Secessionists who discounted the intelligence of their slaves learned firsthand the folly of their contempt during a Union Army raid on rice plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. It wasn’t only that Federal army brass lent 150 African-American slaves to the operation, but that they employed the services of an unusually savvy woman—“Underground Railroad” “conductor” Harriet Tubman—to coordinate tips about Confederate defenses. The most crucial of the latter—the location of floating mines in the river—enabled the Union to free 750 slaves in one stroke, a daring attack at the heart of the plantocracy that had helped bring on the war.
The fact that Tubman was even down there, so deep in the heart of the Confederacy, testified, of course, to her daring, but also to a toughness bordering on ruthlessness. She had to be: her very survival, as well as those of family members, depended on not giving in to any physical or mental frailty, hers or others.
No more than five feet tall and slightly built, the teenage female slave, known then as Araminta Ros,s took a blow her body could ill afford to sustain. Blocking the way of her master as he tried to whip a fellow slave, she was hit by a two-pound weight thrown at the other slave. She would continue to be troubled, even while "conducting" the railroad, by what have been interpreted since then as epileptic fits. Her first attempt to escape to freedom from Maryland had ended when her brothers had gotten cold feet and, in sympathy, she had come back with them.
She would not make the same mistake twice, however. Thereafter, if someone she was helping escape had a change of heart, Tubman pulled out a gun to make sure that mind got changed again.
It’s not known how many escapees followed this tenacious woman, but at very least it consisted of relatives, likely around 70, with some estimates running even higher, to a few hundred. What is not in dispute, however, is that she not only returned repeatedly below the Mason-Dixon Line, but that sometimes she went considerably farther than her native Maryland. The perils were enormous, as were the extremes she ran to elude capture: leading groups by dirt roads or lightly trod paths at night, hiding “passengers” in forests or swamps.
When war broke out, Tubman offered her services to the Union Army, in areas under its control near the South Carolina coast. A year later, an escaped slave named Robert Smalls (later a congressman) managed to make a daring escape to freedom by commandeering a rebel boat, CSS Planter, running it past Confederate gun batteries in Charleston Harbor, and surrendering it to Union forces—at a stroke, offering a powerful counterweight to any notion that blacks could not match whites in intelligence and daring.
As astonishing as that deed was, the one in which Tubman was now involved, in the midst of the third year of the war—a period of dismal news for the North so far—was even more breathtaking. She was involved not only in a liberation raid, but also, as noted by Paul Donnelly in a post on the New York Times blog “Opinionator,” “for the first and only time in the Civil War, or for that matter any American conflict before this century, a woman (and a civilian at that) …[would play] a decisive role in planning and carrying out a military operation.”
The raid, carried out on June 1, 1863, required greater coordination skills than Tubman had had to show until this time. A major obstacle was that she did not know Gullah, the language of slaves along the coast. In fact, she knew little more about this group than the best-informed white officers. She had to rely, then, on 10 slaves she had recruited for the operation.
Tubman accompanied the Second South Carolina Regiment, led by Col. James Montgomery. The commander had been suggested to General David Hunter by none other than Tubman herself, who knew Montgomery when he had been associated with John Brown—and, therefore, appreciated his abolitionist zeal (a quality that many Union officers did not possess then). As the Union ships journeyed up the river, many slaves fled at sight of the strange vessels. But before long, Tubman’s network of 10 recruited spies had passed the word that "Lincoln's gun-boats come to set them free," and the slaves began to flock to the shore.
Despite the fact that the raid led to the recruitment of 100 slaves into the Union armed forces, Tubman did not receive any reward from the federal government while the war was raging. Nor, despite her intelligence work, did she receive a pension for her efforts in this direction, partly because the nature of the work lent itself to sparse documentation. In fact, the pension she eventually obtained only came through her second husband, a war veteran himself.
After the war, Tubman lived out the rest of her days in Auburn, N.Y., home to one of her strongest supporters in the federal government, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Fifty years after the breathtaking raid she had helped plan, frail and in dire financial straits, she was admitted to a rest home named in her honor, where she died.
(A woodcut image of Harriet Tubman by an unknown artist, from Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah H. Bradford.)