Harriet Tubman’s three decades struggle for a federal pension


On the night of June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman commanded a unit of 150 black soldiers in a daring raid up the Combahee River in South Carolina to attack a number of plantations and free as many enslaved people as possible.

Tubman was the first woman to organize and direct a U.S. military operation, and she was phenomenally successful: about 750 people were released, about ten times the number Tubman escorted to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Hear Dr. Edda Fields-Black of Carnegie-Mellon University tells the story of the Combahee River Raid on Defense One Radio

As the nation and federal workforce celebrate the newest national day, June th, it is worth remembering and recognizing the service and achievements of people like Harriet Tubman and thinking about how they will be compensated for them. This is where the issue of state pension benefits comes into play. Because Tubman fought for a state pension for decades and never got one because of her own heroic service in the United States.

This service began in 1861, as Massachusetts Governor John Andrew John recruited Tubman to help the Union Army. She joined an all-white force under General Benjamin Butler in Fort Monroe, Virginia, where she cooked, washed clothes, and served as a nurse. She later made her way to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked in a military hospital.

With $ 100 in Secret Service funds, Tubman assembled a group of scouts who gathered information that led to the planning of the raid on the Combahee River. Tubman herself also went on espionage missions prior to the robbery, relying on the knowledge of the area gained during her rides on the Underground Railroad.

You’d think that’s enough for a pension and the gratitude of a grateful nation, but you’re wrong.

In 1865, after the war ended and Tubman returned to Auburn, New York, she appealed to the federal government for compensation for her service in the military. She got $ 200. Then influential friends of Tubman began campaigning for a veteran’s pension.

This struggle would go on for decades. In 1890, under a bill passed by Congress, Tubman was entitled to a widow’s pension of $ 8 per month based on her husband’s benefit. Still, she and supporters like William Henry Seward, President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, urged the government to grant her her own old-age pension. In 1898 they filed an affidavit demanding a lump sum payment of $ 1,800.

Members of the House of Representatives suggested granting Tubman a monthly pension of $ 25 based on their own performance. Senators protested, however, saying the number would set a precedent that other nurses would try to match. In the end, Tubman, then nearly 80 years old, received a widow’s pension increase to $ 20 a month – 34 years after the war ended and her own services and achievements were not recognized.

Keep this in mind the next time you have a complaint about your retirement benefit amount or turnaround time.

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