Defense One Radio, Ep. 83: Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River raid

From the rice fields of South Carolina comes an incredible story of courage amid unspeakable tragedy.

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This episode we’re going to learn about the Combahee River raid, the first U.S. military operation to be organized and led by a woman. That woman was abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Dr. Edda Fields-Black of Carnegie Mellon University joins us to tell the story.

A transcript of this episode is below.

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By the time Americans vote in their next general election, 10 different U.S. Army bases will have different names than they have today. That’s the plan, anyway, according to the annual defense bill passed at the start of the year. 

These 10 places will be renamed because each one remembers an officer in the Confederacy, all of them treasonous officers who fought in what Frederick Douglass called the “Slaveholder’s rebellion.” I grew up calling it the Civil War; but as an adult, I prefer Douglass’s description.

Today we’re going to learn about one particular mission during America’s war of the rebellion. It’s a mission that took place 158 years ago this June. And it just so happened to be the very first U.S. military operation to be organized and led by a woman. That woman was abolitionist Harriet Tubman. 

And it’s possible you’ve heard the story of this particular mission before; just probably not in such detail. 

West: “So the thing was when the Civil War started, Harriet Tubman was like, ‘Wait a minute. I can do way more.’ So she went down there to Port Royal, which is in South Carolina, and the Union had like taken it over, but it was still — it was still like, like not smothered and covered. That’s ****ing like biscuits. It was — it was surrounded by Confederacy...” 

That’s comedian Crissle West narrating a segment from the Comedy Central show “Drunk History” back in 2015.

A brief recreation of Tubman’s mission was also featured in the final scenes of the 2019 biopic, “Harriet.” 

Cynthia Erivo, starring as Harriet Tubman: “Slavery is still alive. Those rice fields down river are feeding rebel troops with the toil of a thousand slaves still in bondage. Our mission is to free those slaves.”

The incredible story of what really happened on the morning of June 2nd, 1863, has fascinated me since I first heard about it just a few months ago. 

So I called up Edda Fields-Black, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. She has been researching and writing a book about Tubman and this mission, which took place on South Carolina’s Combahee River — about halfway between Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

Watson: Dr. Fields-Black, thank you for joining me today.

Fields-Black: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

Watson: So first to kind of set the stage for some of our listeners, how did you find yourself turning your professional attention to this remarkable story of the first woman to lead a U.S. military operation?

Fields-Black: It was not a straight line. So my research specialty has become the transnational history of West African rice farmers. So pre-colonial West Africa before the transatlantic slave trade through sort of the transatlantic slave trade, and then the enslavement of Blacks on low-country South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations, a significant portion of whom are from the regions in West Africa that I originally studied. And so I have been working on rice for a number of years in a variety of contexts, and happened upon the Combahee raid, in large part because the plantations that were directly impacted by the raid were all rice plantations. And there are some very thrilling accounts of the enslaved people being in the rice fields when the U.S. boats drove up, so to speak, and running from the rice fields down to the river to get one the boats. So rice is a significant part of the story. And I started sort of from that vantage point. But of course, it has taken me into many, many, many different many more aspects, especially the Civil War.

Watson: Fascinating. I grew up on a farm in Western Kentucky. We always needed to be near river and river sources, and oftentimes, that would flood for us. But he always told us how you know, we're not doing rice because it requires a whole different kind of equipment, and a whole it's a whole different challenge, like agriculturally, there's so much more water mud. And, you know, the tires alone for a lot of the farm implements that I would see at dealerships were tires that were incredibly narrow and incredibly tall. So it just reminded me that there was a whole nother way of farming, that rice requires a whole nother level of effort and exertion, which is different from what we did, which was corn, soybeans, and popcorn and wheat. But to imagine river country around South Carolina, with some of these rice farms and stuff, it's a whole nother level of challenge. A lot of this stuff kind of comes up little by little for me going over some of these stories, and I never had anywhere near the kind of, you know, distress that any of the participants in the story went through at all. So it's, of course, just nearly impossible to comprehend. But Harriet Tubman found her way down there working with the Union Army.

Fields-Black: She did, she did. She comes down, we believe, in May of 1862, and spends most of her time, it seems, in Beaufort, [South Carolina], in sort of the downtown area of Beaufort. And she was really on the front lines — of people, freedom seekers, who had escaped enslavement from the rural areas, and were coming to the U.S. Army for protection. And there's a whole apparatus; there was a full apparatus in Beaufort to kind of get people sorted. Could they work? What were their skills, did they if they weren't able to work? They needed housing; they needed rations; they needed etcetera, you know; if they could work then what could they do? And what employment options were available if they were able-bodied men of a certain age. As we get later into 1862, they would be sent to serve in the military — first as laborers, and then as soldiers. So she's on the front lines with people who are just coming in off of the plantations, helping them get resettled, helping them get adjusted, helping them get employed. And a lot of the people who were left in Beaufort were women and children. And so helping those women to — one of the things she did is helping them to find work as laundresses. so that they could help to support their families if their husbands were in the military, if they're, you know, maybe they didn't have husbands. And unfortunately, at this time, the U.S. government wasn't very good at keeping its promises. So people were working, the contrabands were working, but they weren't always getting paid. So it became very important for the women, I should say, the men were working and often not getting paid, whether they were working in agriculture, or even the soldiers. So it was very important for the women to be able to work and make money to support the families. And so these are some of the things that Tubman did. We also know, though, that she did travel out to the Sea Islands; we know that she was on Hilton Head Island. what she was doing, they're not quite sure there's, you know, I've got I have a few speculations. 

Watson: Well, well, for example, what might be some of your speculations as to what she was doing on the Hilton Head? Do you think just recon — kind of just generally get into basically, you'd call it ‘human intelligence’ in the U.S. military today?

Fields-Black: Yeah. In general, I think one of her charges was to recruit soldiers. And one of her charges was to recruit men from the rural areas who knew something about the Confederate movements, who knew something about getting to and from, and on and off these rural plantations. So we know that she recruits a group of eight or nine spy scouts and pilots. And those are the men who lead the U.S. Army soldiers in the raid. We also know that she was on Hilton Head buying supplies. Tubman had access to the commissary for the U.S. military. But she refused those benefits because she didn't want to separate herself from the freedom seekers. She didn't want to have access to things that they didn't have. So she actually refused to receive rations. But she did go to the commissary in Hilton Head to buy supplies. And she ran a business. She made ginger cakes and root beer. And she hired refugees to sell her products throughout the community. So we know that she made trips to Hilton Head to buy supplies. I suspect that she was also there recruiting, recruiting soldiers, recruiting spy scouts and pilots, and doing reconnaissance on Hilton Head Island.

Watson: That's fascinating. It's certainly conceivable. That's basically what she was doing during the entire movie “Harriet.” I only recently saw that. But this particular Combahee River raid, where do we know what do we understand about you know where that began? Did she volunteer this incredibly ambitious plan, or was it kind of like serendipity from her work as a nurse in the Army?

Fields-Black: I think it was serendipity for a lot of things. What I have found is that first of all, the U.S. Army had been on the Combahee River months before the raid doing reconnaissance. I've also found that men who are from the plantation who were enslaved on the plantations that took a direct hit, escaped, and were in Beaufort before the raid. Some of them joined the Army. Some of them did not. And they were just hanging out and Beaufort and I'm not exactly sure yet what they were doing. That's part of the ongoing research — those who didn't join the Army. 

Watson: Interesting. 

Fields-Black: And I would say that the Army, which was often supported by the Navy;  but these were really Army initiatives — were they, they had a lot of goals. And one of them was to seize Charleston. And, of course, that doesn't happen until 1865. But it's almost as if, in my estimation, they were pecking away at it for a while. And so one of the questions I'm asking was running up the Combahee River, if you can't take Charleston, what do you do? How close can you get? And there was also a need for manpower; there was a shortage of soldiers, and this ongoing debate about recruiting and enlisting Black soldiers, and will they fight and should they fight and blah, blah, blah. And at one at some point, it's like, ‘Well, okay, we need them. How do we get them? We need some gunboats.’ Because they are in the interior, a good 20-30 miles, right? Up these rivers like the Combahee and the Edisto, and the Ashepoo, and all these little — St. Johns, St. Marys — rivers between South Carolina and North Florida. And ‘We need to run a gun boat up there, and try to get them so that we can fill up these regiments and try to turn this war around.’ Where does Tubman come in there? I think that in many ways, Tubman is sent down to Beaufort to help solve this problem that the U.S. federal government had created in not keeping promises to the contrabands. I think that she is part of the solution for ‘How do we recruit?’ And you’ve got to go all the way back to Hunter’s Regiment, and the way that General David Hunter had this plan, which, okay, he acted on it unilaterally. He didn't have authorization to recruit troops, but he did it anyway. And he made a lot of promises that he could not keep, and he never did get the support of the U.S. government. And many of the men were recruited violently, right? They were recruited at gunpoint; men were shot, it was awful. But he had this vision, and he had a shortage of manpower. Again, going back to early 1862, there just were not enough soldiers to hold the Sea Islands and to do things that the U.S. Army needed to do. And he saw enlisting Black men as part of that solution. So when that kind of went south, and got very sour, and free people in Beaufort were really just felt betrayed, I do think that Tubman was one of the solutions — to come in and try to be on the ground in those communities and help restore people's trust in the federal government and help convince. There were a couple of Black recruiters who were on the ground trying to recruit soldiers. And so that when military recruitment is open, their work in early 1863, very late 1862 becomes that much more important. The U.S. Army, on a variety of raids that preceded the Combahee, they used scouts. They used free people to actually — if they're encamped in Confederate territory, they needed people to go further in there and find out where the Confederates are camped, where the pickets [are], where's this, where's that? I do think that Tubman was the one who was to do that on the Combahee. And I think that she recruited the spies, scouts and pilots who actually led in terms of the navigation, who led the soldiers to the plantations up this river — first of all, which is very serpentine, with some tides and currents and all of that — for them to be able to navigate up this river. And this was often a problem for the Navy, as well as for the Army. These rivers in South Carolina were something else.

Watson: Well, I'm looking at a map right now. And it's fascinating to see all of the winding inlets in this entire area between Savannah and Charleston. And I could see how frustrating it would be tactically for a commander to know that you've got a little bit of ground down there that you're holding, but you still don't have Charleston. And so I can definitely see how much of a headache it would be to be in this area, which I grew up near a swamp and I hate mosquitoes. And I feel like this whole area just, I can feel a mosquito buzzing around me as I look at this map.

Fields-Black: Yes, just one?

Watson: Yeah. Right.

Fields-Black: And the interesting thing is the raid takes place in June. Right?

Watson: It's super hot, right? Super humid.

Fields-Black: Very hot. You know, this is the mosquitoes’ heyday

Watson: I'd be running for that boat, too. I mean if I could.

Fields-Black: Exactly. But this is the time when the rice is sown. This is sort of the prime fieldwork time for rice plantations. But this is also a time when the plantation owners and the overseers are absent from the plantation from early May until mid- to late-November.

Watson: That's intriguing.

Fields-Black: So there are many, many ways that this was just planned. And there's also the tide. There's also the tide, the fact that the raid takes place on a flood tide. And you couldn't get up that river and back in six hours without the flood tide.

Watson: Interesting.

Fields-Black:  You just couldn't do it, you know. And so those are the kinds of things that they had to have local knowledge about this particular river, and about the fact that yes, there were able-bodied men on the other side who would fight. I talked earlier about the men from the plantations who had escaped; I'm not sure yet when they escaped, but I know they were there before the raid. Some of them likely participated in the raid, those who join[ed] the Army. There were also men from nearby plantations, okay, who may have had interaction with these men, because the plantation — slaveholders [and] planters often own more than one property. 

Watson: Right, right. 

Fields-Black: And people got shifted based on the needs of the planter. And so there are also some possibilities if you had men from neighboring plantations and from plantations that were owned by the same family who escaped earlier after the Battle of Port Royal, and were in Beaufort as well. So I'm in the process of finding all of those needles in the haystacks. 

Watson: What do we know about the time of day of the mission? Because of course, the U.S. military loves night missions because of the element of surprise.

Fields-Black: Yeah, this was early in the morning, before daybreak. And the enslaved people on at least one plantation were already in the rice fields.

Watson: Would they have heard the boats moving along? I don't know. I'm not even sure about what kind of boats—

Fields-Black: They would. Yeah—

Watson: Okay.

Fields-Black: They, they would have heard them and the gunboats blew — and they were not gunboats, but the freed people call them gunboats. And they tended to call all U.S. vessels ‘gunboats,’ whether they were steamers, whether they were paddle wheelers — all these different kinds of boats as long as they were flying… 

Watson: Right? They had their guns pointed at the Confederacy.

Fields-Black: Exactly. I like that I thought about that. So they they blew their steam whistles. I don't know yet whether or not that was a pre-arranged signal. 

Watson: Yeah. 

Fields-Black: But people who tell stories about the raid, they do talk about hearing the steam whistle. And when they heard that steam whistle, they knew to run to the river. Now, there were some other folks—

Watson: Oh no.

Fields-Black: And I always have to tell this story, because on the Combahee, you had maybe six or seven plantations on one side of the river and two plantations on the other side of the river that got a direct hit, okay? And almost everybody who was enslaved on those plantations and who was there that day, because some people were not there, ran for their lives and escaped to freedom. But on the side of the river where you have the two plantations, there are other plantations — okay? — where people did not escape. And if you go to the north of the river, to the north of this sort of neck of the river, there are several plantations there, and those people didn't escape. Well, my paternal grandmother's family was enslaved in that northern part. 

Watson: Wow. 

Fields-Black: And I should say that both areas of plantations where the people did not escape, those plantations were owned by one family, and by one branch of a family. They didn't escape, even though they would have been able to see the gunboats; they should have been able to hear the steam whistle. But they were not related to the people who did escape. And so it seems as if there's an element of planning here, right? And that within these enslaved communities, the word had been sent out that when you hear this whistle, you need to run. And there's one plantation that was eight or nine miles away, where people got from down there, all the way up to the gunboats — in quotes — whereas people, my people, who were a half a mile or a mile away —

Watson: It’s fascinating; it's like the importance of secrecy and operational security. It kind of lends to like intelligence sharing or not —

Fields-Black: Yeah, yeah.

Watson: — In the saddest way. Because that was one of my questions: What do we know about the people who were harmed maybe, during this mission, or even perhaps after? Because I was reading about some of the folks who did not make it onto the boats. And I have to assume that they were treated harshly by the suddenly bereft landowners who have just lost hundreds of workers. 

Fields-Black: It's interesting. It's interesting, because, from what I have gathered, for the eight plantations, very few people were left behind. Those who were left behind, were often very elderly, and or disabled, and unfortunately, unable to run. There were interestingly, there were women who stayed behind. And my theory about the women is that they were mature, married women with several children. And not to put a modern spin on it, but you can go around the world with one child. You can't make around the block with two or three.

Watson: I'm glad you're injecting some humor into this imminently tragic, and yet redemptive story still, yes.

Fields-Black: Yeah. And there was a woman who was pregnant and she must have been close to delivery. She stayed behind. I don't have sources that are telling me about how these people were treated. I do know that several of the slaveholders brought in bloodhounds because they thought there were people, freedom seekers who were hiding in the woods.

Watson: I can imagine the paranoia leading to these decisions, right?

Fields-Black: Exactly. And then I also know that there were neighboring planters, planters, who, the planner, who was just the next plantation up from where the raid stopped, who was actually, he was congratulating himself because the enslaved people in his plantation, he says, or they told him, ‘Turn the soldiers back.’ 

Watson: Hm.

Fields-Black: And interestingly enough about that plantation is, and this happened, often — not so much on the rice plantations — but he had sent, and I guess this was after Port Royal, he sent part of his enslaved labor force to another plantation. And so people had already been separated from their family members. And so the people who were left behind in that separation were the ones who told him that they told the soldiers, ‘We’re not going.’ And I talked about the plantations on the side of the river where there were only two. 

Watson: Right. 

Fields-Black: Those plantations, that family did evacuate portions of their enslaved labor force after the Battle of Port Royal. They owned a lot of plantations; they owned 17 plantations in a small area. So I don't know yet if they did that on these particular plantations, and is that why people who had been enslaved on those plantations did not escape? 

Watson: Right. 

Fields-Black: But there were planters who were — typically what they said about the rice is ‘We're just going to increase the surveillance; we're going to work people twice as hard, we're just going to be extra brutal to try to keep people from escaping. And we're gonna get out this crop.’ So a lot of the rice planters were very resistant to evacuating, even though [the] Battle of Port Royal, they could see it, they could hear it, they could smell it, they knew what was going on. The enslaved people knew what was going on too, I think; but [planters] were like, ‘No, we're in it to win it.’ We're gonna we're just gonna go, you know, while the getting is good. Most of them refused to evacuate.

Watson: What do you think the boats turned around when they did, they were at capacity?

Fields-Black: I think they were at capacity. And I think there were probably hundreds if not thousands of other people waiting to get on the boats.

Watson: I wonder if they had underestimated the response?

Fields-Black: I think they did. And they lost a boat.

Watson: Oh, wow.

Fields-Black: You know, one of the boats ran aground and they couldn't get it out. And it may have had some, you know, mechanical troubles as well. So they were down a boat.

Watson: I wondered about that when you mentioned the tide. I was thinking, boy,\ you kinda have a clock on this.

Fields-Black: You do, because you have to turn around and get back. If not, you're gonna get stuck and you're gonna be a sitting duck. And they didn't know that the Confederate forces were not there. I believe they knew the planters weren't there, most of them. I believe they knew the overseers weren't there. But they I don't I don't — everything I've read, they were not sure where the Confederates were, and whether or not the Confederates were coming for them.

Watson: It does make sense. I mean, it's such a bold plan also; but it makes me wonder — you know, we're looking at June 1863. The war lasted another two years. Why do you think such a thing was never tried again? Do you think various plantation owners kind of, you know, upped the surveillance, or the overall risks of — I mean, it's probably a multitude of factors, right?

Fields-Black: Well, in some ways, it was tried again. And it was tried before. And it was never sort of this daring kind of one-off, bring away 700-plus enslaved people. But they had been running gunboats up these rivers since 1862; and they did it up several other rivers until the end of the war. But —

Watson: Nothing with the same size, maybe? I mean, 700 is a huge number.

Fields-Black: Right. 700 is a huge number. None of them were as successful as this raid. None of them were — you know, in six hours in particular. The U.S. Army would come in with the gunboats up a river and then sort of — and they didn't occupy the Combahee. But going up to Jacksonville and Fernandina, they were there more to occupy than they were to plunder.

Watson: I can understand. During U.S. military doing patrols in Afghanistan, it's really just to be seen patrolling.

Fields-Black: Right.

Watson: Kind of like the cops at an intersection just positioned there; traffic citations wind up going down.

Fields-Black: Yeah. And they were very good at staging themselves so that their forces look larger than they were. And to discourage Confederate resistance, you know, by making the Confederates believe, and they did this on the Combahee as well that they had a larger force than they actually did. So the Combahee raid was unique, but aspects of it were repeated, and it kind of builds on raids that the military had made before, and then raids that they make after.

Watson: Well that is encouraging, and it also makes me want to clone you so I can send the other person on to research those so that can learn about them and still do my job. I really certainly appreciate how much effort and time you've put into all of this already. It’s an interesting time, I think you kind of have to admit now. The military is changing its focus to basically extremism of an entirely different kind now, and it feels like the country has a more of an appetite and is more and more ready than perhaps ever before to face up to some of these systemic and justices that relate to racism across America’s kind of institutions and culture and life. Does that kind of invigorate your research as you're going through some of these stories and finding redemption and tragedy both?

Fields-Black: Yeah, it does. I'm a bit of a cynic. And so I want to see more action. 

Watson: Sure. 

Fields-Black: But I also feel sort of reassured that doors are opening that had been closed before. And I guess the question is, how far will they open? How long will they stay open? How many people will be able to get through? I feel as if — and this is maybe where I find the most inspiration — I feel as if people are willing, Black and white, to talk about slavery in ways that we as Americans have not been willing. 

Watson: Yeah. 

Fields-Black: And I don't believe that we can really get past and get through, and sort of achieve a goal of forming a more perfect union, if you will, without really dealing with that history. 

Watson: Yeah.

Fields-Black: And so, I will say that I'm hopeful about that. And I no longer feel as if alone — and I'm not alone — but a very small number of voices shouting in the dark.

Watson: Sure, yeah.

Fields-Black: And I, I really do feel like that conversation is shifting. I spend a lot of time in the south. I spend a lot of time in South Carolina. I spend a lot of time with — people who do not look like me. 

Watson: Sure. 

Fields-Black: And, you know, I've been one who has been willing — as a scholar as a descendant, you know, in all of these different ways — to have these conversations. And I'm quite accustomed to having the door slammed in my face, often very politely, but I know a door when I see it. 

Watson: Right. 

Fields-Black: I know when it's being closed. And I just feel like more people are willing and even willing to admit that this is a really hard conversation that ‘my ancestors, you know, owned your ancestors or owned people who look like your ancestors.’ But we need to have this conversation, you know? And so I am hopeful about that. And I'm even hopeful that — we are going to rewrite the history of the Civil War, right? And we're going to think about, much more intensely about how many Black people, how many Black men — but women as well, not as you know,combatants — how many Black people fought in this war? And what were they fighting for? What was it that Black families wanted when they put everything on the line, you know, for the Union?

Watson: That's so unlike anything I know, having been sent to Afghanistan. It's nothing like it, because there's a personal stake in — with so many dimensions that's just not present with the Afghan situation. It's just so impossible to identify with. But you're right; I would love to unearth the emotional riches connected to these in these untold stories.

Fields-Black: Yeah, well, I'm working on it. One of the untapped resources, and the place where I'm finding many of these untold stories is in the pension files, the pension files of the men who joined the Army the day after the raid. The youngest one said that he was 16. I think he was younger than 16. The oldest one said he was 70. And he was actually 70. And they enlisted the day after, literally; they were enlisted the day after the raid. And the men who were from Beaufort and the Sea Islands, and some of them from Florida, who fought in the raid, these were people who — most of the 180,000 Black men who enlisted, African-American men who enlisted in what becomes the U.S. Colored Troops  — were men who were formerly enslaved, most of them. And on the Combahee, what they've told us is that they took the men out of the rice fields, they took the hoes out of their hands, they put a musket in them. And they sent them off to fight for the freedom of others. And that's the story that I think we need to hear.

Watson: Dr. Edda Fields-Black is an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. She has been researching and writing a book about Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River raid of June 1863. Dr. Fields-Black, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I really do appreciate it.

Fields-Black: My pleasure.