Harriet Tubman’s Role in Montgomery’s Raids

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, often called the “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, accompanied Colonel James Montgomery and the 2nd South Carolina regiment during the June 1863 raids on the Combahee River rice plantations. Tubman was a runaway slave and a major conductor on the underground railroad who helped dozens of enslaved blacks escape  and led them to sanctuaries in the Northern states and in Canada. In an 1886 biography of Harriet Tubman, Sarah Hopkins Bradford described her as a “fearless woman … often sent into the rebel lines as a spy” by Union commanders, even though she was in constant danger of being captured and executed, or re-enslaved, every time she ventured into Confederate territory. Based on oral testimony, reportedly from Tubman herself, Bradford claimed that Major-General David Hunter asked the woman known as Moses to accompany the Union gunboats on raids that were intended to “take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops.” Tubman agreed, but only “if Colonel Montgomery was to be appointed commander of the expedition. Colonel Montgomery was one of John Brown’s men, and was well known to Harriet. Accordingly, Colonel Montgomery was appointed to the command, and Harriet, with several men under her…accompanied the expedition.”

Bradford further claimed that Tubman gave detailed descriptions of the plantations and the slaves who absconded to join the black soldiers conducting the expedition. “…the word was passed along by the mysterious telegraphic communication existing among these simple people, that these were ‘Lincoln's gun-boats come to set them free.’ In vain, then, the drivers used their whips in their efforts to hurry the poor creatures back to their quarters; they all turned and ran for the gun-boats. They came down every road, across every field, just as they had left their work and their cabins; women with children clinging around their necks, hanging to their dresses, running behind, all making at full speed for "Lincoln's gun-boats." Eight hundred poor wretches at one time crowded the banks, with their hands extended toward their deliverers, and they were all taken off upon the gun-boats, and carried down to Beaufort. ‘I nebber see such a sight,’ said Harriet; ‘we laughed, an' laughed, an' laughed. Here you'd see a woman wid a pail on her head, rice a smokin' in it jus' as she'd taken it from de fire, young one hangin' on behind, one han' roun' her forehead to hold on, 'tother han' diggin' into de rice-pot, eatin' wid all its might; hold of her dress two or three more; down her back a bag wid a pig in it. One woman brought two pigs, a white one an' a black one; we took 'em all on board; named de white pig Beauregard, and de black pig Jeff Davis. Sometimes de women would come wid twins hangin' roun' der necks; 'pears like I nebber see so many twins in my life; bags on der shoulders, baskets on der heads, and young ones taggin' behin', all loaded; pigs squealin', chickens screamin', young ones squallin'.’ And so they came pouring down to the gun-boats. When they stood on the shore, and the small boats put out to take them off, they all wanted to get in at once. After the boats were crowded, they would hold on to them so that they could not leave the shore. The oarsmen would beat them on their hands, but they would not let go; they were afraid the gun-boats would go off and leave them, and all wanted to make sure of one of these arks of refuge.”

For further reading see Sarah H. Bradford (Sarah Hopkins), b. 1818, Harriet, the Moses of Her People. New York: Published for the author by George R. Lockwood and Son, 1886. Electronic edition by Documenting the American South. 1998. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004): http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/harriet/menu.html. See also: Charles P. Wood, "Manuscript History Concerning the Pension Claim of Harriett Tubman," June 1, 1888, and included in House of Representatives (HR) 55A-D1, Papers Accompanying the Claim of Harriett Tubman, Record Group 223, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., 1899; Anonymous, “Colonel Montgomery’s Raid…,” Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Wisconsin, June 20, 1863; Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2004); and a lively but less critical biographical portrait by Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004). For a digitized source drawing on Earl Conrad, “General Tubman: Campaign on the Combahee,” The Commonwealth, Boston, July 10, 1863, see http://www.harriettubman.com/tubman2.html.