coordinated into that mysterious system known as the Underground Railroad. The slaves and freedmen started the work and to the end bore the brunt of danger and hardship; but gradually they more and more secured the cooperation of men like John Brown, and of others less radical but just as sympathetic."
—W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown
It was becoming more and more clear that liberation for the American slave was a national task beyond the scope of local slave insurrections like Nat Turner's or Denmark Vesey's. Leadership for black emancipation thus developed in the North, among the core of militant ex-slaves, free blacks and white abolitionists— people like Douglass, Tubman, Brown, Wendell Phil¬lips and Charles Sumner. A small but crucial element of experienced radicals existed in the "Red 48ers/' European refugees from reaction following the crushing of the 1848 revolutions. Black, white, foreign-born, many of these later formed the left wing of the Republican Party.
The abolitionists were by no means a homogeneous group. One of the most famous abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison, opposed all political activity—running for office, petitioning the government—on the grounds that the U.S. Constitution was pro-slavery. Advocating "moral suasion," Garrison opposed the use of force in the fight against slavery. He finally ended up by proposing the secession of the North as the "answer"—which needless to say would have done nothing to end slavery.
Although Douglass and Brown originally subscribed to "moral suasion," they both soon realized that it was doomed to fail. Even the Underground Railroad, although constantly defying the slave system and the federal laws which protected it, was not a critical weapon to end slavery and as such was more inspirational than strategic. Douglass, Brown and Tubman embraced all means to fight slavery, from petitioning and agitation to armed self-defense and insurrection. As Douglass commented in 1852 at a national free-soil convention, "The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers. A half dozen more dead kidnappers carried down South would cool the ardor of Southern gentlemen, and keep their rapacity in check" ("The Fugitive Slave Law," The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2). When the war broke out, it was Douglass and the other radical abolitionists who argued for the immediate freeing and arming of the slaves. Black insurrection at last would destroy the slave power: only that way could the Union Army win the war.
Harpers Ferry: The First Battle of the Civil War
As the years passed,to anti-slavery forces it seemed that the slaveholders were winning every battle. Every "compromise" increased the power of slavery. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruling on the Dred Scott case effectively extended the boundaries of slavery throughout the country. Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Southern Democrat, led the court decision that residency in a free state did not free a slave and that the Missouri Compromise barring slavery in the Northern territories was unconstitutional. As Marx said, "... now the Supreme Court of the United States, by its decision of 1857, tore down even this political barrier and transformed all the Territories of the republic, present and future, from nurseries of free states into nurseries of slavery" ("The North American Civil War," Collected Works, Vol. 19). Most notoriously, Taney wrote that blacks had no claim to U.S. citizenship under the Constitution because blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
But many abolitionists and free-soilers were determined to fight with every weapon available. To the free-soil farmers of the West, the expansion of slave-based agriculture was a direct threat. The South hindered by every possible means the colonization of the territories by free labor, seeking instead new lands for the plantation system and for the immensely profitable slave trade. Outraged free-state settlers organized in self-defense. When the Kansas-Nebraska bill opened Kansas to slavery under the dubious slogan of "popular sovereignty," border ruffians from the neighboring slave-state of Missouri spread terror and murder throughout the area to prevent a free-soil government from forming. John Brown and his followers, armed with rifles and the determination that slavery would not triumph, were key in the eventual victory of freedom in Bleeding Kansas.
It was shortly thereafter that Brown began to finalize and execute his plan to initiate a slave insurrection to found a black republic in the South. When Brown approached Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass and others (among whom were the Secret Six) in 1858 with his plan for launching a guerrilla war against the slavocracy, they recommended Tubman as the key to recruiting followers among the many freedmen who had settled in Canada, beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Law. Her work in bringing slaves out of the South gave her not only detailed knowledge of the terrain throughout Brown's planned Appalachian route, but invaluable military experience. Brown went to meet the woman he called "General Tubman" at St. Catherines in Canada; she enthusiastically embraced his plan for arming the slaves and setting up mountain strongholds from which to wage war against slavery.
Tubman agreed to recruit followers and raise money for the plan. She also may have attended the Chatham, Ontario convention in May 1858, where Brown and his followers discussed the constitution for the new black republic. A sternly religious man not given to superlatives, Brown wrote to his son: "Hariet Tubman hooked on his whole team at once. He Hariet is the most of a man naturally; that / ever met with. There is the most abundant material; & of the right quality; in this quarter; beyond all doubt" (quoted in Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood).
But when the time came to launch the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry which was to begin the guerrilla war, Tubman was ill and out of reach. Only sickness, brought on by her toil and exposure, kept her from being with Brown at Harpers Ferry. Thus Tubman was not there when federal troops dispatched by President Buchanan and under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart rounded up Brown and his men. A few escaped; of the rest, those who were not killed on the spot were railroaded and hanged by the vindictive courts of Virginia. At his execution in December 1859, John Brown's last, prescient words spoke of the years to come: "I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done" (ibid., emphasis in original). In the North John Brown's martyrdom was a rallying cry for abolition, while hysterical fear of insurrection swept the South and led to lynchings of suspected agitators. In later years Harriet Tubman spoke of Brown, "We Negroes in the South never call him John Brown; we call him our Saviour. He died for us."
The Civil War Years
The Republican Party was founded in 1854 out of the struggle for Kansas. For the 1860 presidential election the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as a moderate capable of winning wider support than more radical candidates. Although he opposed the expan¬sion of slavery, Lincoln's platform did not call for its elimination in the states where it already existed. Lincoln explicitly denounced John Brown's raid and declared his execution just. But Lincoln was still too anti-slavery for the South, and the secession of (eventually) eleven states led to the Confederate States of America. The Northern government, hoping for yet another compromise, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the war, which was forced on them by the slaveholders' cannons at Fort Sumter. To Lincoln and the majority of the Northern ruling class, the goal of the war was not to end slavery but to put down the secession of the South.
Harriet Tubman again saw further, earlier: that the war for the Union must become a war to free the slaves. The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child quoted her words in a letter to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier (quoted in Conrad, op. c/t.):
"They may send the flower of their young men down South, to die of the fever in the summer and the ague in the winter— They may send them one year, two year, three year, till they tire of sending ortill they use upthe young men. All of no use. God is ahead of Mister Lincoln. Cod won't let Mister Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Mister Lincoln, he is a great man, and I'm a poor Negro; but this Negro can tell Mister Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the Negroes free. Suppose there was an awfully big snake down there on the floor. He bites you. You send for the doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolls up there, and while the doctor is doing it, he bites you again ... and so he keeps doing till you kill him. That's what Mister Lincoln ought to know."
But in the early months of the war Lincoln was opposed to the abolition of slavery in the U.S. in a military/political maneuver to woo secessionists and would-be secessionists into the Union. When General John C. Frernont, commander of the western depart¬ment, declared in August 1861 that all property of Missourians in rebellion was confiscated and the slaves emancipated, Lincoln fired him and rescinded the order. It took two years of ignominious defeats at the hands of the rebels to convince Lincoln of the necessity of freeing the slaves. When it became clear by late 1862 that the North could not win the war in any other way, he made plans to issue the Emancipation Proclamation—finally ending the spirit of compromise which had immobilized the North:
"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom."
Although the Emancipation Proclamation expressly left intact slavery in Union-loyal states like Maryland, January 1, 1863 was a day of rejoicing among all anti-slavery people. Douglass described his reaction:
"...I took the proclamation, first and last, for a little more than it purported, and saw in its spirit a life and power far beyond its letter. Its meaning to me was the entire abolition of slavery, wherever the evil could be reached by the federal arm, and I saw that its moral power would extend much further."
—Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Almost as important as freedom itself was the government's decision to form regiments of black soldiers. Harriet Tubman herself was within earshot of one of the first battles employing blacks in combat: the heroic assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in July of 1863. It was here that the Massachusetts 54th, the first regiment of free Northern blacks, led by Tubman's friend Robert Gould Shaw, demonstrated before the eyes of the nation the courage and commitment of black soldiers. It was probably this battle Tubman was describing in her dramatic words: "And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped." From then on black soldiers were thrown into the fighting on all fronts, tipping the balance of power for the ultimate Northern victory against the slavocracy.
Fort Wagner was quite near to Port Royal, South Carolina, where Tubman spent most of the war years working for the Union Army. One of the earliest Union victories had liberated the lush Sea Islands from the slaveholders; from here the Union Army ran its Department of the South. Control of the port allowed Union gunboats to patrol the coastline from Savannah to Charleston and begin a blockade of Confederate shipping, cutting off trade between the cotton South and the textile merchants of Great Britain. Fugitive slaves and freedmen flocked to the protection of the Union Army. Abolitionists set up schools to teach the blacks, young and old, to read and write.
Here Tubman worked in the army's service in many capacities. Her authority as the "Moses" of the Underground Railroad was enormously important in reassuring the freedmen of the trustworthiness of the Yankees. As a nurse she first ministered predominantly to the blacks suffering from malnutrition. Later she nursed both black and white soldiers, going from camp to camp where men were dying of dysentery, smallpox and malaria. She set up a laundry and taught women to earn a living, while supporting herself by baking pies and brewing root beer at night after her hard day's labor.
Tubman's outstanding contribution to the war was as a Union spy and scout. General Hunter, the commander at Port Royal, recognized her expertise, tempered by her years in the Underground Railroad; under him Tubman organized a scouting service of black scouts and river pilots who surveyed and patrolled the Combahee River area in South Carolina.
In this capacity she was integral to a celebrated military action on the Combahee on 2 June 1863. Three ships under the command of Colonel James Montgomery, a veteran of the guerrilla battles in Kansas and a trusted comrade of John Brown, raided deep into South Carolina in a blow pointing forward to Sherman's march on Georgia. The Boston Commonwealth described the battle:
"Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy's country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch."
The liberated slaves were brought back to Port Royal, where the able-bodied men among them were inducted into Montgomery's regiment.
At the war's end in 1865, over 600,000 Americans lay dead—almost equal to the number of American deaths in all the rest of the nation's wars combined. It took this bloody conflagration to resolve two key questions in American history: the Civil War forged a loose confederation of individual states into a modern nation. And underlying this question of political power lay the conflict between slavery and capitalism. The black question is the linchpin of American history.
Northern industrialism, unfettered at long last from the opposition of the slaveholders, wasted no time. In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed. A federal protective tariff fostered the growth of domestic industry. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided for the free-soil colonization of the vast territories of the West.
But in 1865 the question of what position the newly liberated slaves should occupy in American society cried out for an answer. The initial conciliationist policy of the federal government under Andrew Johnson was strenuously opposed by the Radical Republicans under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. Congressional legislation provided for full political equality for blacks: the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution are the legal codification of the gains of the Civil War. Slavery was wiped from the American Constitution, and blacks were made full citizens by law. The 15th Amendment, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, was passed to provide federal protection of blacks against Southern counterrevolu¬tionary violence. Black rights were enforced at riflepoint by the interracial Union Army.
But the foundation upon which black equality must rest was never laid: only confiscation of the huge plantation holdings of the ex-slaveowners and their distribution'among the ex-slaves would have laid the economic basis without which "equality" remained a legal formality. Having completed their revolution against slavery—the last great bourgeois revolution— the Northern capitalists turned their backs on the blacks. Although they may have been opposed to property in human flesh, the robber barons of the late 19th century allied with Southern landholders for private property in the means of production. Even the most basic of political rights, the right to vote, was denied to all women at this time, both black and white. The capitalist reaction flowed from the inherent inability of a system based on private ownership of the means of production to eliminate scarcity, the econom¬ic source of all social inequality. Only abolition of private property will remove the social roots of racial and sexual oppression.
Radical Reconstruction was destroyed in a political counterrevolution which stripped blacks of their newly won economic and political rights. Nightriding race-terrorists intimidated and murdered thefreedmen; the Ku Klux Klan was founded shortly after the war by ex-Confederate officers. The Compromise of 1877 codi¬fied the rollback of Reconstruction: the Republican Party bought the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the removal of Union troops from the South. Over the years a new form of rural repression developed to replace the slave plantations. The Jim Crow system of segregation and disenfranchisement bound the liberated slaves to poverty and oppression as landless sharecroppers.
The betrayal of the struggle for black freedom was certainly experienced by Harriet Tubman. At the war's end, almost 50 years old, she was at last able to head for her home in Auburn, New York. Exhausted by her years of labor, subject to increasing bouts of sickness, and with family members looking to her for support, her active political life was essentially over. En route North she was beaten by a train conductor who ridiculed her Union pass, entitling her to free transportation as an army veteran. She was thrown into the baggage car, badly hurt and humiliated by this racist and sexist attack. She suffered from the effects of this injury for years. Then began a decades-long battle for the pension to which her three years of war service entitled her. Tubman commented scornfully, "You wouldn't think that after I served the flag so faithfully I should come to want in its folds." She did not receive a penny until after the death of her second husband, Nelson Davis, in 1888, when she was awarded $8 a month. In 1899, when she was nearly 80 years old, the government made some recognition of her service to the Union. She received a full pension, much of which she used to establish a home, named in honor of John Brown, for indigent elderly blacks. Harriet Tubman died in 1913, over 90 years old.
Finish the Civil War!
At the time of Lincoln's re-election in 1864, the International Workingmen's Association, of which Karl Marx was a leading member, sent the president a letter of congratulation:
"From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholdersdared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, 'slavery' on the banner of armed revolt; whenon the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great democratic republic had first sprung up,whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man wasissued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; ...then the working classes of Europe understood at once...that the slaveholders' rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a
general holy crusade of property against labor... "
But the stars and stripes, the proud banner of the Civil War, has long since become mired in the filth of racism and imperialist war. Only the working class, under revolutionary socialist leadership, can lead mankind out of the putrid decay that is capitalist society today.
Marx said, "Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded." The destruction of slavery signaled the birth of the American labor movement, the rise of unions and agitation for the eight-hour day. Blacks today play a strategic role in the American working class. Over the years mass migration from the rural South into the cities, both North and South, has transformed the black population from a largely rural, agricultural layer into an urban, industrial group. As an oppressed race-color caste integrated at the bottom of the U.S. economy, blacks suffer from capitalist exploitation compounded with vicious racial oppression—for them, the "American dream" is a nightmare! In precise Marxist terms black people are the reserve army of the unemployed, last hired, first fired, a crucial economic component of the boom/bust cycle of the capitalist mode of production. Thus Marx's words are all too true today: the fight for black liberation is the fight for the emancipation of all working people. It is fhe race question—the poison of racism—that keeps the American working class divided. As long as the labor movement does not take up the struggle of black people, there will be no struggle for any emancipation—just as the Civil War could not be won without the freeing and arming of the slaves.
Today the oppressed and exploited must look to the red banner of socialist revolution for their liberation. The Spartacist League raises the slogans, "Finish the Civil War! Forward to the Third American Revolution!" to express the historic tasks which fall to the revolution¬ary party. A workers party as the tribune of the people will fight for the interests of all the oppressed. Liberation for blacks and women can be won only by a workers government which will smash the capitalist system and reorganize society on the basis of a planned socialist economy. Key leadership in the revolutionary struggle will be provided by the Harriet Tubmans and Frederick Douglasses of our time. We honor these great black leaders for their role in bringing the day of liberation one giant step closer.