June 2, 1863 - Harriet Tubman's River Commando Raid
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 2, 1863. Three Union gunboats steam up the Combahee River in South Carolina on a small-scale mission to raid Confederate plantations and seize property. Their guide is none other than Harriet Tubman, the first woman in American history to take a leading role in a military operation.
Harriet Tubman’s story is well-known to most American schoolchildren. She escaped from slavery in 1849 and spent the next decade and change as one of the primary conductors on the “Underground Railroad,” helping smuggle slaves from the South into the North or Canada. As one of the most famous and competent figures on the Railroad, she acquired an enormous reputation in her own and later years.
Her nickname “Moses” was appropriate, since she was a hard woman, far from the airbrushed image of later cartoon movies. She carried a revolver and threatened to shoot any escape who tried to turn back, with the line “Go on or die,” since one refugee returning would endanger the others. She was fervently religious, and frequently had “visions” that may have been at least induced by her epilepsy – or maybe not, because they never seemed to slow her down. At only 5 feet tall, a tiny, epileptic woman, no one suspected her of great things before she embarked on her epic career of insurgency and infiltration. It was these qualities that made her a consummate planner, tactician and leader, careful and decisive. She could not afford to be anything less.
Tubman helped John Brown plan and prepare for the Harper’s Ferry Raid, but along with Frederick Douglass backed out due to the recklessness of the venture. Nevertheless, she recognized the value of his martyrdom after he was hanged for treason, saying “He done more in dying, than 100 men would in living.”
To recount all of Harriet Tubman’s many prewar exploits here – the rescue of her entire family, long chases in the dead of winter, the combined bounties of $40,000 on her head, the fact that she never lost a single passenger – would be a bit much, but these achievements speak for themselves. They’ve been talking about putting her on the $20, and I think that’s an excellent idea. Look who we’ve got on our money. Washington, sure, Lincoln, sure, Hamilton I can see, Grant yes, but Grover Cleveland? Freaking why? And Andrew Jackson was an enormous asshole. Bump him off, I say.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet Tubman volunteered her services for the Union, and this is the part where I talk about the Union’s attitude towards slavery, because there’s an enormous amount of disinformation.
The South started the Civil War to preserve slavery, no way around it, but the North’s motive was at first not so idealistic. For the United States, the stated objective of the war was to “preserve the Union” by bringing the Confederate states back into the Union, by force if necessary. In the first years of the Civil War – 1861 and 1862 – this was the most important motive for the Union war effort, and the one President Abraham Lincoln pushed most fervently, for one big reason: the North was not amped up to go to war to free the slaves.
There was a strong abolitionist movement in the Union, and Lincoln himself hated and wanted to destroy slavery. At the same time, though, this was still a minority opinion, and slavery could not be destroyed unless the Confederacy was defeated. If trying to turn the war into a crusade to free the slaves cost the Union the war, neither goal could be accomplished.
In 1861, especially, it was absolutely vital to keep Kentucky and Missouri – two slave states that had remained in the Union – on the side of the North; if they went south, the war could be lost almost before it had begun. Lincoln had to walk this careful tightrope between the abolitionists, who he agreed with, and the moderates and conservatives, who he could not afford to alienate if he wanted to win the war.
In 1861, a force of Union ships and troops had taken Port Royal, South Carolina – now near Beaufort. This surprise attack secured a critical Union naval base on the southeast coast which they could use to attack South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Harriet Tubman had volunteered to serve the Union, and accompanied the Port Royal expedition. South Carolina had the densest slave population of any state, and she hoped to exploit this situation to free as many slaves as possible. She became a fixture at Port Royal, assisting fugitives and serving as a nurse with her knowledge of local herbs. Though she received government rations at first, she forsook these since freed slaves weren’t getting the same treatment. Instead, she made her own root beer and pastries to sell to soldiers to earn her pay.
The general in charge of the Union force in South Carolina, David Hunter, was an avowed abolitionist, and he had ideas about what to do in the South Carolina low country. He soon had escaped slaves streaming in from all the plantations in the cotton lands, and in 1862 issued an order declaring all “contrabands” in his district free and setting up a regiment of black soldiers.
The “contraband” logic came from Union General Benjamin Butler, who was an absolutely terrible general but a good lawyer. Early in the war he had figured out that the Confederacy were using slaves to dig trenches, build forts, carry supplies and feed soldiers – in short, all the functions of an army’s support troops. Based on this logic, he declared that any slaves the Union captured were not just property to be returned to their masters – they were “contraband of war,” essentially military supplies that the Union could capture and use as they pleased.
Lincoln liked Butler’s logic – it was a good “legal” way to free slaves and help the Union cause at the same time – but was furious at Hunter for going way beyond his authority. By moving too fast with abolitionist ideals, Hunter could endanger the delicate political game Lincoln was playing. Lincoln was making his own moves towards freeing the slaves – his Emancipation Proclamation was still sitting in his desk drawer, waiting for the right moment to be deployed – but he could not let Hunter preempt him. He issued a reprimand and rescinded Hunter’s order.
Tubman was one of Hunter’s close allies, and was not impressed with what she viewed as Lincoln’s caution. She stated that “God won't let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Master Lincoln, he's a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free.”
Harriet got her wish on January 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the rebellious states – in effect, proclaiming every slave in the Confederacy “contraband of war” by default. Although slaves had been flocking to Union troops for the last two years, this burst the lid off the whole affair, as Union generals were now encouraged to not only free slaves but to recruit them as soldiers.
Harriet found her support for the Union war effort reinvigorated, and soon took on an active role freeing slaves across the South Carolina bayou – now with active Union military support. She was created an official agent of the U.S. Army, and led a small team of freed slaves in small boats all across the marshes and rivers of the South Carolina low country. She not only liberated slaves, but took on official mapping and scouting operations to assist the Union forces in the area. Her spying and reconnaissance helped the Union plan and execute the capture of Jacksonville, Florida, and served as an inspiration to local Union commanders.
Colonel James Montgomery, a fiery abolitionist and former antislavery radical from “Bleeding Kansas” had raised one of the first black regiments for the Union – the 2nd South Carolina Infantry. This unit was matched by Robert Gould Shaw’s more well-known 54th Massachusetts of “Glory” fame. Montgomery, though, wanted to use his new unit to liberate more slaves, which could now be called an official combat action rather than just a personal crusade. Montgomery was one of Harriet’s staunchest allies, especially since her intelligence had helped him take Jacksonville.
They were an excellent pair. Montgomery, the former guerrilla leader and organizer of black troops, and Tubman, the expert scout, infiltrator and planner, decided on a major river raid up the Combahee River. Many of these raids had been conducted in the last few months, mainly to raid plantations, seize food, and clear floating mines from the rivers. Tubman and Montgomery planned a major raid for June 1 and 2 up the Combahee River, with several large plantations as their goal.
On the night of June 1, the ships USS Sentinel, USS Harriet A. Weed, and USS John Adams steamed quietly out of Beaufort and headed for the mouth of the Combahee. On board were Colonel Montgomery and 300 of his black 2nd South Carolina soldiers, a number of Rhode Island heavy artillery troops, and Harriet Tubman herself, clasping her rifle and guiding the way on board the John Adams.
At 3am in the morning, June 2, the ships arrived at the Combahee and split up. The Sentinel had run aground, but the Weed landed several detachments that began to move inland into the cypress trees of the Carolina coast, confiscating food and freeing slaves from the small farms as they went. The Adams rode all the way up to Combahee Ferry, the site of a pontoon bridge and the crossroads to several plantations. In the early dawn light, the gunboats opened up on the few Confederate scouts that showed their faces, while Harriet and Montgomery disembarked with their troops.
The local Confederate garrison had received numerous false alarms in recent weeks, so they did not respond quickly enough to stop Tubman’s and Montgomery’s attack. When they did show up, the John Adams’ guns opened up to keep them at bay, while Harriet led the rest of the troops on her preplanned routes to the Heyward and Lowndes Plantations.
When Harriet and her troops showed up, the white owners and overseers fled as the soldiers confiscated the contents of the storehouses – rice, cotton, potatoes, and corn – as well as any livestock they could round up. Once that was done, they burned many of the plantation buildings to deny their future use to the South. One objective, though, was more satisfying than any other.
Harriet Tubman saw hundreds of slaves pouring out from across the backcountry to be taken on board the boats. She later recalled, and forgive me for the writing of this quote but it’s from an 1869 biography: “I nebber see such a sight. We laughed, an' laughed, an' laughed. Here you'd see a woman wid a pail on her head, rice a smokin' in it jus' as she'd taken it from de fire, young one hangin' on behind, one han' roun' her forehead to hold on, t'other han' diggin' into de rice-pot, eatin' wid all its might; hold of her dress two or three more; down her back a bag wid a pig in it. One woman brought two pigs, a white one an' a black one; we took 'em all on board; named de white pig Beauregard, and de black pig Jeff Davis. Sometimes de women would come wid twins hangin' roun' der necks; 'pears like I nebber see so many twins in my life.”
All in all, 750 slaves climbed on board the three gunboats as Harriet and Montgomery led their troops back. The Confederates, quailing under the heavy artillery mounted on the ships, were powerless to stop them despite their rage over the freeing of “their negroes.” By June 3, the raid had returned to Port Royal. It was one of the most successful raids of its kind in the war, and served as the template for many successful operations afterwards. Harriet said that her only mistake was in wearing a green dress, which had made her more of a target than she wanted to be.
Montgomery’s troops had been the ones who fought the Rebels and carried out the combat, but it was Tubman’s planning and intelligence that made the raid a success, and her leadership which helped the Union exploit their initial success. Many of the freed slaves joined the Union Army, and the rest helped sustain the Union war effort in South Carolina until the end of the war.
While Harriet Tubman’s river raid was a small action – hardly worthy of the title “battle” – it served as an important milestone for many reasons. It was one of the first major combat actions for black troops in the Civil War, and they acquitted themselves surprisingly well. It opened up new avenues of war-making for the Union: destroying the South’s food, resources and ability to continue the war through the policies of “total war.”
Finally, it was the first military action in U.S. history to be led by a woman – and a black woman with no official rank at that. However small it was on a purely military scale, the Combahee River Raid was nothing to sniff at.
And that’s how Harriet Tubman became a commando.