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Harriet Tubman’s connection to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment

The Harriet Ross Tubman memorial in Harriet Tubman Park in the South End.John Blanding/Globe Staff

Harriet Tubman’s ties to Massachusetts extend much further than the sculpture in the South End depicting her leading slaves to freedom.

Historians say Tubman — who on Wednesday was announced as the replacement for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill — had strong links to the Boston abolitionist movement and played a large role in uplifting black Union soldiers.

Boston is considered one of America’s leading cities for the abolitionist movement. Some homes in Boston were turned into safe havens on the Underground Railroad, including the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House on Phillips Street, according to the Museum of African American History.


Lewis Hayden later became a recruiting agent for the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War. Tubman was active with the 54th and other Union forces during the war, after her Underground Railroad days were behind her. She spied on Confederate forces and also worked as a cook and battlefield nurse.

Tubman was with the 54th Infantry during their legendary battle at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Marion Taylor and Heather Lehr Wagner wrote in their book, “Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist,” that she served the soldiers their last meal the night before. She also buried the dead and treated the wounded after the battle, historians say.

The dramatic story of the regiment’s struggles was told in the Academy Award-winning 1989 movie “Glory.”

Though the 54th lost more than 250 men at Fort Wagner and were not able to gain control of the fort, the battle was a turning point. James McGowan and William Kashatus wrote in their Tubman biography that the battle “lessened lingering skepticism among whites” by showing people in the North that black men were capable of fighting.

Tubman later reflected, in poetic tribute, on a battle that historians believe to be Fort Wagner.


“And then we saw the lightning,” she wrote, “and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and then we came to get in the crops, and it was the dead men that we reaped.”

J.D. Capelouto can be reached at jd.capelouto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jdcapelouto.