In darkness the boat crept up the river, silent as death. The captain in charge was sure of himself, sure of the information on which he was acting and of those guiding him up the narrow river. The young woman, somewhere on the ship, was the most reliable woman in the region. As the sun rose over the horizon, the boats pulled up to the ferry dock and the soldiers departed. The slaves were ready and at first word flocked to the boats, pushing and shoving to make their way on board. In the chaos that followed, the two small boats managed to get away with close to 300 captives. After it was all over, newspapers announced the Combahee Ferry Raid’s success and its most famous participant, Harriet Tubman.
This subject may be familiar to some of you who follow the Compiler closely, as Becky Oakes wrote about the Combahee Ferry Raid a few years ago (see Becky’s post for a more thorough treatment of the event). It was undeniably an impressive feat. Tubman managed over the period of a few months to gather enough information to steal slaves right from the plantation and, though the event was fairly well known in its time, it is virtually absent from American historical memory today. Harriet Tubman’s role in the marginalized world of slaves is remembered, but her role in aiding the United States Military is all but forgotten.
Tubman’s role in the Combahee Ferry Raid is not the only example of African American women lost in historical memory. Susie King Taylor was another remarkable woman who has been forgotten. Taylor is the only African American woman and the only African American who served the ranks that I could find who wrote a memoir. Taylor served with the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, which became the 33rd United States Colored Troops, as a laundress so that she could be close to her husband who was a sergeant in the unit. Taylor was an incredible woman who endured the horrors of war and served as a nurse when necessary. After the war, she lost two husbands and her son but still made a life on her own in post-Reconstruction America running a school for African American children. In her memoir Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, which Taylor self-published in 1902, Taylor had biting remarks regarding the forgotten promises of the war. She challenged dominant society and the lack of societal change at the turn of the twentieth century.*
Why have these remarkable women, or their actions, been forgotten by history? Is it that the dominant narrative does not have room for women of the non-dominant group in its narrative? Or does the agency of these women threaten the warm story of the white man liberating those poor slaves? Although they could not take up arms—Harriet Tubman got about as close as one can get without actually doing so—these women did what they could to guarantee their own freedom and the freedom of those who were still enslaved. The dominant narrative should not dismiss their contributions to the Civil War; rather these contributions should be embraced and celebrated.
* Susie King Taylor. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers. Edited by Patricia Romero and Willie Lee Rose. New York, NY: Marcus Wiener Publishing, 1988.