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Raid at Combahee Ferry
Part of the American Civil War
Date June 1 – June 2, 1863
Location Beaufort County, South Carolina
Colleton County, South Carolina
Result Union victory
Belligerents
22x20px United States (Union) 22x20px CSA (Confederacy)
Commanders
James Montgomery

The Raid at Combahee Ferry was a military operation conducted on June 1 and June 2, 1863, by elements of the Union Army along the Combahee River in Beaufort and Colleton counties in southeast South Carolina during the American Civil War. [1]

Background[]

Following the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, the newly formed Confederate States of America quickly moved to defend coastal South Carolina from further attacks by Union forces, which coveted the area because of its fine harbors. In November 1861, Union Navy and Army troops invaded Port Royal, south of Charleston and near the town of Beaufort. Most of Beaufort County subsequently was occupied by Union forces.

Owners and overseers fled area plantations in the wake of the oncoming Union troops, and thousands of slaves were now free. Several infantry regiments in the Union Army were formed from these former slaves, including the 2nd South Carolina Infantry under Col. James Montgomery. Montgomery was a “Jayhawker” from Kansas who participated in numerous clashes between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and Missouri prior to the war. His brand of warfare, honed under the tutelage of Gen. James Lane, subsequently would be used in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

In the spring of 1863, Union commanders began planning raids into the fortified upper reaches of South Carolina coastal rivers, such as the Combahee, Ashepoo, and Edisto. The objectives were to remove torpedoes (mines) from the river, seize supplies from area plantations, and then destroy the plantations. Any healthy adult male slaves freed by these actions were to be enrolled in the infantry regiments.[2]

The Combahee Ferry Raid[]

On the evening of June 1, three small U.S. Navy ships (the Sentinel, Harriet A. Weed, and John Adams) left Beaufort headed for the Combahee. They held 300 men from the 2nd South Carolina, commanded by Colonel Montgomery, with Company C of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery manning the ships' guns. Famed Northern activist Harriet Tubman accompanied the troops. Shortly after leaving Beaufort, the Sentinel ran aground in St. Helena Sound. About three o'clock in the morning of June 2, the two remaining ships arrived at the mouth of the Combahee River at Fields Point, where Montgomery landed a small detachment under Captain Thompson. Several Confederate pickets were driven off, and the Union forces advanced up the river. Some of the fleeing Confederates rode to the nearby village of Green Pond to sound the alarm. Meanwhile, a company of the 2nd South Carolina under Captain Carver landed two miles above Fields Point near a small earthwork at Tar Bluff and deployed into position. The two ships then steamed upriver to the Nichols Plantation, where the gunboat Harriet A. Weed anchored.

The John Adams, carrying the remainder of the 2nd South Carolina and Harriet Tubman, proceeded upriver to Combahee Ferry. There, they found a temporary pontoon bridge. As the Union ship approached, several mounted Confederates rode over the bridge and across the causeway in the direction of Green Pond. The John Adams fired a few shells at the escaping Confederates. Troops deployed from the ship and, upon reaching the bridge, set it on fire. Captain Hoyt disembarked upon the causeway with his men and proceeded to the far side, while Captain Brayton, of the 3rd Rhode Island, proceeded up the left riverbank to the Middleton plantation, "Newport", with special orders to confiscate all property and lay waste to what could not be carried off.

The John Adams slowly steamed upriver for a short distance until stopped by obstructions and pilings. Turning back, she tied up at the causeway. Confederate troops stationed at Green Pond were quickly notified. However, they did not respond quickly to the unfolding raid. Late spring through early fall had seen rampant diseases such as Malaria, typhoid fever, and small pox in the Lowcountry. As a result, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps, leaving only small detachments to guard the river outposts. Additionally, previous to this raid, the Confederates had received a false alarm which resulted in the few remaining outposts being cautious about reporting any ships or activity until absolutely sure they were Union.

Within a few hours, Confederate reinforcements responded from McPhearsonville, Pocotaligo, Green Pond and Adams Run. Colonel Breeden arrived with a few guns and opened fire on the retiring Union troops headed back across the causeway. The John Adams soon responded with its superior firepower, forcing the Confederates from the causeway and back into the woods.

By this time, the rest of Montgomery's troops had torched William Heyward’s Plantation on the west side of the road and C.T. Lowndes's rice mill. The houses, mills, and outbuildings were all destroyed. At Nichols Plantation, all of the buildings including a fine library were also set on fire. Rice, potatoes, corn, cotton and livestock were taken, and the plantations were left smoldering ruins. Confederate commanders, hearing reports of further Federal advances from Fields Point up to the Stokes (Stocks) Causeway, sent troops in that direction. When they arrived, they found the Union forces were out of reach. Being outgunned and outnumbered, the Southern reinforcements retreated to their previous positions.[3]

The freed slaves[]

Slaves working in the fields were wary when they first saw the approaching Union ships and troops. These worries quickly subsided when word spread that the ships were there to liberate them. This prompted many slaves to run to the riverbank and beg to be taken on board the ships, despite the efforts of overseers and Confederate soldiers to stop them.[4]

In her autobiography after the war, Harriet Tubman described the scene:[5]

“I nebber see such a sight. 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, t’other 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’”

Hundreds of slaves stood on the shore, and, when the small boats put out to get them, they all wanted to get in at once. After the boats were filled to capacity and beyond, the throng of escaping slaves still ashore held on to the boats to prevent then from leaving. Oarsmen tried beating them on their hands, but the mob would not let go, as they were afraid the gunboats would go off and leave them.

The Union ships arrived the next day back in Beaufort. The newly freed slaves were taken to the First Baptist Church before heading to a resettlement camp on St. Helena Island. Due to the efforts in planning and intelligence that was provided by Tubman and her contacts, more than 750 slaves found their freedom as a result of Montgomery's raid.

Newspaper accounts of the raid[]

The official Union reports of the raid have never been found. There are numerous newspaper accounts of the raid and comments by the commanding officers.

The pro-Union Commonwealth reported:[6]

Colonel Montgomery and his gallant bank of 300 black soldiers under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off nearly 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation…. The colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman who led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation.

The pro-Southern Charleston Mercury had a much different slant:[7]

We have gathered some additional particulars of the recent destructive Yankee raid along the banks of the Combahee. The latest official dispatch from Gen. WALKER, dated Green Pond, eleven o’clock Tuesday night, and which was received here on Wednesday morning, conveyed intelligence that the enemy had entirely disappeared. It seems that the first landing of the Vandels, whose force consisted mainly of three 'companies, officered by whites, took place at Field Point, on the plantation of Dr. R. L. BAKER, at the mouth of the Combahee River. After destroying the residence and outbuildings, the incendiaries proceeded along the river bank, visiting successively the plantations of Mr. OLIVER MIDDLETON, Mr. ANDREW W. BURNETT, Mr. WM. KIRKLAND, Mr. JOSHUA NICHOLLS, Mr. JAMES PAUL, Mr. MANIGAULT, Mr. CHAS. T. LOWNDES and Mr. WM. C. HEYWARD. After pillaging the premises of these gentlemen, the enemy set fire to the residences, outbuildings and whatever grain, etc., they could find. The last place at which they stopped was the plantation of WM. C. HEYWARD, and, after their work of devastation there had been consummated, they destroyed the pontoon bridge at Combahee Ferry. They then drew off, taking with them between 600 and 700 negros , belonging chiefly, as we are informed, to Mr. WM. C. HEYWARD and Mr. C.T. LOWNDES. The residences on these plantations are located at distances from the river, varying in different cases from one to two miles. On the plantation of Mr. NICHOLLS between 8000 and 10,000 bushels of rice were destroyed. Besides his residence and outbuildings, which were burned, he lost a choice library of rare books, valued at $10,000. Several overseers are missing, and it is supposed that they are in the hands of the enemy.

In a written report to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Union Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton stated, "This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted."[8]

Aftermath[]

Due to the success of this raid, Union forces adopted the tactics for similar operations. A few weeks later, the 2nd South Carolina and the 54th Massachusetts conducted a similar raid up the river to Darien, Georgia, and left the town in smoldering ruins, with the premise being to injure the ability of the states to supply food and materials for the Confederate war effort.

The Combahee Ferry raid proved the value of black troops in combat, and it cemented in history the heroics of Harriet Tubman. After the raid, Confederate forces rushed to complete several small earthworks and batteried to better defend the area. The Union would not threaten the region again until the march through the Carolinas by General William T. Sherman in early 1865. The abandoned plantations surrounding Combahee Ferry were not rebuilt during the war, depriving the South of needed supplies and virtually bankrupting many of the plantation owners. Several plantations remained unoccupied well after the war.[9]

The Combahee Ferry area today[]

The location of the Combahee River Raid was identified to state and Federal officials as a result of a bridge replacement project across the Combahee River on today's South Carolina Highway 17. The general area today remains in much the same condition, and the causeway is on the same alignment.[10] State Representative Kenneth Hodges authored a resolution to have the new bridge named after Harriet Tubman in recognition of her role in the historic raid. The immediate area was also the site of a 1782 Revolutionary War battle[11] and is part of a proposed historic district.[12]

The site can be viewed via the boat landing parking lot on the Beaufort side of the river. The surrounding area is under private ownership.

References[]

  • Grigg, Jeff, Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid, unpublished manuscript, 2007.
  • U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901.

Notes[]

External links[]

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