On June 2nd, 1863, Harriet Tubman, the famed “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, led a raid on the Confederacy in South Carolina, which freed 750 enslaved Black people and destroyed Confederate infrastructure. It was the first time a woman led a military assault in the Civil War. But how did this raid come about? And what does it show us today?
Harriet Tubman was born in March of 1822 into slavery in Maryland. Like other enslaved Black people, Tubman was forced to work brutally long hours from a very young age. In 1849, she escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad – a network of free and enslaved Black people and white abolitionists who helped slaves escape to the North where slavery was illegal. But Tubman couldn’t enjoy her freedom knowing that so many Black people, including her own family, were still enslaved in horrific conditions in the South.
Tubman became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, travelling to slave states and leading people along the Underground Railroad to the North, and to freedom. She made over a dozen daring expeditions and freed at least 70 people enslaved in the South. She was nicknamed Moses because she led so many people to the “promised land” of freedom.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Tubman joined the Union Army; she knew a victory for the North could end slavery. She became a nurse in Port Royal in South Carolina, which was captured by the Union very early in the Civil War. There she attended to soldiers and Black people from the South escaping their enslavement.
In early 1863, Tubman was ordered to form a spy ring in the local area. She and her network scouted out local plantations where Confederate defenses were located, and collected information on what the terrain was like. On the night of June 1st, she and a regiment of Black troops boarded gun boats on the Combahee River and went deep into Confederate territory. Tubman led the ships so they wouldn’t hit any torpedoes or mines planted underwater by the Confederacy. Once they were safely onshore, the Union soldiers began burning plantations, warehouses, and other Confederate military installations. Tubman herself led 150 soldiers who escorted enslaved Black people from the surrounding plantations to escape to the gunboats. Over 750 people were freed because of the raid.
Her life shows something that is absent in American history textbooks: the Civil War was won by the North because of the efforts of Black people to free themselves. 200,000 Black people served in the Union military during the Civil War – making up 10% of the Union’s army during the war. Meanwhile, half a million enslaved Black people fled the South for the Union army during the war – crippling the Confederacy’s labor force. After the Civil War, free Black people in the South, arming themselves with guns and backed up by the might of the Union Army – led the process of Reconstruction. During the Reconstruction Era, Black people were elected to statewide office for the first time, established free public education, and owned land for the first time.
It was because of their own militant struggle that Black people won freedom – not because they were handed it by Lincoln. Today, when we’re faced with a capitalist society that thrives off of racism, where Black people are subject to regular police violence and suffer from much higher poverty and unemployment rates we must remember the lesson that Harriet Tubman’s raid shows us: it’s our own struggles that can win freedom.