Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

The “Very Deserving Case” of Harriet Tubman

A legendary figure in American history, Harriet Tubman’s story is well-known and widely celebrated. But her struggle, ultimately unsuccessful, to be compensated by the federal government for her service during the Civil War is less well-known. In 1865, after three years of dedicated service to the United States Army as a nurse, spy, and soldier, she started a long quest to secure the compensation she never received from the government. House records reveal how Tubman, her influential friends, and her Auburn, New York, neighbors persisted by petitioning Congress over three decades.

Harriet Tubman/tiles/non-collection/3/3-30-tubman-photograph-lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This photo, taken by Auburn photographer Benjamin Powelson, captured Tubman just a couple of years after her heroic service during the Civil War.

Determined Service

Born enslaved on Maryland’s Eastern Shore around 1820, Tubman escaped North in her late twenties. She courageously returned to Maryland numerous times to lead others to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Tubman’s work against slavery continued during the Civil War. As a scout and spy in Hilton Head, South Carolina, she gathered intelligence for the Union Army’s 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, often disguised as an unassuming, elderly woman. She went to the frontlines, leading Black soldiers during the Combahee Ferry Raid in June 1863, the first African-American woman to lead troops in a military operation. This raid on several plantations in South Carolina freed more than 700 enslaved people, many of whom subsequently joined the United States Army. She also worked in Union hospitals, cooking for the ill and using her knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies to treat African-American patients. She devoted more than three years to the United States Army, only to receive about $200 in pay. Rather than use that money for herself, she built a laundry facility where she taught freedwomen valuable skills they could use to support themselves.

Tubman’s pay greatly undervalued her wartime service, an experience common for other Black soldiers and women nurses. White soldiers received $13 a month. Until they were granted equal pay in 1864, African-American soldiers received $10 a month minus a $3 clothing deduction. Some nurses volunteered, but others under the direction of Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of Army Nurses, received 40 cents a day. Tubman’s scouting and spying missions were also worthy of some payment. But as an African American and a woman, discriminatory practices likely influenced the lack of compensation for her work.

After the war, Tubman lived in Auburn, a small city in the Finger Lakes region of New York. She married her second husband, Nelson Davis, a veteran who served with the 8th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, and together they adopted their daughter, Gertie. With unwavering compassion, she operated a home for the elderly and advocated for voting rights for women.

Affidavit of Harriet Tubman/tiles/non-collection/3/3-30-tubman-affidavit-nara.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In desperate need of financial assistance, Harriet Tubman appealed to Congress for money she never received for her war service.

Rightful Compensation

Tubman also sought compensation from the federal government for her service to the army. Throughout the effort, Tubman’s neighbors championed her cause, and dozens of their names appear in House records urging Congress to act on her behalf. The continuing support of her New York neighbors over the next 35 years testified to the esteem in which she was held.

While in Washington in 1865, Tubman appealed to her friend and Auburn neighbor William Seward, then serving as Secretary of State, for assistance. In turn, he requested the help of her former commander in South Carolina, General David Hunter, in securing payment. No compensation came from this first attempt, but undaunted, Tubman persisted in her quest.

Nearly a decade later, in 1874, Representative Clinton MacDougall—also of Auburn, New York—introduced a bill granting Harriet a payment of $5,000. The bill was referred to the Committee on War Claims. In its place, the committee reported legislation granting $1,600 to MacDougall “in trust for the use and benefit of Harriet Tubman.” While she would have benefitted from either sum, neither bill went to the House Floor for a vote, and she continued to struggle financially.

Tubman’s financial standing became even more precarious after Nelson Davis died in 1888. Two years later, Congress expanded the eligibility requirements for widow’s pensions, allowing wives of deceased Union veterans to collect a monthly stipend so long as they were married before 1890. Tubman began receiving $8 a month from the federal government in 1892 as Davis’s widow. This meager pension came to her because of her husband’s service, not her own. It did not recognize her as a Union nurse, cook, and scout, nor did it come close to the amount she believed she was owed by the army.

In the late 1890s, Tubman tried yet again to secure her due payment. She submitted an affidavit to Congress detailing her service and requested compensation. “My claim against the U.S.,” she wrote, “is for three years services as nurse and cook in hospitals, and as commander of several men (eight or nine) as scouts during the late war of the Rebellion.” Tubman requested a single payment of $1,800 as the proper compensation owed for her military service.

Along with this affidavit, the House’s official records contain a petition in support of Tubman’s claim. More than 50 of her neighbors submitted the petition, urging Sereno Payne—their Representative, a fellow Auburn resident, and the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee—to take up the fight. “The claim for her personal valuable services to the government during the late war of the rebellion as scout, nurse and spy,” they explained, “was presented to congress several years ago by the Hon. C. D. MacDougall and a bill was passed allowing her $1,800 but no further action was taken and the bill failed to become a law.” Tubman’s earlier ally Clinton MacDougall, now retired from Congress, counted himself among the petition’s signatories.

Petition for Harriet Tubman/tiles/non-collection/3/3-30-tubman-petition-nara.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration More than 50 residents of Auburn, New York, and the surrounding areas signed this petition urging Congress to assist Harriet Tubman.

Deserved Recognition

Payne did champion Tubman’s cause. It’s unclear if the petition reached his desk in December 1897 when Representative Payne introduced H.R. 4982, a bill granting Tubman a pension at the rate of $25 per month. The bill was referred to the Committee on Invalid Pensions. Pressing for quick action, Payne made a tactical decision to abandon the lump-sum approach. Instead, he wrote to Chairman George Ray advocating for an increase to the meager $8 pension Tubman received as a soldier’s widow. Hoping that “she might have the enjoyment of it during the remainder of her life, which certainly, in the course of nature, cannot last long,” Payne impressed on the chairman that it was the swifter method, “instead of asking a lump sum” that would likely take longer to reach her pocket. Enclosed with the letter, he included Tubman’s affidavit and a nine-page summary of her service compiled during an earlier appeal by yet another Auburn neighbor, banker Charles P. Wood.

The committee agreed with Payne’s assessment that “it seems to be a very deserving case.” They decided to increase her widow’s pension to $25 but suggested that the title be amended to indicate that she was not being granted a second pension. With little debate, the bill passed the House in early 1899 and headed to the Senate.

The Senate’s Committee on Pensions took up the bill, and its members only considered the traditional women’s roles that Tubman had filled, rather than her daring raids and spycraft. Although a pension increase was “amply justified” and deserved prompt attention because of “her advanced years and necessitous condition,” the committee raised “a strong objection” to the rate of $25 per month. Without considering her tireless service as a cook, scout, and spy, the committee asserted that “there are no valid reasons why this claimant should receive a pension of $25 per month as a nurse, thus opening a new avenue for pension increases.” A reduction to $20 per month allayed the Senators’ fears, and the full body passed the bill. President William McKinley signed into law the amended version on February 28, 1899.

Letter from Sereno Payne to George Ray/tiles/non-collection/3/3-30-tubman-payne-to-ray-nara.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Hoping to bring Tubman swift relief after years of false starts, Auburn’s Representative, Sereno Payne, pleaded Tubman’s case to the chairman of the Committee on Invalid Pensions.

Tubman collected her increased widow’s pension for approximately 14 years, until her death in 1913. Living longer than Sereno Payne expected, she likely collected more than $3,000 dollars, significantly more than the $1,800 she asked for in her affidavit. Newspapers reported in the years leading up to her death, however, that she was penniless, having “devoted all her savings to the work of establishing” a home for elderly African-American men and women. She spent her final years in that home and was interred with military honors in Auburn’s Fort Hill Cemetery.

Although she received some vital financial assistance, expediting the process by increasing her widow’s pension meant sacrificing recognition for the other aspects of her courageous service to the United States Army. Tubman’s descendants and the keepers of her story in Auburn, New York, continue to work to solidify her place in history.

Sources: RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Accompanying Papers from the 49th Congress, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 3rd sess. (27 January 1899): 1192; H.R. 2711, 43rd Cong. (1874); H.R. 3786, 43rd Cong. (1874); H.R. 4982, 55th Cong. (1899); Senate Committee on Pensions, Harriet Tubman Davis, 55th Cong., 3rd sess., S. Rept. 1619 (1899); 30 Stat. 1539 (1899); New York Times, 2 June 1911, 1 November 2003; National Museum of Civil War Medicine, “Dorothea Dix,” accessed 26 February 2021, https://www.civilwarmed.org/dorothea-dix/; National Archives and Records Administration, “Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War,” accessed 25 February 2021, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war; National Museum of African American History and Culture, “The Combahee Ferry Raid,” accessed 4 February 2021, https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog/combahee-ferry-raid; National Park Service, “Harriet Tubman,” accessed 1 March 2021, https://www.nps.gov/people/harriet-tubman.htm; National Women’s History Museum, “Harriet Tubman,” accessed 16 December 2020, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/harriet-tubman; Smithsonian Magazine, “Why Harriet Tubman’s Heroic Military Career Is Now Easier to Envision,” accessed 4 February 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-harriet-tubmans-heroic-military-career-now-easier-envision-180975038/.