Work uncovers site where raid freed 700 slaves

RURAL BEAUFORT COUNTY - Archeologists have unearthed artifacts they believe pinpoint the location of a Combahee River ferry crossing used in a Civil War raid led by legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

The 1863 Union army raid, which freed more than 700 slaves from plantations in Colleton and Beaufort counties, is widely considered the first in U.S. history to be led by a woman. It cemented Tubman's legend as a daring and courageous emancipator, and it bolstered Union forces in the Palmetto State.

The archeologists were hired by the state Department of Transportation to probe the area before U.S. 17 is widened. In the process, they unearthed artifacts they believe came from a house or tavern near the ferry crossing where Tubman and black Union soldiers surprised local plantation owners.

A brief study conducted in 1989 revealed Confederate earthworks and an old African-American cemetery in the low-lying, undeveloped area. But when plans to widen the highway were shelved, no follow-up surveys were taken.

This year, with plans to widen the highway back on track, DOT and the private company have reviewed centuries-old maps, recovered artifacts, and conducted underwater and soil tests that have shown the area to be of great historical significance.

DOT believes it now knows where the ferry crossing was located. It also may have found a submerged vessel that could date from the 19th century and the remains of buildings that could have been associated with the ferry. Other old maps show that slave huts were strung along the Colleton County side of the Combahee, though researchers have not yet found any structural evidence of the buildings.

Tubman is best known for escaping slavery and helping others to do the same along the famed Underground Railroad, made up of safe houses and secret passages.

But no single act in Tubman's life would free more people than the Combahee raid. And yet, even in the state where it took place, its details are not widely known.

Brockington and Associates, the private firm of historians and archeologists working with DOT, has suggested the state designate the area as the Combahee Ferry Historic District. Such a designation could be a first step to having the area listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., whose congressional district includes the Confederate earthworks on the Colleton County side of the Combahee, wants the area to be included in a proposed Gullah-Geechie history corridor.

Jason Ellerbee, the Brockington historian who first told his colleagues and DOT that the ferry site was a staging area during the raid, said the earthworks, the ferry, the submerged vessel and the African-American cemetery make the place special.

"It has significance for African-American history, women's history, military history," said Ellerbee, who is African American. "In this one night, (Tubman) freed over 700 slaves. This hits so close to home."


Marsh has reclaimed the fertile rice fields that lined the serpentine Combahee River in pre-Civil War Beaufort and Colleton counties. That rice filled bellies and fattened wallets up and down the river.

Sprawling plantations, points of antebellum pride for the white gentry, took up vast chunks of land. The Heywards and Middletons had their place among the wealthiest families of the area.

But war threatened their privileged places and, on a June night in 1863, the Civil War was brought to the bountiful plantations of the Combahee by a black woman who had a price on her head and an anti-slavery passion in her heart: Harriet Tubman.

By 1863, Tubman was already a mythical and mysterious figure. An escaped slave from Maryland's Eastern Shore, she had survived brutal treatment in bondage. As a girl, Tubman was beaten so regularly and so severely that she learned to wear multiple layers of clothes to cushion the blows. A blow to her head once nearly killed her. Some of her sisters were sold away, never to be heard from again.

Tubman became one of the principal conductors of the Underground Railroad, leading hundreds of slaves daring enough to try the journey north to freedom.

Fourteen years after she ran for her own freedom in 1849, she was on the steam-powered gunboat John Adams, probing deep into enemy territory, risking capture or worse if the Confederates all around her were roused too soon.


Confederate officers were reluctant to place troops too near the Combahee River, and one trip to the woods just off its banks makes that reasoning clear. Mosquitoes, undaunted by repellent and possibly carrying diseases that killed hundreds of soldiers during the Civil War, seek out every section of exposed skin.

Wayne Roberts, DOT's chief archeologist and an ardent Civil War buff, knew to bring his can of repellent.

"Make sure you get your ankles," he said, offering his can to those who had joined him on a quick tour through the woods near the Combahee.

Not far from a still-operating boat landing on the Beaufort County side of the Combahee, Roberts pointed to ground that slopes down to the river. "This is where we think the ferry was."

Roberts then pointed toward what old maps show was once a road leading away from the river, heading south toward Savannah.

The road, which offered access to nearby plantations. stopped at the Combahee, making the site a logical spot for the ferry landing, Rogers said.

U.S. 17 now runs parallel to that old road, and big trucks roar by. It's a dangerous road, one some local residents are eager to see widened.

But that widening will come at a cost. After artifacts are removed, the widened road would cover an area where historians and archeologists believe ferry buildings were located.

Moving the road east would mean damaging the Civil War earthworks and the cemetery, which includes the graves of two black soldiers whose regiment participated in Tubman's raid. Moving the road west would mean removing a boat ramp and possibly uncovering more historical artifacts.

"We're kind of damned if we do, damned if we don't," Rogers said.

A pair of community meetings - one at Green Pond Baptist Church on Nov. 7 and another the next day at Whale Branch Middle School in the Seabrook community - will allow local residents to discuss the road project.

Clyburn said the area's historic importance doesn't mean the road shouldn't be widened.

"It's one thing to say, 'Let's just leave this area alone and never touch it,' " he said. "But it's another to do the work, retrieve the artifacts and put them on display. I think there is a win-win possibility here if we work together."


Out where DOT and Brockington believe the ferry buildings stood, there isn't much to see. It is brush and woods, colored by orange markers tied to branches and vines to mark where archeologists working with DOT have conducted shovel tests.

One hot spot includes items that date to the 1700s, when historians and archeologists believe the first ferry structure stood. Another hot spot offered items that date to the mid-1800s, when its replacement stood.

Brockington's researchers learned the Combahee ferry was first chartered by the state in 1715 and was required to be staffed 24 hours a day.

Operators in the 1700s and 1800s tended to live near their ferries, and it was typical for them to have their home double as a lodge or tavern for travelers. Artifacts recovered from the area - pottery, buttons, pieces of a large glass jug or bottle, shards of ceramics - are likely what's left of items used in a ferry lodge or tavern, Brockington's researchers said.

Some of the glass Brockington's researchers found was burned, possibly during the raid.

While many of the archeological and historical finds are pointing in the same direction, Rogers said researchers still have lots of questions about the raid and about life in the area.

"Hopefully, data recovery will answer some of those questions," Rogers said.


In the days leading up to the raid, Confederate pickets along the Combahee were spooked. Their false alarms so angered Capt. James Lowndesthat, on May 26, 1863, he fired off a special order threatening court martial for anyone who gave another "groundless alarm."

Precisely what alarmed the pickets isn't known. But Tubman, who had been sent to Beaufort by Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew in 1862 to work as a spy and a scout for the Union's Department of the South, busily was assembling intelligence for a raid that would cause Confederate alarm.

Tubman had met local blacks, including Walter Plowden, who knew the area well and got word to slaves on nearby plantations that their liberation was at hand. There is no firm evidence that Tubman went onto the plantations herself but such a tactic would not have been unusual for her. She had done it before, disguised as a poor old woman.

Tubman passed on what she learned from her Combahee compatriots to Col. James Montgomery, the white commander of the black Union forces. Montgomery counted John Brown as a hero and embraced his style of all-out, abolitionist warfare.

Montgomery was reviled by Confederates and even by some Union officers. His regiment, the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, later was reorganized into the 34th U.S. Colored Infantry. It is portrayed in the 1989 movie "Glory" as an undisciplined group of marauding blacks.

True or not, Tubman knew Montgomery's anti-slavery zeal approached her own.

She had a very different view of the Confederate Army.

For her, it was the devil's legion. Its victory would mean more beatings for enslaved black men, more rapes for enslaved black women and more sales of children ripped from their mothers.

"It was completely personal to her," said Kate Clifford Larson, a Tubman expert who wrote "Bound for the Promised Land," a biography of the abolitionist. "She had grown up in a violent culture and knew that it was life or death."

Tubman was with Montgomery in the dark, early morning hours of June 2, 1863, when the John Adams and other gunboats steamed up the Combahee River.

Confederate pickets, some stationed at the Combahee Ferry, were to immediately alert plantation owners and fellow soldiers if approaching Union forces were too much for them to repel.

In a statement he gave on the raid, planter William C. Heyward reported that the pickets did not reach his plantation until at least an hour after he himself had seen the Union boats.

Questioning one picket, Heyward was furious.

"Asked why they were so slow in reporting, he said, 'Ordered not to report until we are certain of the facts; thought perhaps they might be our boats,' " Heyward wrote in his report.

By the time the pickets reached the Heyward plantation, Montgomery's men had reached the Combahee Ferry and disembarked as Union gunboats blasted their horns and waved their flags in a pre-arranged signal for slaves to abandon the plantations and flee to the Union boats.

Montgomery's men put Heyward's plantation, as well as those of William Middleton and Charles Lowndes, to the torch.

Tubman ushered slaves on board the Union boats and sang to them during their flight.

Union reports put the number of freed slaves at 725; Tubman said the raid liberated 756 people.

The Confederates were enraged. After-action reports were full of second guessing and finger-pointing.

"Their success," wrote Confederate Capt. John F. Lay of the raiders, "was complete."


About the famous abolitionist

Her name was not Harriet

But the girl born as Araminta Ross on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1822 would change much about her life, including her name.

Author Kate Clifford Larson wrote in "Bound for the Promised Land" that Minty, as the girl was called, was hired out to cruel slave owners.

One mistress, for example, slept with a whip under her pillow so it would be easily at hand if Minty, then younger than 10, fell asleep and stopped rocking the crib of her mistress' baby.

Escaping slavery

Minty married a free black man, John Tubman, in the mid-1840s and took the name Harriet Tubman. Her mother's name was Harriet.

Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in 1849, though her husband did not join her.


Tubman went on to become one of the primary "conductors" of the Underground Railroad. She arranged the escape of hundreds of slaves, including enslaved relatives, and earned the nickname "Moses."

Tubman died on March 10, 1913, in New York state, where she had operated a home for indigent and sick African-Americans.


Among the leaning and worn gravestones that dot a wooded cemetery on the banks of Beaufort County's Combahee River, two stand out.

They are the small, square markers noting the final resting place of two Union soldiers, Wally Garrett and James Sheppard. It's not known if the men took part in the 1863 Combahee River raid. But what appears to be a government shield is imprinted on the stones. It says both men were members of Company G, 34th U.S. Colored Infantry.

Only a few paces away is an elaborate set of Civil War-era earthworks and trenches that soldiers could use for cover.

Garrett entered service as a private and died as a corporal. Sheppard did not make it past private.

Company G's roster reveals that another man, Alfred, shared Sheppard's unusually spelled surname. Were the men relatives? Brothers?

While little is known about the men, much is known about the 34th. The unit was organized as the 2nd South Carolina Infantry and reorganized in February 1864 as 34th U.S. Colored Infantry.

Reach Washington at (803) 771-8385 or wwashington@thestate.com.