“The Jayhawker and the Conductor: The Combahee Ferry Raid, 2 June 1863”

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.

Soldiers from the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent), the first African American unit organized under Hunter’s orders, are depicted in a painting by Don Troiani. Montgomery’s 2d South Carolina accompanied the 1st South Carolina on an expedition to Jacksonville, Florida, in early March 1863 and received their baptism of fire. (1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (Colored), by Don Troiani)

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.


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10 Responses to “The Jayhawker and the Conductor: The Combahee Ferry Raid, 2 June 1863”

  1. Fourth and Long says:

    Statues of Pocohantas.



    Wiki entry on Charles P Cabell, suspected in conspiracy theories of participation in the Dallas event of Nov 22, 1963. Involved in the U-2 flight with Allen Dulles which deep sixes Kennedy’s attempts at detente with Krushchev.

    He was a tenth-generation descendant of Pocahontas and a third cousin of Navy four-star admiral Richard H. Jackson.

  2. leith says:

    So Sherman got his slash and burn strategy from the Kansas jayhawkers?

    I’ve been up and down route 17 in that area many times back many decades ago. Caught mullet, drum, spotted seatrout, blue crabs and shrimp in coastal waters of Beaufort County. It is beautiful country there. Hence all the millionaires living on Hilton Head.

    Tubman must have been fifty or so when the raid happened. With her age and her skin color there was nobody better to pass through enemy lines. Does the CIA recognize her contributions to the war?

    Stejskal wrote the ‘Snake Eater Chronicles’. When and where did he serve I wonder? I can’t find him in Wiki.

    • TTG says:


      I found a Facebook page yesterday.


      He’s done quite a few interviews, especially dealing with his time with Det A in Berlin. Just google his name.

      The CIA installed a bronze statue of Tubman in front of their HQ last year. I wish it was around when I visited the place. Nathan Hale was inspirational, but also depressing in a way.


      • LeaNder says:

        He lives in Alexandria too, followed your link to his wordpress page.

        Your suggestion sounds interesting as does this review on Amazon interesting:

        An absolute must for any student of Unconventional Warfare or Cold War Europe.

        As a military historian with a Masters in Military History, it’s not often that I find a book that I simply can’t put down. Most books get a good professional look-see and filed for reference. Not so Jim Stejskal’s book on the Berlin Det-A.

        This is not only a remarkable book, but an important book. Very little has been written about the ETO operations of the Special Forces during the Cold War. Most of the SoF literature that covers the period has been written about the MACV/SOG operations in Vietnam and in other conflicts… and most has been written from a first-person perspective (more on that below.). This book documents some of the untold and most incredible aspects of the Cold War as fought in Europe including revelations about the use of “Backpack” nukes and of the U.S. Army Special Forces operations behind ‘enemy’ lines in Cold War East Berlin and East Germany. . If, in fact, you liked Jonathan House’s book “A Military History of the Cold War” or Eric Haney’s “Inside Delta Force” then this is also must-reading.

        One of the best aspects of this book is that it was written by a serious and professional military historian… who was also a part of the unit through two tours of duty. Yet unlike a lot of the ‘I was there’ tell-all books about Special Operations forces, this is not a personal aggrandizement or a “look at me” type of read. This is a very in-depth and incredibly well-researched unit history that follows the Berlin Det-A teams from their inception int he 1950’s through the dismantling of the unit after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Though the author was there and was a key member of the unit through some of the most interesting and tense moments of the Cold War, not once in this broader unit history does he mention his own role. Instead, this is a book documenting an un-heralded and unique unit of the U.S. Army Special Forces. It also gives a fantastic look into the culture of West Berlin from, for lack of a better term, a ‘worm’s eye view.’

        Last, and possibly among the most intriguing elements of this book, are the detailed revelations of the Berlin unit’s involvement in Operation Eagle Claw, the attempt to rescue the American Hostages from Iran. Though several ‘first person’ narratives of this operation have been well-received (including Charlie Beckwith’s “Delta Force” and Haney’s book mentioned above) this is the first book that reveals some of the un-heralded activities of the operators who were on the ground in Tehran preparing to meet the Delta and Ranger rescuers who never made it past Desert One. It details the pre-rescue surveillance carried out by Dick Meadows and also documents an largely-forgotten aspect of the raid, which was the complication of how to rescue Americans held at the Chancellery building in Tehran, separate from other hostages.

        Without a doubt, this is a book that should be on the shelf of any serious student of Special Operations. It is also very readable and completely engaging. A must-read.

    • John R Phillips says:

      I too have caught many a redfish (red drum) in the Combahee river, and have caught bushels of shrimp using a throw net at night. Course, that was at least 25 or 30 years ago when I lived there. But I will never forget that paradise.

      There’s plenty of big gators in there too.

      • leith says:

        Good eating John –

        I used to put my kids to work catching shrimp with a six foot drag net in small sloughs. That was at night also with the ten year on the left and the 12-year old on the right. We’d do a backyard shrimp boil the next day. I had a throw net for catching baitfish, baby mullet mostly. But that was in North Carolina not far south from the ‘other’ Beaufort. Went with my old neighbor often to help him with his gill net in New River estuary. Caught lots of seatrout and blues. Had some great fish fries – invited the whole neighborhood

  3. scott s. says:

    There’s been a bit of recent scholarship on civil war Florida. Might check out “James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior” by Robert C. Conner published last year

  4. John R Phillips says:

    Most South Carolinians call them spottail bass.

  5. leith says:

    Perhaps there are a few patriotic Ukrainian 50-year old ladies behind Russian lines? Running agents from among their friends and acquaintances. Looking for critical targets. Guiding special forces units on forays. Sending RU unit locations to the GUR. Like what Harriet Tubman did 160 years ago.

  6. Fred says:

    Juneteenth must be coming ’round on the calendar. Sure make a nice change from “Pride” month. There were a lot of raids like this in the Carolina’s and parts of Florida. The only major battle in Florida was the Battle of Olustee, where Gen. Seymour got his command shot up trying to march across the state to Tallahassee (against orders). I’m surprised there were enough people in Key West in the 1860s to recruit a couple companies worth of troops.

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