Pittsburgh author recalls Harriet Tubman's role in a Civil War raid
It would seem difficult to burnish the reputation of Harriet Tubman any further. But a new book by Carnegie Mellon University historian Edda L. Fields-Black does just that, even as it provides insightful new context for one of this American hero’s greatest achievements.
“Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War” (Oxford University Press) tells the story of the Union Army’s June 1863 raid on Confederate territory in coastal South Carolina. The military action burned seven rice plantations, freed more than 750 people previously enslaved there, and possibly presaged a turning point in the war.
Tubman has long been recognized as a leader of the raid, making her the first woman to lead U.S. forces into battle. But drawing on previously overlooked sources like military-pension records, Fields-Black’s book documents Tubman’s crucial role in greater detail than ever before, even while highlighting the long-overlooked stories of the Black soldiers who carried out the raid, the people who escaped bondage, and even what happened to them all after the war.
Prior to its Feb. 13 publication, “Combee” is drawing praise from fellow historians, including acclaimed author Eric Foner. “No one has dug more deeply into the 1863 Combahee River Raid than Edda Fields-Black,” wrote Duke University historian Peter H. Wood. Princeton historian Tera W. Hunter calls the book “absolutely essential.”
"The best rice story ever"
Fields-Black specializes in the transnational history of West African rice and rice farmers, including Black people enslaved on plantations in coastal Georgia and South Carolina.
“I like to say that the Combahee River raid is the best rice story ever, because the raid took place on seven rice plantations,” she said.
Fields-Black also said she believes the raid constitutes “the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, [the] most successful, and second only to the Haitian Revolution in the entire New World.”
Today, Tubman is by far the most famous person directly involved in the raid. That was hardly so in 1863, or even for decades after.
In 1849, as a young woman, she’d freed herself from slavery and begun a series of legendary journeys back down South to emancipate other enslaved people — some 70 in all — via the Underground Railroad.
Tubman’s military service began in 1862, when she volunteered to go to South Carolina to aid refugees there after the Union’s naval victory in the Battle of Port Royal. She served as a nurse and in other civilian capacities, but her skill at working behind enemy lines, gathering intelligence and living off the land made her even more valuable as a spy.
In the Combahee raid, said Fields-Black, “Tubman was the leader of a group of spies, scouts, and pilots. She recruited these men, she trained them, and they operated under her leadership. Her group of spies, scouts and pilots identified the enslaved men who the Confederacy used to place torpedoes in the Combahee River.”
The raid was conducted via three Union gunboats, with Tubman aboard. The 150 soldiers she led alongside Col. James Montgomery were Black. While she herself had grown up in Maryland — and thus faced a challenge communicating with folks from the South Carolina “low country,” who spoke their own dialect — she was also crucial in gaining the trust of hundreds of enslaved people who fled their plantations for the boats.
The boats could not actually accommodate all who sought freedom. But Fields-Black depicts the scene from surviving eyewitness accounts, with adults, children and elders making for the boats starting in the raid’s pre-dawn hours, carrying whatever they could manage and desperate for freedom.
The raid took place a month before the Battle of Gettysburg, at a time when the Union was struggling militarily. Though the Confederates had largely abandoned the area, said Fields-Black, the Combahee raid “was the beginning of a moral victory for the North and one of the first early steps in taking back Charleston.”
One of her discoveries felt especially personal: One of the soldiers who fought in the raid was her great-great-great-grandfather, Hector Fields, a formerly enslaved person from the area who’d enlisted in the army.
Old stories, new sources
Fields-Black began researching the book in 2020, just before the pandemic shutdown, and her preparation included a lot of time spent in the Combahee area to familiarize herself with the terrain, and even a boat trip re-enacting the raid.
But while Fields-Black drew on many sources, many of her biggest finds came through those military pension records. Most are in the South Carolina state archives and became more accessible in recent years after being digitized.
Most historical records, like the documents left behind by planters who saw the enslaved people as property, don’t paint a detailed portrait of their lives. The military records contain the testimony given by formerly enslaved people themselves — Black soldiers, their widows and other family members — in the process of applying for pensions.
“They're proving their marriages,” said Fields-Black. “They're proving when their children were born, and the circumstances of their birth. And really divulging very intimate details of enslaved communities in their own words that historians really haven't had access to.”
For instance, the documents allowed Fields-Black to trace some families up to four generations into slavery. They also helped show what became of people freed in the raid. Some of the men enlisted. Some returned to buy land in the area.
But she also learned that the process of applying for pensions was a grueling one for many, and only in part because many of the pension-seekers were illiterate. Tubman herself was only ever partially compensated for her military service, whether in pay packets or a pension. Likewise for less well-known soldiers and their widows, some of whom got nothing at all.
Although “Combee” is dense with military history, and even with detail about rice-farming techniques, Fields-Black said her objective was to “uncover voices that we haven’t heard before” — those of the enslaved people, Black soldiers, and their families, and not just their fate in battle.
“I think that so much of Civil War history and is written about battles and it's written from the military record,” she said. “I was really looking for a different kind of source.”
Publicity events for “Combee” include stops at the prestigious Politics and Prose bookstore, in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore’s Enoch Free Pratt Library; and the Boston Athenaeum. In March, she’ll mark Harriet Tubman Day in D.C. with Tubman’s great-great-great grand-niece.
The book’s Pittsburgh launch is March 14, at the Carnegie Lecture Hall, courtesy of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.