Congress and Harriet Tubman’s Claim for a Pension
During Black History Month, many teachers will highlight the compelling story of Harriet Tubman. While Tubman is most famous for her participation in the Underground Railroad, she should also be recognized for her work for the Union during the Civil War as a nurse, cook, and spy.
In 1898, Tubman again petitioned Congress for a pension for her services to the federal government, after earlier efforts were unsuccessful. The outcome of her petition exposes attitudes towards African Americans at the end of the century. A lesson using primary source documents from the Center for Legislative Archives can help your students understand Tubman’s federal service and the degree to which it was acknowledged by Congress.
Tubman’s thick pension file is filled with affidavits, letters of support, and correspondence that document the nature of her work in hospitals and kitchens and her scouting trips behind enemy lines. These records were collected to justify her claim for compensation since she had received only $200 for her services during the War.
On January 27, 1899, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4982, which increased Tubman’s pension from $8 to $25 a month. Previously in 1890, she had been granted a pension of $8 a month as the widow of veteran Nelson Davis, who she married after the War. The House bill based the proposed increase on Tubman’s own service, separate from her status as a widow.
H.R. 4982 was then sent to the Senate, which referred the matter to Committee on Pensions. After consideration, the committee made its recommendation in Senate Report #1619. This report includes the text of the report of the House Committee on Invalid Pensions, which cited several people who worked directly with Tubman during the War. Support for Tubman’s claim came from one of the highest possible sources—Secretary of State William Seward. Seward said, “I have known her long as a noble high spirit, as true as seldom dwells in the human form.” The House report concluded, “These testimonials sufficiently show the character and value of the service rendered by Mrs. Davis during the war.”
The Senate committee, however, came to a different conclusion. Referring to her “alleged services to the government,” the Senate noted that very few nurses earned a pension of $20 per month. Ignoring her work as a cook and spy, the Senate stated 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.” The report ended with the recommendation that the Senate amend the House bill to lower the pension amount to $20.
Using a document analysis worksheet, your students can analyze these documents and others in the lesson. The worksheet can help students construct the case for and against Tubman’s claim, and to answer the lesson’s guiding question—to what extent, and for what services, did Congress officially acknowledge Harriet Tubman’s Civil War service to her country?
During a full class discussion, the students will see that the final act signed by President William McKinley shows that Congress did grant Tubman an increase in pension, but the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service. The title of the original bill H.R. 4982 which referred to Tubman as “late a nurse in the United States Army” had been amended so that the nursing reference was removed. Instead, the Act only referred to Tubman as a veteran’s widow. Students can consider the state of race relations in 1899, and compare it to 2000, when Congress passed the Harriet Tubman Special Resource Study Act, which is available from the Government Printing Office. How has the interpretation of Tubman’s legacy changed?
See the full lesson at http://www.archives.gov/legislative/resources/education/tubman/