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

Combahee River basin, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge, Beaufort County, South Carolina
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.”

10 of the Most Popular Portable Bluetooth Speakers on Amazon

Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon
Altech/Bose/JBL/Amazon

As convenient as smartphones and tablets are, they don’t necessarily offer the best sound quality. But a well-built portable speaker can fill that need. And whether you’re looking for a speaker to use in the shower or a device to take on a long camping trip, these bestselling models from Amazon have you covered.

1. OontZ Angle 3 Bluetooth Portable Speaker; $26-$30 (4.4 stars)

Oontz portable bluetooth speaker
Cambridge Soundworks/Amazon

Of the 57,000-plus reviews that users have left for this speaker on Amazon, 72 percent of them are five stars. So it should come as no surprise that this is currently the best-selling portable Bluetooth speaker on the site. It comes in eight different colors and can play for up to 14 hours straight after a full charge. Plus, it’s splash proof, making it a perfect speaker for the shower, beach, or pool.

Buy it: Amazon

2. JBL Charge 3 Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $110 (4.6 stars)

JBL portable bluetooth speaker
JBL/Amazon

This nifty speaker can connect with up to three devices at one time, so you and your friends can take turns sharing your favorite music. Its built-in battery can play music for up to 20 hours, and it can even charge smartphones and tablets via USB.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Anker Soundcore Bluetooth Speaker; $25-$28 (4.6 stars)

Anker portable bluetooth speaker
Anker/Amazon

This speaker boasts 24-hour battery life and a strong Bluetooth connection within a 66-foot radius. It also comes with a built-in microphone so you can easily take calls over speakerphone.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker; $129 (4.4 stars)

Bose portable bluetooth speaker
Bose/Amazon

Bose is well-known for building user-friendly products that offer excellent sound quality. This portable speaker lets you connect to the Bose app, which makes it easier to switch between devices and personalize your settings. It’s also water-resistant, making it durable enough to handle a day at the pool or beach.

Buy it: Amazon

5. DOSS Soundbox Touch Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $28-$33 (4.4 stars)

DOSS portable bluetooth speaker
DOSS/Amazon

This portable speaker features an elegant system of touch controls that lets you easily switch between three methods of playing audio—Bluetooth, Micro SD, or auxiliary input. It can play for up to 20 hours after a full charge.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Altec Lansing Mini Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $15-$20 (4.3 stars)

Altec Lansing portable bluetooth speaker
Altec Lansing/Amazon

This lightweight speaker is built for the outdoors. With its certified IP67 rating—meaning that it’s fully waterproof, shockproof, and dust proof—it’s durable enough to withstand harsh environments. Plus, it comes with a carabiner that can attach to a backpack or belt loop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Tribit XSound Go Bluetooth Speaker; $33-$38 (4.6 stars)

Tribit portable bluetooth speaker
Tribit/Amazon

Tribit’s portable Bluetooth speaker weighs less than a pound and is fully waterproof and resistant to scratches and drops. It also comes with a tear-resistant strap for easy transportation, and the rechargeable battery can handle up to 24 hours of continuous use after a full charge. In 2020, it was Wirecutter's pick as the best budget portable Bluetooth speaker on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

8. VicTsing SoundHot C6 Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $18 (4.3 stars)

VicTsing portable bluetooth speaker
VicTsing/Amazon

The SoundHot portable Bluetooth speaker is designed for convenience wherever you go. It comes with a detachable suction cup and a carabiner so you can keep it secure while you’re showering, kayaking, or hiking, to name just a few.

Buy it: Amazon

9. AOMAIS Sport II Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker; $30 (4.4 stars)

AOMAIS portable bluetooth speaker
AOMAIS/Amazon

This portable speaker is certified to handle deep waters and harsh weather, making it perfect for your next big adventure. It can play for up to 15 hours on a full charge and offers a stable Bluetooth connection within a 100-foot radius.

Buy it: Amazon

10. XLEADER SoundAngel Touch Bluetooth Speaker; $19-$23 (4.4 stars)

XLeader portable bluetooth speaker
XLEADER/Amazon

This stylish device is available in black, silver, gold, and rose gold. Plus, it’s equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, a more powerful technology that can pair with devices up to 800 feet away. The SoundAngel speaker itself isn’t water-resistant, but it comes with a waterproof case for protection in less-than-ideal conditions.

Buy it: Amazon

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

11 Facts About Mount Rushmore

It took three years just to carve Washington's likeness.
It took three years just to carve Washington's likeness.
TheDigitalArist, Pixabay // Public Domain

Today, the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt gaze over South Dakota’s Black Hills, their images sculpted on the granite slopes of Mount Rushmore. An engineering marvel, this unlikely landmark now draws millions of visitors every year.

But the place casts a dark shadow. Built by a Klu Klux Klan sympathizer on land seized from the Sioux during a gold rush, Mount Rushmore is steeped in controversy. Here are 10 little-known facts about its creation and history.

1. The Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation call this mountain Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, or “Six Grandfathers.”

The Six Grandfathers before construction began on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
1905 photo of the Six Grandfathers, before construction began on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When New York attorney Charles E. Rushmore first laid eyes on the landform in 1884, the presidential sculpting effort was decades away. Reportedly, the visiting lawyer asked his guides if the mountain had a name. Unaware of its importance to the Sioux, they said no—and then one of them added, “We will name it now, and name it Rushmore Peak.” Over time, this evolved into “Mount Rushmore.”

2. Mount Rushmore’s head sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, previously worked on a huge Confederate monument.

Georgia’s Stone Mountain bears a 158-by-76-foot carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and their horses. Borglum came up with the basic concept after the Daughters of the Confederacy asked him to sculpt Lee’s head into the rockface. But on February 25, 1925, 10 years into the project, Borglum was fired after disputes with the organization. Stone Mountain was finished without his involvement; then-Vice President Spiro Agnew attended its dedication ceremony in 1970.

3. The idea for Mount Rushmore began with South Dakota's Historian. 

Borglum's model of Mt. Rushmore
Borglum's model of Mount Rushmore.

Intrigued by Stone Mountain, Jonah LeRoy “Doane” Robinson, South Dakota’s official State Historian, contacted Borglum in 1924. The Black Hills were already a tourist destination, but Robinson wanted an audacious new draw. Turning some local geologic features into a lineup of statues depicting western legends like Buffalo Bill Cody, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark sounded like a good business move to Robinson. But Borglum had other ideas. In addition to changing the monument's proposed location—he opted for Mount Rushmore instead of the nearby granite spires Robinson had chosen—he also changed the people depicted. Feeling the place should be a “national monument commemorating America’s founders and builders,” the sculptor went with a presidential theme.

4. Gutzon Borglun liked Mount Rushmore because of its physical attributes.

South Dakota is full of mountains, so why was the monument built on this one? For starters, Borglum realized it was sturdy enough to withstand the rigorous sculpting process. He also liked the fact that Mount Rushmore’s southeastern flank (where the faces now stand) gets good sun exposure. The mountain's fine-grained Harvey Peak granite also influenced Borglun's choice: Though the material was more difficult to carve, it would erode slower than the granite found on other nearby peaks.

5. Construction on Mount Rushmore began in 1927.

It officially ended on October 31, 1941. Borglum unexpectedly died that March, leaving his son, Lincoln, to oversee the last few months of production.

6. Eleanor Roosevelt wanted Susan B. Anthony on Mount Rushmore.

Washington’s head was the first part of the monument to be dedicated, followed by Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s, and finally Roosevelt’s. Meanwhile, a different Roosevelt wanted Susan B. Anthony to join their ranks. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Borglum in 1936, asking him to include the prominent suffragist’s likeness. A bill reiterating this plea was introduced to Congress the following year, but it didn’t get far due to funding restrictions.

7. The construction crew used a technique called “honeycombing” to carve Mount Rushmore.

Construction on Mount Rushmore.
In addition to sculpting these four heads, the workers also carved out a secret room behind the monument.
National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dynamite cleared away 90 percent of the unwanted rock, but some tasks were ill-suited for explosives. Once they came within 3 to 6 inches of the desired depth, Borglum’s workers would drill shallow holes in tightly packed rows. Known as “honeycombing,” this trick allowed them to pull off chunks of granite with their bare hands.

8. Mount Rushmore once had its own baseball team.

While at Rushmore, Borglum and his son organized a baseball team made up entirely of their day-laborers. In 1939, the “Rushmore Drillers” had a great summer, qualifying for the semifinals in South Dakota’s Amateur Baseball Tournament.

9. Mount Rushmore is just two counties away from the U.S.’s geographic center.

Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, shifting the geographic center of the U.S. from Smith County, Kansas, to Butte County, South Dakota. The exact spot is located on private land, but roughly 20 miles to the south—in the nearby city of Belle Fourche, South Dakota—there’s a compass-shaped monument honoring America’s midpoint. By car, that attraction’s only 79.4 miles from Mount Rushmore, the most iconic spot in Pennington County.

10. The last surviving Mount Rushmore carver died in 2019.

A prominent member of those Rushmore Drillers, Donald “Nick” Clifford was a right-fielder and the youngest carver ever to work on the monument. He was hired in 1938 at the tender age of 17. Clifford outlived all of his Mount Rushmore co-workers and died in 2019 at 98 years old.

11. Native Americans activists occupied Mount Rushmore in 1970.

The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie set aside South Dakota’s Black Hills, Mount Rushmore included, for the exclusive use of indigenous people. Yet the United States hastily redrew the agreed-upon boundaries when General George A. Custer found gold in the region six years later.

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. government had acted illegally. As per the ruling, a compensation trust now worth over $1 billion was set aside for the Sioux. That money has never been collected.

Ten years before that Supreme Court decision, a group of 23 Native American activists climbed Mount Rushmore on August 29, 1970. Demanding that the land be restored to the Sioux, the group defied federal regulations and set up camp atop the mountain. Protestors remained at the site until that November, when bad weather finally drove them out. According to Lehman Brightman, the former President of the United Native Americans organization and one of the event’s architects, it was “the first Sioux Indian uprising” since Custer’s lifetime.