Harriet Tubman’s Civil War Campaign

Harriet Tubman’s Civil War Campaign

Extracted from Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman–Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson (pages 212—214).

On June 1, 1863, [Harriet] Tubman became the first woman to plan and execute an armed expedition [in United States history] during the Civil War. Acting as an advisory to [Colonel James] Montgomery, Tubman led a raid from Port Royal to the interior, some twenty-five miles up the nearby Combahee River. Using communication networks that were the province of black mariners, Tubman’s successful spy mission provided crucial details about rebel enforcements and heavily mined waters. Leaving under the cover of darkness, the steam-driven gunboats John Adams, Harriet A. Weed, and Sentinel moved slowly along the river with three hundred men from the Second South Carolina and a smaller contingent from the Third Rhode Island Battery. The Adams, and the Harriet Weed were about a quarter of a mile apart; Harriet stood with Montgomery and another officer in the lead boat, the Adams, with Walter Plowden, the local scout who helped direct the ships around the mines. After locating many “torpedoes,’ the pilots of the Adams, the Harriet Weed, and the Sentinel were able to navigate through the channels of the river without incident. Under Tubman’s leadership, Montgomery and his small force made their way to the plantations where Tubman and her scouts had identified Confederate warehouses and stockpiles of rice and cotton.

At about dawn on June 2, with fog rolling slowly off the rice fields, Montgomery landed some of his black troops, sending them into the fields and woods to rustle out any Confederates hiding in wait, and to warn the slaves, telling them to come to the river and join the Union. The troops effectively dispersed Confederate gunners located at various points along the river and met with little resistance. They set fire to several of the plantations, destroying homes, barns, rice mills, and steam engines, and they confiscated thousands of dollars’ worth of rice, corn, cotton, horses, and other farm animals. What they could not take with them they destroyed. “We broke the sluice gates,” the regiment’s surgeon reported to Harper’s Weekly, “and flooded the fields so that the present crop, which was growing beautifully, will be a total loss.” The slaves fled to the Union boats. Montgomery made his way to Combahee Ferry, where he ordered the destruction of the pontoon bridge.

Montgomery ordered the whistles blown on the steamers, signaling to the area’s enslaved people to abandon the plantations and fields and come aboard the ships. Tubman recalled that some of the slaves were reluctant to join them, though most quickly realized that “Lincoln’s gun-boats [had] come to set them free.” Overseers, plantation owners, and managers tried in vain to keep the slaves from running away; though they brandished whips, buns, and pistols, their threats of punishment and even death were almost useless against the mass desertion. Several slaves were killed or wounded, however, by rebel soldiers and others. “as they swarmed to the protection of the old flag.
Tubman later recalled that she had never witnessed anything like the scene that unfolded. Women and men, arms laden with children, food, clothing, and other personal possessions, streamed from the fields to the riverbanks. “Some had white blankets on their heads with their things done up in them. … Some had bags on their backs with pigs in them; some had chickens tied by the legs.” Tubman recalled. One woman had “a pail on her head, rice a smokin’ in it just as she’d taken it from the fire, a young one hangin’ on behind, one hand around her forehead to hold on … [and a] hold of her dress two or three more [children].” With squealing pigs, squawking chickens, and crying children, the cacophony alone was extraordinary. It reminded Tubman of “children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

A reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal, who witnessed the victorious return, wrote:

Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 hundred black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman [Harriet Tubman], dashed into the enemies’ country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton, and lordly dwellings, and striking terror to the heart of rebellion, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch! It was a glorious consummation.