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
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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.”

The History Behind 10 Thanksgiving Dishes

VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. Turkey

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as … served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. Stuffing

Pan of breaded stuffing.
mphillips007/iStock.com

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. Cranberries

Dish of cranberry sauce.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. Mashed Potatoes

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting president to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. Gravy

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to create a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. Corn

Plate of corn.
PeopleImages/iStock

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. Sweet Potatoes

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
bhofack2/iStock

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. Green Bean Casserole

Plate of green bean casserole.
DreamBigPhotos/iStock.com

Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you probably know was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. Pumpkin Pie

Slice of pumpkin pie.
bhofack2/iStock.com

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. Wine

Two glasses of wine.
Moncherie/iStock.com

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

Why Do We Eat Cranberry Sauce on Thanksgiving?

MSPhotographic/iStock via Getty Images
MSPhotographic/iStock via Getty Images

While plenty of people eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie year-round, it seems like cranberry sauce almost exclusively exists in the Thanksgiving universe. Although we don’t know for sure whether it was eaten at the very first Thanksgiving, the jiggly, gelatinous side dish does have deep roots in the history of America’s fruited plains.

According to Insider, cranberries are one of only three commercially grown fruits native to the United States, and the Wampanoag tribe had been using them for food, dye, and medicine long before feasting with the Pilgrims in 1621. If there were cranberries at the party, they probably didn’t taste much like the sweetened sauce we’re (circumstantially) fond of today; at that point, the settlers hadn’t yet succeeded in growing sugar cane in the New World.

But a little more than 50 years later, according to a 1672 account cited by The Washington Post, the new Americans and Native Americans had both started to enjoy cranberries much like we do at Thanksgiving dinner: “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat.”

In 1796, Amelia Simmons—author of American Cookery, the first-ever American cookbook—took it one step further by recommending that roast turkey be served with cranberry sauce. Considering that the Library of Congress included the book on its list of “Books That Shaped America,” it’s possible that Simmons’s suggestion reverberated through kitchens across the nation, and the tradition gained momentum from there. She does mention pickled mangoes as an alternate side dish for turkey, but the then-Indian import was likely less common than the locally-grown cranberry.

Then, in the early 1800s, Ocean Spray revolutionized the labor-intensive process of hand-picking cranberries from vines with what’s called a wet harvest. Basically, farmers flood the bogs where cranberries grow, and then they wade into the water to collect the floating berries en masse.

farmer wet-harvesting cranberries
A farmer gathering cranberries during a wet harvest.
kongxinzhu/iStock via Getty Images

This was a more efficient technique, but a mass harvest meant that more cranberries got damaged. So in 1912, Ocean Spray began crushing them into canned, jellied cranberry sauce—maximizing the yield and making it easier than ever for every home in America to slice up a cylinder of solid, sugary, berry goodness.

Explore the stories behind your other favorite (or least favorite) Thanksgiving foods here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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