When Harriet Tubman Met John Brown

Happy Juneteenth! To celebrate we’re looking back at the short but deep friendship of John Brown and Harriet Tubman, who gave their lives to the abolitionist cause.

Harriet Tubman in the late 1860s. (Wikimedia Commons)

May 9 was the birthday of the abolitionist John Brown. To the extent that his soul is marching on, he is 222 years old.

I spent a little time reading about Brown’s brief but deep friendship with the liberator Harriet Tubman. According to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Brown biography, Brown and Tubman met in April 1858 in St Catharines, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, while Brown was planning his raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Tubman, for her part, had freed herself from a Maryland plantation nearly a decade earlier and had been shuttling fugitives north in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act. Her reputation preceded her.

Brown was raised Calvinist and Tubman spent time in the Methodist church, but by the time they met, they had both arrived at theologies of liberation beyond anything their pastors would have preached. Reading contemporary descriptions of Brown and Tubman, I recognize a common strain of fearlessness and intense spiritual conviction — so intense, in fact, that friends and enemies questioned their sanity. “Neurodivergent” wasn’t a word or category at the time, but in retrospect I have to wonder.

A portrait of John Brown by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1872. (Wikimedia Commons)

Brown believed he had been called by God to set captives free, so that this “slave-cursed Republic [could] be restored to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” Depictions of Brown, even from friendly sources, tended to play up his wild, unkempt look. He was a John the Baptist figure in the public imagination, living on the edge of society and preparing the way.

Tubman, for her part, rejected the slave gospel taught on plantations, which urged enslaved people to obey their masters, and embraced the Old Testament stories of deliverance. She lived out those stories so fully on the Underground Railroad that people called her “Moses.” She had her own mystic side, but tended to keep quieter about it unless she was among trusted friends.

Du Bois says of Tubman: “When a girl she was injured by having an iron weight thrown on her head by an overseer, an injury that gave her wild, half-mystic ways with dreams, rhapsodies and trances.”

Nineteenth-century society was not always kind to eccentric white male abolitionists, but it could be absolutely cruel to black women with traumatic brain injuries. Writing for the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project in Ms magazine earlier this year, curator Michelle D. Commander spoke to the lifelong effects of Tubman’s disability:

In the aftermath, she experienced a series of near-debilitating headaches and seizures as well as enlightening visions. Dismissed by whites as a so-called half-wit, Tubman remained quite circumspect about sharing the content of the premonitions she experienced that prompted her to strategize pathways to liberation for herself and others. Tubman took seriously these moments of acute intuition by engaging in conjurations, using disguises to facilitate her movements across treacherous conditions, and embracing a code of silence as she moved covertly throughout slave territory to freedom and back again, rescuing scores of family members and other enslaved people during her own expeditions.

She shared her visions with friends. She claimed that her heart would flutter when danger was near, a sort of premonition that saved her from her enemies. She said she had inherited her power from her father, who predicted the weather and the Mexican-American War.

Tubman would later recall to a friend that she had dreamed about meeting Brown before she ever saw him. Like a lot of prophetic visions, this one only made half sense until after it had been fulfilled. From Du Bois:

A dreamer of dreams as she was, she ever “laid great stress on a dream which she had had just before she met Captain Brown in Canada. She thought she was in ‘a wilderness sort of place, all full of rocks, and bushes,’ when she saw a serpent raise its head among the rocks, and as it did so, it became the head of an old man with a long white beard, gazing at her, ‘wishful like, jes as ef he war gwine to speak to me,’ and then two other heads rose up beside him, younger than he — and as she stood looking at them, and wondering what they could want with her, a great crowd of men rushed in and struck down the younger heads, and then the head of the old man, still looking at her so ‘wishful!’ This dream she had again and again, and could not interpret it; but when she met Captain Brown, shortly after, behold he was the very image of the head she had seen.

Brown was awestruck when he met Tubman. He introduced her to friends as “General Tubman” and called her “one of the best and bravest persons on this continent.” Drawing on what geographer Nik Heynen called her “deep spatial knowledge and access to clandestine resources,” she helped plan the Harpers Ferry raid and recruited formerly enslaved people in Canada to join the cause.

John Brown believed he was protected by God, and that might explain some of his naïveté. He thought that once his small band of guerrillas occupied the armory in present-day West Virginia, news would spread and inspire a mass uprising of enslaved people who would run to the armory and pick up guns. When he tried to recruit Frederick Douglass to the cause, Brown reportedly said, “When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall need you to help hive them.”

Douglass said no. Even Tubman did not participate when the day arrived. In October 1859, the raid failed thanks, in part, to some grave tactical errors on Brown’s part. Tubman’s vision came true: A great crowd struck down the two younger heads — Brown’s sons Oliver and Watson, who died in combat — and then the state came for the head of the bearded old man. Brown was captured and put on trial for treason.

Some of Brown’s defenders tried to portray him as mentally unfit, hoping that the state of Virginia would spare him from execution. Frederick Douglass rejected that explanation in the November 1859 Douglass’s Monthly with a scathing front-page rebuttal titled “John Brown Not Insane”:

Such an age would have sent Gideon to a mad-house and put Leonidas in a strait-jacket. Such a people would have treated the defenders of Thermopylae as demented, and shut up Caius Marcus in bedlam. Such a marrowless population as ours has become under the debaucheries of Slavery, would have struck the patriot’s crown from the brow of Wallace, and recommended blisters and bleeding to the heroic Tell.

Tubman said of her friend John Brown, “He done more in dying than 100 men would in living.” But Tubman went on to live another fifty-three years, and she did more in living than Brown did in dying.

The title page of John Brown by W. E. B. Du Bois.

During the Civil War she served as a nurse at Port Royal, South Carolina. She lobbied (unsuccessfully at first) for President Abraham Lincoln to form the first regiment of black soldiers. She served as an armed scout and spy in the Union Army, without pay. After the war she worked to secure a higher quality of life for emancipated black Americans, fought for her own pension from the US government, joined in the suffragist fight to secure the vote for women, and gave her time to her African Methodist Episcopal Church congregation in Auburn, New York.

If you ask an American for one fact about John Brown, they might know about the failed raid on Harpers Ferry and the role it played in sparking the Civil War. If you ask about Harriet Tubman, they’ll probably know something about the Underground Railroad.

But when I think about these two stubborn, radical, prophetic friends and the world they both wanted, I think about a plantation raid that Tubman led on Combahee Ferry in South Carolina, three and a half years after Brown’s execution.

The raid took place on June 1 and 2, 1863, five months after the Emancipation Proclamation, when word had still not reached many people living under South Carolina’s slave regime. Tubman was joined that day by the Union’s Colonel James Montgomery, a Midwestern abolitionist radical who had once fought alongside John Brown and had even planned a raid to rescue Brown while he was awaiting trial in Virginia. In fact, Tubman later told a biographer she would only agree to lead the raid if Montgomery was appointed commander of the expedition:

Gen. Hunter asked her at one time if she would go with several gunboats up the Combahee River, the object of the expedition being to take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops. She said she would go if Col. Montgomery was to be appointed commander of the expedition. Col. Montgomery was one of John Brown’s men, and was well known to Harriet.

On the day the raid began, Tubman guided Union gunships through the swampy lowlands, relying on the same practical knowledge she had used to navigate Maryland’s Eastern Shore along the Underground Railroad. Through word of mouth and covert operations, she had learned the location of Confederate torpedoes along the Combahee River.

Starting from a Union stronghold at Port Royal, Tubman led an infantry unit of a hundred fifty African American Union soldiers from one plantation to the next, proclaiming their freedom while burning rice mills and seizing rice, cotton, and livestock. Word went out ahead of her, and plantation owners fled before she could arrive. Confederates sent reinforcements, but they arrived too late and retreated.

Tubman in 1887 (far left), with her husband Davis (seated, with cane), their adopted daughter Gertie (beside Tubman), Lee Cheney, John “Pop” Alexander, Walter Green, “Blind Aunty” Sarah Parker, and her great-niece Dora Stewart at Tubman’s home in Auburn, New York. (Wikimedia Commons)

Partly due to her tactical genius, and partly due to the course of the war at that point, Tubman’s vision came true at Combahee Ferry in ways that Brown’s vision did not at Harpers Ferry. When the Union forces razed the South Carolina plantations and sounded a steam whistle, enslaved people really did come swarming to freedom — Tubman’s crew liberated about seven hundred fifty people in all. Many of the men joined the Union military and fought for the cause of freedom, much as Brown had predicted.

“It was a glorious consummation,” reported the Commonwealth, a Boston newspaper.

Tubman’s friend and biographer Sarah H. Bradford describes a chaotic and joyful scene on the banks of the river: people came running from the fields, a woman rushed out of a kitchen with a pot of rice still steaming in her hands, children were climbing on their parents, and pigs and chickens made a racket while crowds erupted in call-and-response song.

“We laughed, an’ laughed, an’ laughed,” Tubman said.

During Reconstruction, a radical vision remained in and around Port Royal. Radical black Republicans fought political battles for land redistribution, held strikes in the Combahee rice fields, and rewrote South Carolina’s constitution to guarantee a free and liberal education for all children. In his Short History of Reconstruction, Eric Foner writes that black landholders in the South Carolina low country were some of the only freedmen to receive General Sherman’s promised “forty acres and a mule,” and they put up a militant resistance when white landlords tried to evict them:

On more than one occasion freedmen armed themselves, barricaded plantations, and drove off owners attempting to dispossess them. Black squatters told one party of Edisto Island landlords in February 1866, “you have better go back to Charleston, and go to work there, and if you can do nothing else, you can pick oysters and earn your living as the loyal people have done — by the sweat of their brows.”

The radical vision didn’t belong to John Brown, any more than it belonged to Harriet Tubman. It didn’t even belong to Senator Robert Smalls, the black Union war hero from Beaufort who led South Carolina’s radical Republicans into state and national politics. The vision outlasted them all.

I live near Charleston, and every time I travel to Beaufort, I drive through the ACE Basin, a nearly pristine coastal wildlife refuge surrounding the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. Driving south on Highway 17, I cross the Combahee River on the Harriet Tubman Memorial Bridge. It’s a long, low stretch over a particularly gorgeous section of the river, and at its southern end I see a marker commemorating the raid.

The next time I cross the river, I’ll be thinking about another one of Harriet Tubman’s visions. This was an early recurring dream, from before she escaped the plantation.

In this dream, Tubman would fly like a bird over fields, towns, rivers, and mountains, until she hit a boundary she felt she couldn’t cross. Sometimes in the dream the boundary was a fence, and sometimes it was a river. When she arrived at this boundary, she would feel herself losing strength and sinking down.

And just as she began to sink, she would see women dressed in white on the other side. And they would put out their arms and pull her across.

I am not in the business of interpreting other people’s dreams, but I will sit and think about this one for a long, long time.