A unique romantic relationship in the Underground Railroad icon Harriet Tubman’s life was her second marriage to an African-American soldier, Nelson Davis, said to be about half her age and whose regiment hailed from a nearby Civil War training camp.
The union of Tubman and Davis, after the brutal and tragic death of her first husband, John Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, reveals how true “love knows no bounds” and that survival in a harsh world often requires the greatest toughness, even as the light of life dims.
You see, Davis likely escaped slavery in Elizabeth City, NC, “during or before 1861” as the Civil War erupted, writes the award-winning author Kate Larson in her excellent 2004 biography about Tubman, "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero."
And as a young man he traveled north to Oneida County, New York, living there for a couple of years before moving to Pennsylvania and “our neck of the woods” in 1863 following the July 1-3 Battle of Gettysburg spurred by the Confederate invasion of the Keystone state that motivated thousands of black men to join Union forces following President Abraham Lincoln’s Jan. 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Davis joined on Sept. 10, 1863 the 8th United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiment that originated and trained at Camp William Penn where the largest contingent of 10,500 men in 11 regiments of the war’s approximately 200,000 black soldiers joined Union forces just northwest of Philly in Chelten Hills, today Cheltenham Township.
Almost 15 years earlier, however, Tubman’s first husband and free African American, John Tubman, decided not to escape with her to Philadelphia in 1849 after five years of marriage.
When she returned to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to get him, as the recent film Harriet depicts, he had hooked up with another woman -- then tragically was shot and killed after the war on Sept. 30, 1867 during a conflict with a white man, Robert Vincent, Larson revealed.
Meanwhile, by the time Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Rebel forces surrendered on April 9, 1865, Harriet Tubman was a legendary figure because of her incredible exploits of leading runaway slaves North and Union troops into combat, as well as serving as a nurse and intelligence operative.
A few days before Lee’s surrender, on April 6, 1865 when Tubman entered the grounds of Camp William Penn to speak to the last of 11 regiments, the 24th USCT, she was well-known in these parts since she had ushered runaway slaves to nearby Underground Railroad safehouses, including William’s Still home and the white Quaker Lucretia Mott’s “Roadside” estate that stood on Old York Rd. next to Camp Penn.
Although Tubman moved to Auburn, New York and opened a rooming house where she cared for her parents and others, her financial situation was often precarious because her Army pension had not been approved.
“One of these boarders was a young Civil War veteran, Nelson Davis,” wrote Larson.
“Davis, a member of Company G, Eighth USCT that fought so valiantly at the [February 20, 1864] Battle of Olustee, Florida, had been honorably discharged on November 10, 1865, at Brownsville, Texas […],” Larson continued, after the regiment suffered very heavy losses.
“Nelson Charles, as he was known then, was only twenty-one years old when he was discharged from the army. He followed a fellow soldier, Albert Thompson, from Company G to Auburn, where he found a room at Tubman’s home and a job nearby, probably at a local brickyard abutting Harriet’s property.”
Harriet’s relationship with Davis developed over the next couple of years and the couple married on March 18, 1869 in Auburn, making Tubman, at least 40 years old or so, a sure-fire “cougar” well before the term became popular.
Sadly, Davis began to suffer badly from tuberculosis, likely contracted during the war, after being relatively active in the community and working with his wife, Harriet, in their garden and tending to small livestock.
Later, they adopted a child, Gertie, but struggled as time passed to make ends meet while primarily living on Nelson’s meager labor earnings and pension that was a long time in coming likely due to racism, but also because of confusion about his original Charles surname that he along the way changed to Davis.
And incredibly, despite Tubman-Davis’ outstanding military service during the war, that included leading troops on the June 2, 1863 Combahee raid in South Carolina and liberating up to 750 enslaved blacks, she had a very difficult time receiving her own pension.
Yet before her death in 1913 at about age 90, the federal government after 34 years finally did grant Tubman-Davis a $20 monthly pension based on her late husband’s service and partially due to her Civil War nursing duties, depending on the source.
Still, before passing away, Tubman-Davis had to deal with sporadic poverty, despite earning money from two books about her life and was severely beaten by a couple of swindlers in a peculiar money-for-gold scheme, all the while suffering from epileptic fits from an injury she received while a slave that required brain surgery for which she “refused anesthesia,” according to Harriett-tubman.org and other sources.
The great woman’s tombstone under a massive cedar tree near her beloved husband’s resting spot at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY, in part reads “To The Memory of Harriet Tubman Davis - Heroine of the Underground Railroad,” a true testament of an unwavering love with roots to seeking freedom in our own backyards.