Shortly before midnight on June 2, 1863, three Union gunboats cautiously floated up the Combahee River, avoiding Confederate torpedoes based on information from a highly respected Union spy, a woman named “Moses.” Their destination? The rice plantations of the South Carolina low country, which contained soil so rich the crop they yielded was nicknamed “Carolina Gold.” However, this was no typical raid on Confederate property. The soldiers charged with this task were men of the 2nd South Carolina, an all black regiment, and by daybreak, over seven hundred and fifty slaves would be free.
And who was that trusted spy named Moses?
Typically introduced in fifth grade classrooms as the face of the Underground Railroad, the usual image associated with Tubman is that of her clandestinely transporting slaves to freedom under the cover of darkness. Her role during the Civil War is less well known, but no less dynamic. From the outset of the war, Tubman assisted Union soldiers and freed slaves in many different ways. She gained a reputation for nursing soldiers sick with dysentery with medicines made from roots, and for teaching freed slave women how to lead independent lives. She was also a passionate advocate for freedmen’s issues, and often brought them to the attention of military authorities. However, it was her skills in guerilla warfare and espionage that earned her the respect of the both Union officers and the northern press.
Tubman first arrived on the Sea Islands in 1862, and was attached to Major General David Hunter in Beaufort, South Carolina. From the beginning of her time there, she was gathering intelligence from slaves, trading information for help in escaping to freedom. Illiterate, Tubman memorized all the information she gathered. It was through this process that she discovered the location of Confederate torpedoes in the Combahee River.
Around one hundred and fifty black soldiers under Colonel James Montgomery put this intelligence to good use on June 2nd. Confederates in the area were under the command of a Major Emmanual, who was not alerted of the raid until it was far underway. A single company under Lieutenant Breeden failed to repulse the attack, and only stopped a single slave from escaping. Emmanual himself led a fruitless counterattack near dawn, as the Union gunboats were retreating. The hapless commander managed to fire off just four rounds with a single artillery piece, and the Union troops, as well as the newly freed slaves, escaped unharmed.
Official Confederate reports from the incident blame Emmanual and his troops, claiming they “were neither watchful nor brave…allowing a parcel of Negro wretches calling themselves soldiers, with a few degraded whites, to march unmolested, with the incendiary torch, to rob, destroy, and burn a large section of the country.” But it also continued to give credit to Tubman and her supporters: “The enemy seems to have been well posted as to the character and capacity of our troops and their small chance of encountering opposition, and to have been well guided by persons thoroughly acquainted with the river and country.”
This night raid not only broke Confederate control of the Combahee River, but destroyed million of dollars of Confederate property. To Tubman, another element of the story was far more important. During her days as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, she liberated handfuls of slaves at a time. During the Combahee River raid, however, more than 750 slaves boarded the gunboats and were shepherded to freedom.
The raid became more than just a victory for Tubman and the 2nd South Carolina. Northern newspapers treated it as a highly publicized theatrical stunt, giving black soldiers credit for “Robbing the Cradle of Secession.” Not only did the 2nd South Carolina’s exemplary work during Combahee River raid validate the use of black soldiers long before Fort Wagner, this incident also exposed the myth of the “loyal darkies” as just that, a myth.
And it was possible because of one woman. A woman named Moses.
Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. “African Feminism: A Theoretical Approach to the History of Women in the African Diaspora.” In Women in Africa and the African Diaspora. Edited by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Andrea Benton Rushing. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1996.
http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/james-montgomery/11736 – Kansas Historical Society
http://www.unf.edu/floridahistoryonline/montgomery/index.html – Florida History Online, Harper’s Weekly
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003674596/ – Library of Congress