By James Stejskal
NOTE: This article contains excerpts from contemporary official Union and Confederate reports that include racial epithets. Additional eyewitness accounts employ local “dialect” that may or may not have been accurately rendered by the recorder.
It was dark as three Union Army steamboats left St. Helena Sound off the coast of South Carolina and headed up the Combahee River. The black waters, cut by the ships’ blunt prows, parted and flowed along their hulls and through the paddlewheels while the rhythmic chugging of the engines vibrated through the decks. At the rails, the soldiers quietly watched the indistinct shoreline shape shift in the darkness as they passed. They were nervous but excited to be going into action. Their commander, Colonel James Montgomery, did not doubt his men’s readiness for battle.
On board the gunboats John Adams and Harriet A. Weed, and the transport Sentinel, were men of two units: the 2d South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment (African Descent) and a section of Battery C, 3d Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. The gunners of the 3d were at action stations manning the ships’ cannons. They also brought along two of their 12-pounder field howitzers for good measure.
Colonel Montgomery was an ardent abolitionist. He was born in Ohio and moved first to Kentucky and Missouri as a young man. He then moved again, this time to Kansas, where he became a “Jayhawker,” one of those involved in the violent struggle over whether Kansas would be a free or slave state —a conflict that left the region known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Montgomery joined the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War and was soon chosen to lead the 2d South Carolina by his friend, Major General David Hunter, who also possessed abolitionist sentiments. In early 1863, on Hunter’s order, he raised 130 black volunteers in Key West, Florida. Montgomery needed more free men to fill his unit and, although it was difficult to separate the slaves from their Southern owners, he had a plan. Many men were freed in small raids and others, left behind when their Southern owners fled the coastal lowlands, volunteered or were pressed into service to fill the demand.
They soon they took part in their first action. Montgomery’s volunteers accompanied another colored unit, Colonel Thomas W. Higginson’s 1st South Carolina Volunteers, on an expedition to Jacksonville, Florida, in early March 1863. There they would undergo their baptism of fire.
The force was transported by steamboat from Camp Saxton near Beaufort, South Carolina, and landed at the Jacksonville docks fully expecting to be engaged. Instead, they were met with silence. The Confederates had abandoned the town. The black soldiers and their white officers settled in and set up defenses around the town. The next morning, the Union soldiers were conducting drill training when the Confederates returned and opened fire on the Union pickets on the edge of the city. They assaulted the Union positions, but the Rebels were met by a vigorous defense and were forced to turn back. Despite being largely untrained, untested, and having only been issued their weapons two days before, it was the Union’s 2d South Carolina Volunteers that stopped the Rebel advance. William Lee Apthorp, a Union captain with the 2d at the time, observed:
“They [the rebels] did not succeed in capturing the Jayhawker and his negroes as they had hoped, but on the contrary began to think that a black man could stand up and pull a trigger and that a bullet from his rifle was as deadly a thing to receive as if a white man had fired it.”
Several weeks later, the 2d South Carolina went on another “fishing trip” into “Secesh” country, this time to raid the plantation of Confederate Colonel Stephen Bryant on the St. John’s River. The Rebel officer was surprised in his home and quickly captured. Short of fresh food, Colonel Montgomery told his troops “Boys I don’t want you to interfere with private property but if any pigs or turkeys attack you, you must defend yourselves.” With the discomfited Rebel colonel in tow and their larders fully stocked, the 2d withdrew back to Jacksonville. Colonel Higginson was on the dock when Montgomery’s troops returned and recorded that:
“The steamer seemed an animated hen-coop. Live poultry hung from the shrouds, dead ones from the mainmast, geese hissed from the binnacle, a pig paced quarter-deck, and a duck’s wings were seen fluttering from a line which was wont to sustain duck trousers.”
In addition to raiding Colonel Bryant’s plantation, Montgomery’s troops “liberated” cotton and other crops from the plantations along the river and captured a number of small Confederate detachments and their weapons. The Rebels’ Enfield rifles were especially prized trophies.
After concluding riverine operations in Florida in late March 1863, Montgomery and his band of raiders returned north to Beaufort. The city had been seized along with the Confederate installations of Fort Beauregard and Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island during the Battle of Port Royal on 7 November 1861. The forts were captured by a Union fleet of seventy-one ships, the largest yet assembled, and a ground force of nearly 13,000 men under Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont and Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman. After the loss of the two forts and the towns of Port Royal and Beaufort, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who was in charge of coastal defenses along the Carolina and Georgia seaboard, decided he would not contest the Union presence and withdrew his forces inland to protect the cities of Charleston and Savannah and the all-important Charleston & Savannah Railroad line that linked them.
Fort Walker was renamed Fort Welles and became the headquarters of the Union Southern Department, first under Brigadier General Sherman, who was initially in charge of the Union siege against the Confederate stronghold at Fort Pulaski in Georgia in April 1862. He was replaced by Major General David Hunter, who accepted the fort’s surrender.
In June 1862, Hunter directed Brigadier General Henry Benham to undertake an attack against Charleston. Benham’s plan foundered and the Union forces were turned back on 16 June at the Battle of Secessionville on James Island. Shortly thereafter, the War Department informed for Hunter that some of his forces were needed for operations with Major General George B. McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign. Responding to the call, Hunter sent six infantry regiments and several companies of cavalry north to Virginia.
Thereafter, Hunter lacked the manpower for any large scale operations against the Confederates, but he was still able to mount harassing operations against his Rebel opponents in their home country. In late May 1863, Hunter ordered Colonel Montgomery and his 2d South Carolina Volunteers to prepare for an unprecedented mission.
In an effort that would presage Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s operations in Georgia, Montgomery was ordered to destroy railroads and bridges, and to deprive the Rebel troops of supplies in the Confederate’s own area. Another objective was to collect “contrabands” (slaves) for service in the Union ranks, as well as to deprive the Confederates of free labor. The first raid would be to destroy a pontoon bridge located at a ferry site some forty miles up the Combahee River and wreak as much havoc as possible on the local farms and plantations.
Since their return from Florida, the men of 2d had been conducting drill and weapons training and were ready for action. They would be augmented with a section from the 3d Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. The Union forces had another and somewhat unusual resource: a diminutive African American woman by the name of Harriet Tubman.
By 1860, Harriet Tubman was already well-known (and actually “wanted”) in the South for her work. Born into slavery in Maryland, she escaped north in 1849. From that moment forward, Tubman became part of the Underground Railroad and helped over seventy slaves to escape to freedom, a talent that earned her the name “Conductor.” Even as a young woman, Tubman was ascribed with mystical traits; some thought she was an Ashanti sorceress who could take on the form of a leopard, thus explaining her ability to find hiding slaves and elude pursuing slave masters. It was a useful reputation.
When the Civil War began, she offered her services as a nurse to the Union Army. Tubman was first recommended to Hunter by John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts, to help at the hospital on Hilton Head Island. It quickly became clear to Hunter and others within his command that she had other useful skills. Her clandestine trips into the South as part of the Underground Railroad had given her the skills and experience to collect information in enemy territory, and she was dispatched into Rebel-held territory to gather information about the Confederate dispositions.
Tubman was not a commando or a steely-eyed killer, but she was able to do what neither of those types could do: pass through enemy lines and talk to her people about the local situation. She acted mostly in the role of an agent handler; she enlisted the help of locals who knew the area and spoke Gullah, the Creole language spoken by the blacks of the Sea Islands and the coastal low country of Georgia and South Carolina. She was what intelligence analysts today would call a “human terrain specialist” who knew how to work with the people to accomplish the mission.
According to her later pension request, a number of local black men assisted in her duties, two of whom would help with the upcoming mission. Charles Simmons and Samuel Hayward were riverboat pilots who knew the Combahee River well, not only its snags, currents, and sand bars, but where the Confederate positions and all the plantations were located. They also knew where the Confederate “torpedoes”—river mines—were placed.
On 1 June 1863, Colonel Montgomery and around 400 men of the 2d South Carolina Volunteer Infantry and the detachment of the 3d Rhode Island Heavy Artillery departed Beaufort on three boats late in the evening. The tiny fleet made its way across the St. Helena Sound arriving at the mouth of the Combahee at around 0300. Thus far, everything was going to plan, at least until the Sentinel ran aground. This necessitated the transfer of soldiers on board the Sentinel to the other boats before the mission could resume.
Around daybreak, the two vessels reached Field’s Point, about twenty-five miles upriver. It was a known Confederate position, and a party led by Captain Thomas N. Thompson disembarked to eliminate the threat it posed. The Rebels exercised discretion and fled, leaving the breastworks to the Yankees.
Two miles further upriver, Captain James N. Carver and his Company E landed at Tar Bluff. After consolidating their position, Carver and his men began to move northwest on the road towards Ashepoo. Their special orders were simple: “destroy rebel property and confiscate negroes.”
With their withdrawal route thus secured, the boats continued upriver until they reached Nichol’s Plantation. The Weed anchored and served as a gun platform on station. Two companies under Captains John M. Adams and William Lee Apthorp disembarked and began to move up the river banks to begin their work. The slaves in the fields ran towards the river as soon as they realized who the soldiers were, while the white overseers departed on horseback in the opposite direction with some alacrity.
About The Author
James Stejskal is a military historian and conflict archaeologist who specializes in research and investigation of irregular warfare. He is the author of three books, including Masters of Mayhem: Lawrence of Arabia and the British Military Mission to the Hejaz, which has been shortlisted for a 2019 Book of the Year award.
His thirty-five years of Special Forces, special operations, and intelligence experience with the U.S. Army and the CIA in hot spots around the world, including Berlin, give him unparalleled insight into unconventional warfare. Mr. Stejskal holds a master’s degree (Honors) in National Security Studies with an emphasis in Irregular Warfare and a bachelor’s degree in History. In addition to English, he speaks good German, rustic French, and a smattering of Swahili.