Voices of the Civil War Episode 17: “Combahee River Raid”

On June 1, 1863, Union Colonel James Montgomery
led the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery
from the Sea Islands in South Carolina, up the Combahee River, with the plan to raid
Confederate outposts and rice plantations. Colonel Montgomery, who had conducted several
similar raids, garnered a reputation amongst the South Carolina community. On May 29, 1863,
James Lowndes, Captain and Acting Assistant Adjutant-General, issued a circular, warning
the local community of McPhersonville, South Carolina of Montgomery’s arrival. He wrote,
“The New York Tribune says that the negro troops at Hilton Head, S.C., will soon start
upon an expedition, under the command of Colonel Montgomery, different in many respects from
any heretofore projected. The Yankee papers have frequently indicated their movements,
and it would be well to be on the lookout and consider your plan of operations on the
various routes of approach” (Scott 307). Shortly after the Battle of Port Royal in
December 1861, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrews suggested that Harriet Tubman,
abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist, travel to South Carolina and assist with the
Port Royal Experiment (Humez 51). Upon her arrival in May 1862, Tubman, who actively
worked as a Union nurse, spy and scout reported to Union General David Hunter at the Beaufort
Contraband Camp. For several months she worked with many other volunteers to provide food,
clothes, and education to the newly freed men and women now “contraband of war”. In
January 1863, General Hunter recruited Tubman to play an important role in what would become
the Combahee River Raid (Humez 52). Tubman and nine additional scouts were assigned to
infiltrate Confederate lines and survey the river for Confederate torpedoes, or mines,
in preparation of the raid (Fradin 193). She also communicated with many of the enslaved
workers, in advance, to prepare them and promise them freedom in return for their assistance
(Winkler 152). On the night of June 2, 1863 Colonel James
Montgomery led 150 black soldiers on three Union steamers the Harriet A. Weed, the Sentinel,
and the John Adams (King 50). The steamers traveled twenty-five miles up the river, conveniently
avoiding all torpedoes, and released soldiers at Field’s Point and the Nichols plantation
(Winkler 153). As they anchored, Confederate sentinels ran inland while Union soldiers
burned bridges, destroyed railroads, and raided plantations and storehouses (Winkler 154).
By the time Confederate Major W. P. Emanuel could respond to the raid by sending troops,
nine plantations were destroyed and thousands of dollars worth of property apprehended (Winkler
154). As Union forces escaped back down the river, thousands of enslaved men and women
ran toward the Union row boats, stationed along the riverbank, and more than 700 enslaved
workers escaped with the Union army (Winker 155). Harriet Tubman later described the raid,
stating, “Some had bags on their backs with pigs in
them; some had chickens tied by the legs, and so [there were] children squalling, chickens
squawking, and pigs squealing. They all come runnin’ to the gunboats through the rice fields.
They [reminded] me of the children of Israel coming out of Egypt” (Winkler 155).
The Combahee River raid greatly reduced Confederate supplies by destroying large amounts of Confederate
property and establishing a Union blockade on the river (Winkler 155). In addition, two
hundred of the freed enslaved men joined Colonel Montgomery’s regiment. Due to the success
of the raid, many national newspapers hailed Harriet Tubman, but her role as a Union spy
and scout was quickly exposed. A Confederate report later blamed Major Emanuel for being
unprepared and commended the work of Harriet Tubman by stating the following,
“The enemy seems to have been well posted as to the character and capacity of our troops
and their small chance of encountering opposition, and to have been well guided by persons thoroughly
acquainted with the river and country” (Winkler 156).
As the Civil War continues the important role of women will be examined further, but Harriet
Tubman will always stand alone as the only women to lead a military raid during the American
Civil War.

4 thoughts on “Voices of the Civil War Episode 17: “Combahee River Raid”

  1. fascinating episode in Civil War saga, and did Uncle Sam ever try NOT to pay Tubman for her Civil War service 

  2. Just learned about this today via Tumblr. Just when you think you can't admire Harriet Tubman any more than you already did, she goes above and beyond yet again.

  3. There is a special place in hell for all slaveholders and their decendents.

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