William McClure: Harriet Tubman Did Not Wait For Slavery to End
Harriet Tubman is best known as the leading conductor on the Underground Railroad, the clandestine network that helped enslved African Americans escape to the north.
An ex-slave herself, with a huge price on her head, Tubman slipped into the plantation South over and over again to bring people out to freedom. Tubman’s role in the Civil War is little known, but when hostilities started, she again went south to work as a cook, spy and scout with Union troops.
Her most brilliant exploit was the Combahee Raid of June 2, 1863, when she teamed up with a white officer, Colonel James Montgomery to lead 300 black troops into enemy territory in South Carolina. They destroyed millions of dollars worth of crops and food supplies that would have gone to the Confederate Army. The amazing achievement of the raid, however, was the liberation of nearly 800 black men, women and children, whom they brought back to the Union Army lines.
Tubman was a militant activist who didn’t believe in waiting for slavery to end somehow. She literally went into slave country to rescue those in bondage.
She found a like-minded colleague in James Montgomery. He had the Free State Party in “Bleeding Kansas” in the late 1850s and when war broke out, he went into liberated areas of the Confederacy to organize runaway slaves into army units. The result was the Second South Carolina Volunteers. It was Tubman’s idea to use the soldiers to strike inside rebel-held country itself. From Port Royal, South Carolina, the army sailed up the Combahee River, burning plantations and liberating slaves.
Tubman sang a hymn with a chorus beginning “Come Along” to reassure and encourage people to join them. Tubman recounted the astonishment on the part of the black people they encountered: men working, women cooking, and babies and children everywhere. One woman brought along a pig, which Tubman immediately named Jefferson Davis after the President of the Confederacy.
The Combahee Raid was an extraordinary moment in the history of the Civil War. Although they were under fire from Confererate soldiers, Tubman and her army returned without a scratch. Nearly a thousand people were set free.
Couriously, the account of the raid rarely appears in Civil War literature. The story of a black woman leading black soldiers to liberate black people still held in bondage, somehow slipped out of the history books.