Harriet Tubman wanted it “known to the ladies” that she needed “a bloomer dress, made of some coarse, strong material, to wear on expeditions.”
Tubman’s “expeditions” on the Underground Railroad, beginning in 1851, were to free slaves from Southern plantations. During the Civil War, she worked as a nurse, spy and soldier. In January 1862, Tubman, herself an escaped slave, went to Beaufort, South Carolina, to take part in the “Port Royal Experiment,” aimed at helping freed slaves behind Union lines move from slavery to a wage-based system in the Sea Islands.
When Beaufort was evacuated in the fall of 1862, her clothes were lost.
In June 1863, at the height of the war, Harriet Tubman guided the Combahee River Raid, with 300 free black soldiers on three gun boats, liberating more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. She recalled that “coming on board the boat, I was carrying two pigs for a poor sick woman who had a child to carry and the order ‘double quick’ was given. I started to run, stepped on my dress, it being rather long, and fell and tore it almost off, so that when I got on board the boat, there was hardly anything left of it but shreds. I made up my mind then I would never wear a long dress on another expedition ... but would have a bloomer as soon as I could get it.”
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Kate Clifford Larson’s fascinating biography, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero,” points out that the bloomer dress was a modified pantaloon that allowed more freedom of movement. It became a derisive term used by men who regarded suffragists “as literally wanting to ‘wear the pants.’” But for Tubman, “the Moses of her people,” the bloomer was highly appropriate.
In July 1863, Tubman said that she served the last meal to Col. Robert Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts regiment of freedmen, most of whom were killed hours later in the siege of Ft. Wagner outside Charleston.
In the siege, 1,515 men were killed. Tubman helped nurse the wounded. She would “get a big chunk of ice .... put it in a basin and fill it with water ... then I’d take a sponge .... First man I’d come to, I’d thrash away the flies” and begin bathing his wounds. “By the time I’d bathed three or four,” the ice melted.
“By the time I got back to the next ones, the flies would be round the first ones, black and thick as ever.”
When dysentery broke out among the soldiers and freed slaves, Tubman prepared herbal remedies to alleviate the dehydration.
Despite her often-heroic aid to the Union, she was denied a military pension but received a widow’s pension of $20 a month because her second husband died in the war.
In 2016, the U.S. Treasury announced that her image would replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 bill. His face would revert to the back.
Jacob Lawrence, one of America’s greatest painters, paid lyrical tribute to Tubman in “Harriet and the Promised Land.” Local author Sharon Lovejoy’s “Running Out of Night” is a haunting story of the Underground Railroad.
Larson, Consulting Historian for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, will be here next weekend for talks and a musical treat.
Larson is scheduled to speak on “Myths, Mysteries, and True Histories of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad” at 3:30 p.m. Friday in Room 218, Davidson Music Center at Cal Poly.
Larson is to speak again on “Legacies and Memorials of Harriet Tubman’s Extraordinary Life” at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Wilson Hall, First Presbyterian Church, 981 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo.
And at 3 p.m. Sunday in Harman Hall at Cal Poly’s PAC, the San Luis Obispo Master Chorale will perform “The Journey of Harriet Tubman,” a new work by Bakersfield composer Ron Kean, as part of its spring concert. Tickets are available at pacslo.org.
A conversation with Kean preceding the concert will be held at 1:30 p.m.