This is an excerpt from an article by James Stejskal about the Combahee Ferry raid and the USCT campaign preceding that raid written for the Army Historical Foundation. A while ago I wrote about one of his earlier books, Special Forces Berlin, a fantastic piece of military, Cold War and Special Forces history. He’s written a lot more and is still writing. I need to start reading some of his other stuff. I know I’ll find it fascinating. Maybe I’ll recognize some of the actions and characters in his Special Forces fiction series.
I chose this excerpt as a remembrance of that famous raid although I’m a day late for the anniversary. I knew of that raid and, of course, Harriet Tubman, but I was unaware of the exploits of these early USCT units in Florida. Read the whole Stejskal article for that story.
In an effort that would presage Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s operations in Georgia, Montgomery was ordered to destroy railroads and bridges, and to deprive the Rebel troops of supplies in the Confederate’s own area. Another objective was to collect “contrabands” (slaves) for service in the Union ranks, as well as to deprive the Confederates of free labor. The first raid would be to destroy a pontoon bridge located at a ferry site some forty miles up the Combahee River and wreak as much havoc as possible on the local farms and plantations.
Since their return from Florida, the men of 2d had been conducting drill and weapons training and were ready for action. They would be augmented with a section from the 3d Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. The Union forces had another and somewhat unusual resource: a diminutive African American woman by the name of Harriet Tubman.
By 1860, Harriet Tubman was already well-known (and actually “wanted”) in the South for her work. Born into slavery in Maryland, she escaped north in 1849. From that moment forward, Tubman became part of the Underground Railroad and helped over seventy slaves to escape to freedom, a talent that earned her the name “Conductor.” Even as a young woman, Tubman was ascribed with mystical traits; some thought she was an Ashanti sorceress who could take on the form of a leopard, thus explaining her ability to find hiding slaves and elude pursuing slave masters. It was a useful reputation.
When the Civil War began, she offered her services as a nurse to the Union Army. Tubman was first recommended to Hunter by John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts, to help at the hospital on Hilton Head Island. It quickly became clear to Hunter and others within his command that she had other useful skills. Her clandestine trips into the South as part of the Underground Railroad had given her the skills and experience to collect information in enemy territory, and she was dispatched into Rebel-held territory to gather information about the Confederate dispositions.
Tubman was not a commando or a steely-eyed killer, but she was able to do what neither of those types could do: pass through enemy lines and talk to her people about the local situation. She acted mostly in the role of an agent handler; she enlisted the help of locals who knew the area and spoke Gullah, the Creole language spoken by the blacks of the Sea Islands and the coastal low country of Georgia and South Carolina. She was what intelligence analysts today would call a “human terrain specialist” who knew how to work with the people to accomplish the mission.
According to her later pension request, a number of local black men assisted in her duties, two of whom would help with the upcoming mission. Charles Simmons and Samuel Hayward were riverboat pilots who knew the Combahee River well, not only its snags, currents, and sand bars, but where the Confederate positions and all the plantations were located. They also knew where the Confederate “torpedoes”—river mines—were placed.
On 1 June 1863, Colonel Montgomery and around 400 men of the 2d South Carolina Volunteer Infantry and the detachment of the 3d Rhode Island Heavy Artillery departed Beaufort on three boats late in the evening. The tiny fleet made its way across the St. Helena Sound arriving at the mouth of the Combahee at around 0300. Thus far, everything was going to plan, at least until the Sentinel ran aground. This necessitated the transfer of soldiers on board the Sentinel to the other boats before the mission could resume.
Around daybreak, the two vessels reached Field’s Point, about twenty-five miles upriver. It was a known Confederate position, and a party led by Captain Thomas N. Thompson disembarked to eliminate the threat it posed. The Rebels exercised discretion and fled, leaving the breastworks to the Yankees.
Two miles further upriver, Captain James N. Carver and his Company E landed at Tar Bluff. After consolidating their position, Carver and his men began to move northwest on the road towards Ashepoo. Their special orders were simple: “destroy rebel property and confiscate negroes.”
With their withdrawal route thus secured, the boats continued upriver until they reached Nichol’s Plantation. The Weed anchored and served as a gun platform on station. Two companies under Captains John M. Adams and William Lee Apthorp disembarked and began to move up the river banks to begin their work. The slaves in the fields ran towards the river as soon as they realized who the soldiers were, while the white overseers departed on horseback in the opposite direction with some alacrity.