The Negro History
THE CHARLES P. WOOD
By Earl Conrad
When Harriet Tubman,
the Negro liberator returned to her home in Auburn, New York, in
the year 1865, after she had served the Government for three
years as a soldier, nurse and spy, she was tired to the point of
illness, and she was a penniless woman of about fifty years who
looked seventy. She settled down on the outskirts of that town
in a small square wooden house which she had purchased a few
years earlier from Secretary of State William H. Seward, and she
was prepared to spend the rest of her days in quiet. She
believed that her period of fighting was over and that she had
earned a few years of peace.
But it was a time of great
upheaval in the land. The Negroes were striving for
readjustment; and soon the aged, the maimed and the impoverished
of her color came to her door in need, and she welcomed them
inside, feeding and housing the derelict and nursing the sick.
Her black countrymen had by now almost deified her; they had
long since called her “Moses” or had taken up the name that John
Brown had given to her, General, and the distressed
believed that she was the one who could always help them. Her
old parents, Benjamin and Harriet Ross, lived here too, and were
wholly dependent upon their daughter. Harriet could not have
been resting for longer than a few months when these varied
responsibilities settled upon her shoulders. But she had always
been a woman of remarkable strength even though she was
chronically ill from blows received in slavery, and she quickly
mounted to the new tasks. She cultivated a large garden and the
earth yielded produce with which to feed her charges; and she
went among her rich Republican friends, still flushed with
victory and the knowledge that their party had delivered the
black man from his chattel bonds, and these, unable to resist
her philanthropic spirit, gave generously of money, food and
clothing to solace the weary ones under her shelter. She did not
cease there; once that her full energies were actually
regenerated, she raised funds for the maintenance of two schools
for freedmen in the South. Before long she was the sole support
of these schools. If the abolitionist could no longer conspire
with John Brown, if the soldier could no longer accompany
Colonel James Montgomery on his raids, the dawning matriarch
could throw herself into reconstruction, and that she did with
such a hearty accord as if she were still a young woman.
This went on until the year
1868 when Harriet’s need for money became urgent, the burdens
increasingly heavier, and her people needier. What was to be
done? In Auburn two movements were initiated: one to secure a
pension for her, the task of the Honorable William H. Seward;
and the other, the recording of her life story, this to be
written by a Geneva woman named Sarah Hopkins Bradford. It was
intended that the proceeds resulting from the sale of the story
be placed with Harriet, and that thus she could continue her
Late in the year 1868 Mrs.
Bradford put together her book, Scenes in the Life of Harriet
Tubman. The printing of it was financed by Gerrit
Smith, Wendell Phillips, William H. Seward, Jr., and a dozen
other friends and former anti-slavery associates of the colored
woman. The book sold widely, for Harriet was extensively known,
and she obtained the funds to tide her over the troublesome
It was one of the briefest
biographies ever written. Certainly it was excessively short
for such a comprehensive life as was Harriet’s. It was
noticeably incomplete insofar as it dealt with her war service,
probably her most important contribution. The author declared
that this portion of her story was to be especially written by
Mr. Charles P. Wood of Auburn, and that the Wood manuscript was
to be contained in this book. 1
But when the volume appeared, nowhere
within it was the article referred to.
Something had happened to
the Wood contribution, and it was not available for the book.
Where was the script written by the Auburn man?
It was decided to put the
Wood article to better use! Whose decision this was cannot now
be known, but the paper became the chief evidence used by the
Honorable Seward in his appeal to Congress for pension relief
for Harriet. It may have been planned originally that the
record be contained in the Bradford biography, but it ended up
as a document intended to be used as evidence in an appeal for
Federal relief. From that time forward the record of Harriet’s
war services remained in Government hands in a House of
Charles P. Wood, a banker,
had been prominent in war work in Auburn during the Rebellion.
He had aided in the recruiting of soldiers for the service, and
in the disbursement of war fiancés locally. In one instance,
when the first local company was recruited the soldiers received
very poor uniforms, and Mr. Wood was at the head of a committee
which corrected this situation. He also led in the work of
providing relief to local families who had been burdened by loss
of kin in the war. Thus his interest in Harriet was in line with
his general service, and doubtless his personal knowledge and
admiration of her impelled him to special effort.
Mr. Wood conferred with
Harriet when he wrote his account. He worked hastily and he
glossed over many important points. In the main he was
interested in establishing the authenticity of her labors with
various officers in the Department of the South.
If the banker, Mr. Seward,
or anyone else counted upon convincing Congress that Harriet was
entitled to a pension, theirs was a short-lived hope. Even the
illustrious Mr. Seward, offering the Wood report through the
Gettysburg general, Clinton MacDougall, then Congressman, was
unable to win the relief. It was Reconstruction, when thousands
of bills went before Congress. There was a mad rush; there was
debate upon fundamental questions like Negro rights, woman’s
rights. State’s rights, pensions for white men. What chance did
a black woman, even the famous Harriet Tubman, in a wordy rush
passed. Repeated attempts to secure an allowance failed. The
Southern Congressmen, sitting with the Northerners on the
pension committees, regarded as quixotic the war claims of a
black woman. But Harriet never ceased working toward a pension.
In 1874, in 1876, there were new attempts. Always the Charles
P. Wood evidence; and now, petitions crowded with the
illustrious names of abolitionists—Garrison, Seward, Osbourne,
Cheney, Choate—went to Congress, and as quickly were repudiated.
1 Sarah H. Bradford,
Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, p. 47
2 Pension Certificate No. 415, 288, filed under the name of
Nelson Davis, the husband of Harriet.
Harriet appealed to New England friends to aid her in getting
the pittance that would help her so much. She was old now and
she looked far older. Even yet she was active, talking on the
same platform with Susan B. Anthony, lending her name and
influence to questions of Negro advancement. Still the old
fighter lived on, kept her eye on public matters, and “went to
all important meetings.” Seward died. Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith and Wendell Phillips passed away. Old Harriet
lived on, chronically ill, but finding streaks of energy in
which she rushed off to Boston and visited Frank Sanborn and
Colonel Thomas W. Higginson, who was still dominating the latest
flourishes of New England culture.
was as late as December 1897 when the movement to take care of
Harriet caught fire with enough vigor to succeed. Sereno Payne
was Auburn’s Congressman, and although he had presented the Wood
script and the usual petitions to Congress in vain ten years
before, he was willing to try again. It took a year for the
bill to pass, for the President to sign a measure granting
Harriet twenty dollars a month for the remainder of her life.
To the very end the Southern Congressmen opposed relief for
Harriet, and they whittled five dollars off a twenty-five dollar
Wood document had finally done its deed. The Senate Report on
Harriet’s bill, basing itself upon the claims set forth by the
banker, admitted that she “was sent to the front by Governor
Andrew and acted as a nurse, cook in hospital and spy during
nearly the whole period of the war…This woman has a double claim
on the Government. She went into the field and hospitals and
cared for the sick and wounded. She saved lives. In her old age
and poverty a pension of $25 is none too much.”3
General Tubman had been recognized
officially, but late.
Naturally, when Mr. Wood wrote of Harriet’s war work he
could not refer to her ante-bellum labors as a slave-abductress,
nor as a conspirator with John Brown, she having been “the
woman” in that historic matter. His record was confined to only
one phase of her long and varied career, and even here it was
documentary rather than biographical. He made only a casual
mention of the Combahee River engagement, the war contribution
for which Harriet was most famous. In this affair Harriet
piloted Colonel James Montgomery and a company of Negro soldiers
up the Combahee River, in South Carolina, lifted torpedoes,
struck fear into the heart of rebeldom by various terrorist
acts, and captured eight hundred “contraband,” or slaves all
without the loss of a single Union Soldier. It
was Harriet who “led the raid and under whose inspiration it was
originated and conducted,” according to the
This is the only military engagement ever led by an American
Wood mentioned Harriet’s command over several scouts and pilots
without indicating what this meant. It signified actually that
she was in charge of the intelligence service of the Department
of the South.
spite of these and other short comings the Wood manuscript is a
weighty thing, and if this was the only evidence of Harriet
Tubman’s energies it would still be the record—a Government
record—of an outstanding woman.
3 Report No. 1619, Harriet Tubman Davis, 55th Congress, Third
4 The Boston Commonwealth, July 10, 1863, p. 1.
THE CHARLES P. WOOD
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 HQrs 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.
original papers in Harriet’s possession—is a list of the names
of the Scouts and Pilots “Issac Hayward, “Gabriel Cahern, “Geo
Chisholm”, “Peter Burns”, “Mott Blake”, “Sandy Sellus”,
“Solomon Gregory”. Pilots who know the channels of the River in
this vicinity, and who acted as such for Col. Montgomery up the
Combahee River: “Chas 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.
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. Plowden is a man of tried courage and can be made highly
I am General
Your most abt servt”
Signed “James Montgomery
“Col Com’d’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
From the annexed of an original paper in
Harriet’s possession we find that she was still rendering
valuable services at Beaufort, where she remained until the
month of January or Feb'y 1865.
FROM SURGEON DURRANT
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.
HENRY R. DURRANT,
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.
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. Harriet Tubman (colored) to Hilton Head and
Charleston, S.C. with free transportation on a Gov’t transport.
By order of Sec’t War
Signed Louise H. Pelonge
Asst. Agt. Gen’l
To Bvt. Brig. General Van Viet, U.S.Q.M., N.Y.”
Dated Washington, March 20, 1865.
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 appointed “Nurse or Matron” as
appears by the following copy of an original paper in her
“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.
Signed Your obt. Servant
To Hon. W.H. Seward
Sec. Of State
and with the following pass she returned to Fortress Monroe:
“No. 663 War Department
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. Gen.”
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 characteristics 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 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 explicity
under later date as follows:
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 by Generals
Stevens and Sherman — and is as deserving of a pension from the
Government for her services as any other of its faithful
Very truly yours,
Signed Rufus Saxton
Bvt. Grig. General
To Mrs. Mary Derby
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. General Hunter being then
in Washington, Mr. Seward referred 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
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 throughout 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 had 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
Charles P. Wood
Auburn, June 1st 1868
The letters of General Hunter, Secretary
Seward and Surgeon Durrant were printed and attached to the Wood
manuscript. Apparently the banker had clipped these letters
from some newspaper account or other published record of
Harriet’s war work, and affixed them to his article. Attached
to his manuscript were copies of the Seward, Hunter, Montgomery,
Durrant and Barnes letters mentioned in his account. There was
also a fragment of the original General Saxton letters, the
latter half of his certificate, including his signature.
From Mr. P.M. Hamer, Chief of the
Division of Reference of the National Archives it has been
learned that “There are records which substantiate the fact that
passes were issued permitting her to go to Hilton Head and
Fortress Monroe, and the letter book of the Surgeon General
contains the letter dated July 14, 1865, from that office to
Secretary of State Seward, which was also signed by the latter.
In addition, we have located the letter written by the Surgeon
General to Surgeon J. Simons, Medical Director, Department of
Virginia, containing the instructions mentioned in his letter to
Seward of July 14, 1865…” 5
This again verifies Harriet’s two stages
of service, her period in South Carolina, and her later work in
the hospitals of the Washington region. Only the Seward
original to Major General Hunter and the Colonel Montgomery
original to Brigadier General Gilmore have not yet come to
On January 1st, 1898, Harriet
appeared before an Auburn notary public. Mr. Orin McCarty, and
made out an affidavit concerning the truth of the Charles P.
Wood document. She said: “I am