Moses was a Guerrilla
A Review of and Resource for “Harriet”
One of the tenets of People’s History has it that we study history, we write history, we discuss and analyze history for the purpose of applying its lessons to our current struggle to create a better world. In this connection, every schoolchild knows that Hollywood is not going to produce a work of People’s History. On the other hand, “Harriet” did get a few very important things right. What the film got right must be supported.
What compelled the writing of this essay was the fact that in conversations about the movie, literally every time we spoke of events and processes that were left out — and “the half”… was left out — we were struck by people’s reactions: “Wow, I didn’t know that!”
Therefore, while this essay will largely ignore the Hollywood fantasy elements of the film, it will build from the positive and important issues raised and from there point the reader in the direction of what needs to be a much more thorough study. Again, we must learn of “the half [that] has never been told,” so we can take the necessary lessons and together create a brighter future (Baptiste).
It is with this same purpose in mind that we have included a Bibliography so that the reader can continue this study. This study is an obligatory task facing us as we endeavor to change the world.
The most enduring lesson from the story of Harriet Tubman is in what it tells each of us about what it means to be fully human. We must search out this lesson daily and hourly.
Harriet Tubman was a Revolutionary The film got the kernel of this truth correct. A social movement is called a revolutionary movement when its purport, when it’s meaning and targets are the denouement of an existing social system and the creation of an entirely new system. Individuals who participate in such social movements are called revolutionaries. Harriet Tubman was an indefatigable activist in the movement to destroy the chattel slavery system. She fought on the principle that all humans should be free, and that no human should be owned by another human.
Harriet Tubman denied the “principle” that the enslaved should meekly wait until the slavers had “seen the light,” and stopped their genocidal campaigns against Africans in America and for the annihilation of Native Americans. Indeed, she used any means necessary, and was a devotee of revolutionary violence. In other words, when it was applicable, she armed the people she was organizing for their freedom, and as a group they fought the slavers militarily.
John Brown and the General They called her Moses because, on one side, her method of warfare seemed to produce miraculous results — as if she were splitting the waters of the Red Sea to free her family, her extended family, enslaved Africans. Historians who adhere to the method of People’s History insist on emphasizing the point that Harriet Tubman utilized the principles of guerrilla warfare (Conrad, Aptheker).
First, her method of engaging the enemy relied on brilliantly executed stealth. Indeed, John Brown, the White American leader of another guerrilla band, called Harriet Tubman “the greatest military mind of our time” (Nelson) because she knew all the back woods, she knew all the streams and rivers, she knew what is called in military terms “the hinterland,” the swamps and the bush, the forest and the mountains. She would lead her band of escaped Africans when they were descending on a plantation, not through the front door, but through the back. And she would usher the enslaved out of their huts and into the woods, towards the nearest water so that their scent could be lost to the slave-catching dogs.
Each of these elements of guerrilla warfare were memorialized in the spirituals “Wade in the Water,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Go Down Moses,” and many more. These songs were much more than memorials. The film “Harriet” got this part right also — the use of song was an element of the guerrilla war which Harriet and other revolutionaries were waging to bring down the chattel slavery system.
What the film downplayed, almost to the point of it being invisible, was that what we are insisting here was guerrilla warfare was part of a generalized war being waged by enslaved Africans and their allies. Enslaved Africans were rising up in every place where slavery existed, and at all times during the existence of this evil system (Aptheker). In this war, its devotees readily called Harriet Tubman “The General” (Conrad).
The Underground Railroad conducted by Harriet Tubman was a critical feature of this war (being waged before the official “Civil War” broke out), and literally thousands of formerly enslaved Africans escaped because of this liberation campaign (DuBois).
John Brown called Harriet Tubman the greatest military mind of our time because she waged war in this way. In this connection, it must be added to the small part of this which Hollywood gave us, the fact that Harriet Tubman and John Brown were “thick as thieves,” they were comrades in arms (DuBois). They planned their guerrilla raids in unison with each other (Nelson).
It is left out of most of the stories that Harriet Tubman was the penultimate architect, with John Brown, of the Harper’s Ferry Uprising (Conrad). This was a raid of the U.S. military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry West Virginia which ultimately set off what White historians call “the Civil War.” Harriet Tubman planned this raid with John Brown (Nelson). Ultimately, when it was time to execute this raid, Tubman was deathly physically ill and could not make it.
The Harper’s Ferry raid is often termed the spark that ignited the conflagration known as the Civil War (Horwitz) for this reason: uprisings of enslaved Africans, led by guerrilla bands such as those of Harriet Tubman and John Brown were taking place all over the South (Aptheker). The slavers often complained that they were not getting the protection they deserved against these uprisings from the federal government (Nelson). The slavers wanted federal troops to militarily protect the slave system. The Northern industrialists, the capitalists in the North, while benefiting in their own way from the slavery system, also saw some of its detriment to the kind of “business environment” they preferred: They preferred an economy which could be presented as one in which all concerned — laborers and owners alike — “freely” give all the wealth to the capitalist businessmen (Baptiste). For this reason, they hesitated to give all of the backing of military might to the slavers.
Further, many well-meaning White Americans thought the slave system was an abomination against God and human morality. Such White Americans participated in the movement to bring this system down. Some of them were integral to the workings of the Underground Railroad, of which Harriet Tubman was the principal Conductor. Some of them gave arms to Tubman and to John Brown’s guerrilla band.
The ultimate uprising was the raid of Harper’s Ferry, October 1859 — which was designed to liberate hundreds of rifles and other military equipment, and give these to enslaved Africans who could then join their guerrilla army productively (Nelson).
While John Brown’s guerrilla band was defeated in this raid, its purport, the meaning and purpose of the raid was far from lost on the slavers. They saw that such was the tenor of the enslaved African spirit of the time. In protest they decided to secede from the United States and form their own slavocracy. This act was the act of “Civil War.”
We here put inside quotations marks the concept “Civil War,” because there was nothing civil about it. Indeed, over 560,000 troops from the Union army and the Confederate army died in this war — making it the bloodiest war for White American casualties in the history of the nation called White America, and in the history of the state called the United States of America.
Part of the reason for this extreme loss of life was a warfare style which was a holdover from the tributary system, what European historians call the political-economic system of feudalism. The tributary system preceded capitalism, and its premise was that certain people’s blood was determined by God to make them rulers while others were determined by this same divine edict to be slaves or servants (Amin). Under such a system, when one kingdom went to fight another, it was honorable, indeed in tribute to the King, the servants walked in straight lines towards the other kingdom’s army and shot each other. This “positional warfare” is how the Union army and the Confederate army fought against each other. Each in their turn, the Union army from the North and the Confederate from the South, would march in line towards each other and then annihilate each other. This produced some of what White historians insist were the “greatest battles” of the “Civil War” in which literally thousands of troops from both sides died in a matter of days.
After the raid on Harper’s Ferry was defeated, and the Civil War broke out, Tubman was given an official position in the Union army and was given Black troops to command. Harriet Tubman’s battalion, characterized in the film as 150 former enslaved Africans, grew very quickly, as they went through the aforementioned “hinterland” of the Confederate territory, raiding the plantations from the back streams and from the bush. They prosecuted guerrilla warfare against the slavers and their evil system. While the Union army and the Confederate army were facing each other, Harriet Tubman’s battalion, now becoming well over 1,000 troops, were raiding the plantations from behind, from “out of the cut,” killing massa, and freeing the enslaved Africans, such which immediately joined their liberators as guerrilla fighters.
In one of the most heralded military campaigns of the war, Tubman’s troops descended upon the plantations which resided on both sides of the Combahee River in South Carolina. In the battle which lasted over one week, over 750 enslaved Africans were liberated, and were able to join the Union Army. In the words of Earl Conrad, in his book entitled Harriet Tubman: Negro Soldier and Abolitionist: “It still remains the only campaign in American military history planned and led by a woman.”
Any military analyst worth the title of military scientist can easily see that it was this action, these raids, this guerrilla warfare which was the quintessential element of the war — demoralizing the Confederate troops, destroying the infrastructure of the Confederate economy, taking away the foundation of this economic system itself, the enslaved Africans, and turning them into liberators of themselves and destroyers of the chattel slavery system by military means. This is revolutionary violence. This is the effect which this guerrilla warfare had on the outcome of the war; this was the epicenter of the revolution to overthrow chattel slavery. This is what constitutes the so-called Civil War as a revolutionary war, as a People’s War (Giap).
African Americans at the Center of the Demise of Chattel Slavery Again, it is here established that Harriet Tubman was a leader in a People’s War. Further, this understanding of a People’s War subsumes all of the revolutionary activity undertaken by the population of enslaved and free Africans and their allies over a period of decades up to and including the years of the Civil War. It is from this perspective that we then come to the conclusion that to the extent that the Civil War was prosecuted against the Southern Confederacy by the Union Army, which was not under the leadership of revolutionaries like Harriet Tubman, to that degree was this revolution curtailed in its purport — its targets were less than what the revolutionary Africans were uprising for, and it’s tenets were less than those of total freedom and full human rights as we understand them today.
It is this rendition of the history; it is this quality of the war which lets us see today that Africans in America were the principal liberators of ourselves. With contributions made by thousands of White people to the prosecution of the Underground Railroad, and then to fighting in the Civil War, it remains Africans who were the principal liberators of ourselves. We were at the center of the revolution which changed our official status from property of White people to human beings (Williams). Again, let us be clear, we were always human beings. The official status changed with this revolution. The slave system itself remains as an anti-human system.
And it is this rendition which affords us the ability to move on in history from chattel slavery and the revolution to overthrow it to the current slave system in which we live today in the United States of America. Immediately after the chattel slavery system was defeated, Northern and Southern capitalists together began to devise the Jim Crow system, which, put simply, changed the status of Africans in America to that of criminals (Blackmon). With a loophole in the 13th Amendment, the one which bans enslavement, except under conditions of the subject being a criminal — under this twist in the law, Africans in America, particularly in the South were re-enslaved. This new form of slavery, Jim Crow slavery aided the Northern businessmen in their quest to exploit wage labor throughout the country — the pay for Black workers could be kept at a minuscule level since their status could easily be changed to criminal/enslaved inside prison (Blackmon).
From Chattel, to Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration Indeed, it took another revolution fully 100 years later — called by White historians, the Civil Rights Movement — to bring down the Jim Crow form of slavery. Again, we see nothing “civil” about slavery of any kind, and the fight to bring it down in the 1960’s we termed the Black Liberation Movement.
Finally, using the lessons from the revolutionary figure of Harriet Tubman, we are currently living under the mass incarceration system which imprisons hundreds of thousands of Africans in America, and forces us to work in these prisons producing commodities for the market from which capitalist businesses make money (Alexander). This is otherwise known by social science as …slavery (Alexander). We must take the lessons from the story of Harriet Tubman and her participation to overthrow the chattel slavery system, and with the stealth and astuteness with which Harriet waged her fight, we must bring down the slave system known today as the mass incarceration system.
Of Human Being Perhaps the most enduring lesson from the story of Harriet Tubman is in what it tells us about the meaning of being human. Tubman was of a people who by means of imperialist violence were forced into a condition of sub-humanity. We say “enslaved Africans” rather than “slaves” because enslavement was not our identity — we were and are human beings. Chattel slavery was a condition of our humanity during this historical period.
In the same way, White Americans who participated in prosecuting the slave system, who participated in the enslavement of Africans and in the annihilation of the Native population of the Americas, were engaging in anti-human behavior. Any White person can rise above the condition of being white and participate in the struggle for the liberation of humanity. Any White American can transcend the disability of whiteness.
Tubman’s condition was not only that of an enslaved African. She also suffered the condition of her gender status.That women were relegated to a condition of “less than” men — Tubman’s life was the definition of transcending such a condition.
Everyday and every hour each of us has the opportunity and ability to rise above our condition and live as fully human beings. Indeed, there were men like John Brown who suffered the condition of male supremacy — he acted on the belief in his daily life that women were not human to the same degree that men were. He was able to overcome that disability in the presence of the colossal countenance of Harriet Tubman.
The genuine Harriet Tubman story proves that a struggling suffering person, any person, can stop acting as if they are less than human, can loose the sense that they are less than human, and find a new way of life.
Alexander, Michelle. (2012). the New Jim Crow:Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.
Amin, Samir. (1989). Eurocentrism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Aptheker, Herbert. (1943). American Negro slave revolts. People’s Book House.
Baptiste, Edward. (2014). the Half has never been told: Slavery and the making of American capitalism. New York: Basic Books.
Blackmon, Douglas. (2016). Slavery by another name: The re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor Books.
Conrad, Earl. (1973). Harriet Tubman: Negro soldier and Abolitionist. New York: International Publishers.
DuBois, WEB. (1972). John Brown. New York: International Publishers.
Giap, Vo Nguyen. (1990). The military art of People’s War. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Horwitz, Tony. (2011). Midnight rising: John Brown and the raid that sparked the Civil War. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Lynn, Angelo. (1996). “The Historical Legacy of Old John Brown.” Roxbury, MA: Love in Action newspaper.
Nelson, Truman. (2009). The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Williams, Eric. (1994). Capitalism and slavery. University of North Carolina Press.