Edda L. Fields-Black, COMBEE: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom during the Civil War
Most Americans know of Harriet Tubman's legendary life: escaping enslavement in 1849, she led more than 60 others out of bondage via the Underground Railroad, gave instructions on getting to freedom to scores more, and went on to live a lifetime fighting for change. Yet the many biographies, children's books, and films about Tubman omit a crucial chapter: during the Civil War, hired by the Union Army, she ventured into the heart of slave territory--Beaufort, South Carolina - to live, work, and gather intelligence for a daring raid up the Combahee River to attack the major plantations of Rice Country, the breadbasket of the Confederacy.
Edda L. Fields-Black - herself a descendent of one of the participants in the raid - shows how Tubman commanded a ring of spies, scouts, and pilots and participated in military expeditions behind Confederate lines. On June 2, 1863, Tubman and her crew piloted two regiments of Black US Army soldiers, the Second South Carolina Volunteers, and their white commanders up coastal South Carolina's Combahee River in three gunboats. In a matter of hours, they torched eight rice plantations and liberated 756 people, people whose Lowcountry Creole language and culture Tubman could not even understand.
Using previous unexamined documents, Fields-Black brings to life intergenerational, extended enslaved families, neighbors, praise-house members, and sweethearts forced to work in South Carolina's deadly tidal rice swamps, sold, and separated during the antebellum period. After the war, many returned to the same rice plantations from which they had escaped, purchased land, married, and buried each other. These formerly enslaved peoples on the Sea Island indigo and cotton plantations, with others, created the distinctly American Gullah Geechee dialect, culture, and identity - perhaps the most significant legacy of Harriet Tubman's Combahee River Raid.
COMBEE is the first detailed account of one of the Civil War's most dramatic episodes, and the central part Harriet Tubman played in it.
Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University and has written extensively about the history of West African rice farmers, including in such works as Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora. Fields-Black is a direct descendant of Africans enslaved on rice plantations in Colleton County, SC and Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, including her great-great-great grandfather, who fought in the Combahee River Raid.
This event is a Henry S.F. Cooper Jr. Lecture on Early American History and Literature.
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