Black History Month: Combahee River Raid (June 2, 1863)

  • Woman leader: this image of Harriet Tubman aged about 44 was recently discovered
  • Combahee River, South Carolina

February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.

On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman, under the command of Union Colonel James Montgomery, led 150 black Union soldiers in the Combahee River Raid. Tubman, often referred to as “the Moses of her people”, was a former slave who had fled to freedom in 1849. Tubman had been working for years to bring slaves from the South to the North through the Underground Railroad. However, this was the first time that she was asked to work on a major Union military operation.

On the night of June 2, three federal gunboats set sail from Beaufort, South Carolina, up the Combahee River.

Tubman had gained vital information about the location of rebel torpedoes planted along the river from slaves who were willing to trade information for freedom. Because of this information, Tubman was able to steer the Union ships away from any danger.

She led the ships to specific spots along the shore, where fugitive slaves were hiding and waiting to be rescued.

At first, many of the slaves were frightened by the Union soldiers’ presence, but Tubman was able to talk with them and convince them to come aboard. As “Lincoln’s gunboats” travelled up river, more slaves were rescued and, eventually, 750 boarded the vessels.

The boats, however, had a specific military mission: they carried Union troops who came on shore and succeeded in destroying several influential South Carolina estates owned by leading secessionists, including the plantations of the Heywards, the Middletons and the Lowndes families. Many of the Union soldiers who took part in the raid were former slaves, who saw the burning and pillaging of these estates as an opportunity to enact revenge on the master class.

By the time Confederate forces learnt of the raid, much of the damage had been done and hundreds of slaves slipped away to freedom.

A company of Confederate troops was sent to challenge the raiders. They were not successful and managed to stop only one slave from escaping to the gunboats. Confederate artillery proved almost as ineffective, since none of the rounds they fired hit any of the gunboats.

Tubman was the only woman known to have led a military operation during the American Civil War. Thanks in great part to the intelligence she provided, the Union boats escaped unharmed, and the raid was a major military and psychological blow to the Confederate cause.

Sources: Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Boston: Little, Brown, 2004); Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine, 2004); http://www.libertyletters.com/resources/civil-war/harriet-tubman-civil-war-spy.php