Harriet Tubman slept here.
Historians can agree on that.
But whatever else the future face of America’s $20 bill did on Hilton Head Island and Beaufort during the Civil War is less certain.
“The term I tend to use for her activity in the area is: ‘The elusive Harriet Tubman,’ ” said historian Stephen R. Wise of Beaufort.
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We really don’t know what she did.
Stephen R. Wise
Tubman, a tiny former slave known as “Moses” for conducting scores to freedom on the Underground Railroad, most famously participated in a Union raid up the Combahee River. It was a huge success. At the cost of zero lives, the raid disrupted rice production the Confederates needed and brought back to Union-occupied Port Royal more than 700 enslaved people.
But Tubman did not lead the Combahee Raid, as is commonly believed. And she did not claim that she did, Wise’s research of her time in the Lowcountry shows.
Also, Wise said, there is no proof that she was a Union spy while here, as is often stated.
The problem is that very little was written about Tubman’s sojourn in Beaufort County, which stretched from the spring of 1862 to early 1864.
That is a quandary, considering she was famous when she got here.
Tubman’s name shows up only a handful of times in all the diaries, letters, reports and officers’ correspondence Wise pored over in writing, with Lawrence S. Rowland, the recently-released “Rebellion, Reconstruction and Redemption, 1861-1893: The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 2.”
“We really don’t know what she did,” Wise said. “I am not putting her down when I say that. We just don’t know.”
Like many others from the North who wanted to help at the dawn of freedom, Tubman came to the Lowcountry aboard the fast steamer, Atlantic. She was enrolled in the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society by Massachusetts Gov. John Andrews, who thought she could be used here as a spy.
She arrived to find a bustling city on Hilton Head, with a thousand civilians running businesses, including a newspaper, along Robbers Row outside a Union camp of nearly 2,500 soldiers.
“She helped in the hospitals,” Wise said, “and she helped refugee blacks learn how to become capitalists by teaching women to sell pies and do laundry and things of that nature.”
Like most others, Tubman had trouble understanding the Gullah tongue of the sea island freedmen, and it was a challenge to gain their trust.
Don’t you think we colored people are entitled to some credit ...
Indications are that she worked in a commissary or restaurant. Many of the Northern “missionaries” worked in schools, but Tubman was illiterate.
But the story of the Combahee Raid is the one that still captures the imagination of history students, Wise said, because of the physical danger she was in.
The raid began after dark on June 1, 1863, when two armed steamers and an unarmed transport vessel sailed from the Beaufort River under Col. James Montgomery of Kansas. The strike force included about 250 men, mostly African-Americans.
One vessel was grounded in St. Helena Sound, which was more resistance than the Confederates would offer.
Mansions and rice barns were burned. Rice fields were flooded. Overseers fled and hundreds of slaves — men, women and children — swarmed to the boats, seeking freedom.
“Once back on the ship, Col. Montgomery, reveling in his success, called on Tubman for a song as the slaves crowded on board,” the new history book says.
Hundreds more had to be left behind as they prayed and shouted from a causeway.
The expedition got back to Beaufort on June 3.
The freed slaves were temporarily housed in the Baptist church, where Montgomery addressed them, and they responded by singing “There is a White Robe for Thee.”
Then Tubman gave a speech so inspirational that about 150 men joined the 2nd Regiment South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, headed by Montgomery.
Wise writes that Tubman dictated a letter later that month that said:
“Don’t you think we colored people are entitled to some credit for that exploit under the lead of the brave Colonel Montgomery? We weakened the rebels somewhat on the Combahee River by taking 756 head of their most valuable livestock known up in your region as contrabands, and this too, without the loss of a single life on our part ... Of these 756 contrabands, nearly or quite all the able-bodied men have joined the colored regiment here.”
The refugees were moved to a freedman’s village near today’s Naval Hospital in Port Royal. It was known as Montgomery Hill.
“Known collectively as the ‘Combees,’ they eventually were provided with new homes located in a row of over a dozen buildings, each resembling a huge wooden box divided into four compartments, with a family of five to 15 in each room,” the new history book says.
“The refugees proved to be resilient and resourceful. They chose one of their own to supervise the village and proudly referred to themselves as ‘We’s Combee’ to distinguish themselves from the sea island blacks.”
Wise said most of them returned to the Combahee area in early 1865.
In that area today, a new four-lane bridge over the Combahee River on U.S. 17 bears the name of Harriet Tubman.
And her story still resonates, with impersonators like Natalie Daise often telling it “first-person.”
The Hilton Head Island Land Trust recently placed a steel likeness of Tubman on the grounds of Fort Howell on Beach City Road. The fort was built near the end of the war to protect the nearby freedman’s village known as Mitchelville.
Tubman’s image now stands in woods she once knew because the fort is among the sites on the National Park Service’s “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.”
And this week, we learned that Americans will one day carry in their wallets images of the elusive Harriet Tubman — one of the most revered people to ever sleep here.