When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of June 2, 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations. There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.

From Underground Railroad to Union Spy

Born into slavery, Tubman—the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet—had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state) Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards. It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the "contrabands"—a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict. It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.

She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves. Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses—a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives. But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”

Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence. “Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.

Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow. She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support. Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights, because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.

She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master. Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap—and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.

Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape. The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass. Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman's Turn to Lead

The Combahee River basin in Beaufort County, South Carolina, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge and near where the raid is believed to have taken place.Henry de Saussure Copeland, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore. As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says. So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.

But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses. Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes”—stationary mines beneath the water—and promised them liberation in exchange for information. It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid, so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.

Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on June 2. But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition.

One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge. Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the U.S. Army. And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.

“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving. Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase—“[T]hey wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said—but she nevertheless began to sing:

“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”

Her voice had the desired effect. “They throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”

All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish. “With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the [Lowcountry] from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains. A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave. Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.

The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated slaves.

Recognition Deferred

During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today's money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war—she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days—Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation. Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.

It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension—not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow. In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.” The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.

“I found evidence that one of the members of the [pensions] committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says. “And it was really in many ways a point of honor ... that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.” Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”

When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her. Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like "the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government

Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

By Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, Quick and Dirty Tips

Today, we're bringing you our very own Big Three—the three branches of the U.S. government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

But before we tackle that, let's get one important thing out of the way. The system that keeps it all spinning—checks and balances. Because as Federalist Paper #51 puts it, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

What is the separation of power in the U.S. government? Checks and balances!

The framers were very much aware that the grand ideas and philosophies they laid out in the Constitution would have to be implemented by fallible humans. And fallible humans have a tendency to get a little wild-eyed where power is concerned.

The first step in creating checks and balances was to skirt the whole king issue by splitting the governing power across three branches—something called the separation of power. But that wouldn't be enough. Those branches would need to keep a watchful eye over one another so that no one entity would get too big for its britches.

Who checks Congress?

So, let's start where the Constitution starts—Congress. The legislative branch makes laws that govern the people of the nation. Pretty straightforward, right? Of course, that's also an immense, almost staggering amount of power. You've got 535 mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-off people—that's 435 congresspeople and 100 senators—making the rules for hundreds of millions of Americans. What could possibly go wrong?

James Madison had our back on this one. So here's the catch, or in this case, the "check."

In order for a bill from Congress to actually become law, the president has to either sign it or, alternatively, do this thing where he doesn't do anything to it and the bill becomes a law on its own. But if the law says something like "Only Americans whose names end in the letter L are allowed to drive," the president could say "Hey, I don't like that. I'm vetoing it."

But then Congress has the power to veto that veto with a veto override, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

That veto override can be helpful if you've got a president who's totally at odds with Congress. Andrew Johnson, for example, had 15 of his vetoes overridden. That's a lot, given the fact that we've only had 111 veto overrides in the history of the United States.

The veto override, in and of itself, is a check, both on Congress and the president. But just because Congress overrides a veto to make that the law, it doesn't mean that that law is good or right. Lucky for us, the framers thought of that one, too.

What about the judicial branch?

Is that the solemn swish of black robes we hear?

There are keepers of the Constitution—the judicial branch, specifically the Supreme Court. If Congress strong-arms a law into being, the Supreme Court can then review it and strike it down if they deem it unconstitutional.

And that power to strike down laws is not constitutional power. It's a power that the Supreme Court essentially gave to themselves in their ruling on Marbury v. Madison.

The ability to grant governmental powers is, in fact, quite an immense amount of power on its own. It's the executive branch's job to prosecute violations of federal law through the Department of Justice. And the prosecutor has the power to bring a case before the Supreme Court or not. And Congress has the power to regulate federal jurisdiction.

In other words, they can decide the kinds of cases that the courts have the power to rule on.

Impeachment and other checks

Congress has the power to impeach members of the federal judiciary. And, of course, they can also impeach the president.

The president is mainly checked by Congress. Impeachment is a big check, but a relatively rare one. More frequently, Congress holds the purse strings and can slow the president's agenda by not budgeting for the things the president wants. They can also pass laws like the 22nd Amendment, which said, yeah, no more Franklin Delano Roosevelt; we're limiting all presidents to two terms in office.

But what do we do if the executive goes all rogue and we can't wait for Congress to pass a law or an amendment?

That's where those constitutional stewards, the Supreme Court justices, come into play again. The Supreme Court has the power to declare executive actions unconstitutional. It is a rare bird, that one, but all-important in a government where men are most certainly not angels.

What are the three branches of the U.S. government?

Now that we know how we keep the government from going mad with power, what is it that we're keeping in check?

Let's start with the Constitution itself and the legislative branch.

The legislative branch—Congress

Article I, which sets up the power of the legislative branch, gets far more ink than any other branch. It's four out of the seven pages of the Constitution. But what are these two houses of Congress? Are they alike in dignity? What do they even do?

It's a poorly guarded secret that the framers were a little bit scared of democracy. Having one large legislative house that's determined by the size of the population? That was scary to them. So we have two houses in our bicameral legislature.

The House of Representatives is the large brass 435-member chamber that's up for election every two years. The more people you have in your state, the more representatives you get in the House.

And then we have the highfalutin Senate. The Senate consists of two senators from each state, and each gets a six-year term.

While the House and Senate have several separate powers, they have one big collective one—they're the ones who make the laws that govern our country.

The Schoolhouse Rock version is that the House or the Senate initiates bills, they go to committee, they get out of committee, they're voted on, and then they go to the other chamber for a similar process. And if it passes both houses, it goes to the Resolute Desk of the President of the United States to be signed into law.

We're going to tell you right now, the Schoolhouse Rock version is almost never how bills actually become law.

There are 1000 pitfalls that alter and stymie a bill at every turn. Suffice to say, it is a winding path. Indeed, the one difference between the two chambers is that only the House, not the Senate, can initiate bills to do with spending. This is called the Power of the Purse. The framers thought the people's House should be the one who decides where the money goes.

Who can be a Senator or Representative?

The actual restrictions on who can become a senator or congressperson are few. For representatives, you have to be at least 25 years old and have been a U.S. citizen for seven years to qualify. And for the Senate, you have to be 30 years old and a citizen for nine years.

The bills that get proposed in either chamber have such a litany of obstacles that only about 3 percent of proposed bills become law. And most of those are noncontroversial, like naming a courthouse or making an honorary holiday.

Some see the fact that so little legislation is actually passed as terrible. And others see it as a wonderful feature of our democracy because a congress that passes tons of legislation has way too much power.

What other powers does Congress have?

The House has some unique powers—they can break an electoral tie to determine the next president. And that hasn't happened since the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.

The House can also initiate impeachment. But they just initiate; they don't actually remove the official from office.

Many of us know this since we recently had an impeached president. The House starts the procedure. And with a majority vote, that official is impeached. The Senate then holds a trial, and it requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate to remove that official from office.

And this leads us to the unique powers of the Senate. As we said, they try impeachments and remove officials from office. They also confirm presidential appointments for over 2000 different positions. The president picked someone for a job (like a cabinet position or a judge), and 99 percent of the time, the Senate gives the appointee the thumbs up.

The Senate also picks the vice president in case of an electoral tie, which happened one time and probably won't again, since nowadays, the VP and president run on the same ticket.

And one final thing—either house can declare war, which is something we haven't actually done since 1942. So how have we been in so much war since then?

And that's your very subtle transition to the powers of the executive.

The executive branch—the President and federal government departments

When you think of the executive branch you think of, well, the executive—the president.

But the executive branch employs over 4 million people. It is the nation's largest employer by a wide margin. The Department of Defense alone out-employs Walmart by about a million people.

And that's what we think it can be easy to forget—the executive branch comprises not only the president and everyone who works in the Executive Administrative Office, but there are also 15 departments that fall under the banner of the executive branch. Those department heads make up the president's cabinet, along with whomever else the president appoints as an advisor, and hundreds of smaller agencies.

Here are the 15 federal departments in the order of their creation.

  1. State Department. They handle relationships with foreign countries.
  2. Treasury. They make the money by collecting taxes. This includes the IRS.
  3. Defense. Our largest department, which includes the military.
  4. Justice. They enforce laws that protect public safety. This includes the FBI and U.S. Marshals.
  5. Interior. The Department of the Interior manages the conservation of our land, which includes national parks.
  6. Agriculture. That's the USDA. They oversee farming.
  7. Commerce. They promote our economy and handle international trade.
  8. Labor. That's our workforce.
  9. Health and Human Services. That includes the FDA and the CDC. They also manage Medicare and Medicaid.
  10. Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They address national housing needs.
  11. Transportation. That's the federal highways and the Federal Aviation Administration.
  12. Energy. They manage our energy and research better ways to make it.
  13. Education. They focus on national education and federal student loan programs.
  14. Veterans. Veterans Affairs programs benefit those who have served in the military.
  15. Homeland Security. It's their job to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks within the United States.

Now, there are the president's constitutional powers, and then there are the president's political powers. Most broadly, with the aid of the many executive departments, the president is tasked with making sure laws are followed through with. And we already know the president can sign bills into law or veto them. The Constitution also empowers the president to appoint people to powerful positions in the cabinet, as well as the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and circuit courts. All told, the president appoints people to around 4000 positions, 1200 of which require Senate approval.

That's a lot of appointment power. And of course, the president is empowered to make treaties with foreign nations and is the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.

But the president cannot declare war.

Here's where we stumble into those political powers not enumerated in the Constitution. Congress has not declared war since World War II. America's presidents have led us into many armed conflicts without congressional approval and simply called them "police actions." Police actions can look like war, act like war, talk like war. But if warlike actions are called police actions, they can be done without congressional approval.

What are executive orders and executive agreements?

So, there are also these things called executive orders where the president simply declares something. And executive orders happen. When Obama wanted immigration policy, and he couldn't get it from Congress, he just signed the DREAM Act. And a lot of undocumented teenagers got to stay in the U.S.

Executive agreements fall along a similar line in terms of skirting Congress, but they are used in place of treaties. The president can just make an agreement with a foreign nation without going through the treaty process.

We should clarify (because these executive orders and agreements sound like a big ol' way around the checks and balances our framers so thoughtfully established) that the Supreme Court can block an order or agreement, and Congress can pass a law that invalidates that action. The only underlying principle is that any executive action has some sort of legal validation process.

It's all about what Congress or the Supreme Court chooses to let fly.

The Vice President

And let's not forget the veep—the vice president.

The vice president has long gotten the short shrift in the United States. For most of the job's history, it was barely a job at all.

The vice president is president of the Senate. That means that they preside over proceedings, but they only get to vote in the event of a tiebreaker. So, usually, they just don't show up. More recently, the veep has been tapped to represent the president in matters of foreign relations. And, of course, on the rare occasion that the president dies while in office or resigns, the vice president gets the world's biggest promotion.

The judicial branch—The Supreme Court

That just leaves one branch hanging, the one that Alexander Hamilton called "the weakest branch" and "next to nothing."

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the Supreme Court interprets it. They decide what is or is not constitutional. Article III of the Constitution, which deals with the judiciary, is short and vague. (One scholar told us it was so short and vague because the framers wanted to get the heck out of there before Rhode Island showed up and made a hash of everything.)

But while the Constitution was vague on the powers of the Supreme Court, we've cleared that up a bit since then. They have less notable powers, which is that they hear cases involving ambassadors, public officials, and states. But most of the time the Supreme Court is an appellate court, which means that it hears appeals. You don't like the outcome of a state or federal court decision? You can appeal it up to a higher court.

And this is important—you're not appealing the verdict of the jury. You're not disputing if you're guilty or not. You're appealing the way that the trial went. You're saying that the laws that you broke were unconstitutional.

This power, which is called judicial review, was granted upon the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court itself in the first landmark case, Marbury v. Madison, which is a delightful tale. We're gonna get into that in the next episode, so let's talk about how a case gets to the highest court in the land—with an immense amount of difficulty.

Appeals to state and local decisions rise slowly but surely through the American court system. But that last step is nigh on impossible. To get your case heard by the nine in D.C., you have to file for what's called a writ of certiorari, which honestly, nobody can agree on how to pronounce. That writ tells the court, you should hear my case and here's why.

Between 7000 and 8000 writs of certiorari are filed each year. And the court agrees to hear about 80. You're more likely to have your case heard if there's what's called a circuit split, where several of the circuit courts in the U.S. have ruled differently on something and you've got parts of the country interpreting the constitution differently.

The parties in a Supreme Court case aren't a plaintiff and defendant like on The People's Court or Judge Judy—they are petitioner and respondent.

The petitioner lost their last case, and they're petitioning to have it heard. And in the case name, the petitioner's name always comes first. So in a trial like Texas v. Johnson, Texas lost the last case, and they're petitioning to have it reversed.

One more word, it's not lawyers who present arguments in the Supreme Court. They're referred to as advocates.

The court hears cases starting in October. They discuss them in conferences, they vote on them, and someone who voted in the majority writes the opinion, which is read some time afterward. Other justices can add their name to that opinion if they have concurring opinions with different legal reasoning. Or if you're on the side that voted the other way, you can write a dissent.

By the way, the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions are unanimous, but like everything, it's never so cut and dry as that. Once the court rules, you have the long circuitous route to the states adopting the ruling into their laws, which can take decades.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the authors

Hannah McCarthy is the co-host of Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio. She came to New Hampshire by way of Brooklyn where she worked as a radio producer and writer. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nick Capodice is the co-host of Civics 101. Before coming to NHPR, Nick worked in the Education Department at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where he wrote and led tours, trained educators, and helped design digital exhibits. He also led beer history and tasting tours for Urban Oyster in Brooklyn.

Nick and Hannah are the authors of A User's Guide to Democracy: How America Works, with illustrations by Tom Toro.