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Harriet Tubman, Union Spy

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, February 29, 2024 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1K0455
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(Oxford University Press)

Most Americans know of Harriet Tubman's legendary life. She escaped enslavement in 1849, 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 only touch on 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—a descendant of one of the soldiers who fought in the raid—discusses 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, whose Lowcountry Creole language and culture Tubman could not even understand.

Tracing the raid’s execution and aftermath, Fields-Black uses a variety of previously unexamined documents to bring to life intergenerational, extended enslaved families, neighbors, praise-house members, and sweethearts. They were forced to work in South Carolina's deadly tidal rice swamps, sold, and separated during the antebellum period, then ran for the US Army gunboats to liberate themselves and reunite their families in the Combahee River Raid.

Fields-Black teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University and has served as a consultant for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture's permanent exhibit "Rice Fields of the Lowcountry."

Her book Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom during the Civil War (Oxford University Press) is available for purchase.

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