As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of 2 June 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region.
The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Coloured Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations.
There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into the hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.
From Underground Railroad to Union Spy
Born into slavery, Tubman the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia.
Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state), Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards.
It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.
After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the “contrabands” a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict.
It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.
She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves.
Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives.
But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”
Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence.
“Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.
Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow.
She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support.
Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.
She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master.
Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.
Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.
Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape.
The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass.
Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.
Tubman’s turn to lead
The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore.
As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says.
So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.
But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses.
Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes” stationary mines beneath the water and promised them liberation in exchange for information.
It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.
Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Coloured Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on 2 June.
But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in US history to lead a military expedition.
One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge.
Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the US Army.
And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.
“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”
The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving.
Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase “They wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said but she nevertheless began to sing:
“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”
Her voice had the desired effect. “They threw up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”
All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish.
“With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the (Lowcountry) from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains.
A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave.
Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.
The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated people.
During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today’s money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation.
Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.
It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Coloured Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow.
In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.”
The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.
“I found evidence that one of the members of the (pensions) committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says.
“And it was really in many ways a point of honour… that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.”
Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”
When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honours in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her.
Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like “the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”