In April 1865, America was a different place from what it had been just four years before. Atlanta: burned. Richmond: burned. Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: burned. Swaths of the South were scissored with trenches and abatis and pocked with shell holes. Washington, D.C., had become an army town, with barricades in the streets and more than 500 bordellos behind the shades. And in every city and town, North as well as South, there were changes among the people: men who were gone, men who were maimed, people who had been masters who were now nearly helpless, people who were free who had to discover how to live freely. The story of America had been revised with chapters on Antietam, Gettysburg and Andersonville, and on emancipation and citizenship and a new birth of freedom, the meanings of which were unsettled then and elude full agreement even now.
Today, 150 years after the fighting ended, the Civil War remains central in the American imagination. Some of the landscapes are changing, but the stories prevail—tales of courage and foolishness and the very human outcomes that resulted. For the last four years, Americans have been marking anniversaries, from Fort Sumter onward. What we offer now, as a last 150th-year look back, is a tour of less-visited sites that reflect more intimately how the Civil War changed the nation.
The Combahee River, South Carolina
Although Federal troops routinely liberated any slaves found when they moved into Rebel-held territory, they did not routinely launch actions with the specific objective of freeing slaves. Alone in that category is the June 2, 1863, expedition made up of the Second South Carolina Volunteer Regiment, a unit consisting of 300 former slaves, and a section of the Third Rhode Island Battery. The mission was conceived and led, at least in part, by Harriet Tubman, which made her the first woman in U.S. history to plan and lead a military raid. It is commemorated today with a state highway marker on Route 17, just south of where the Harriet Tubman Bridge carries the road over the Combahee River north of Beaufort.
Famous for her service on the Underground Railroad before the war, Tubman was working as a cook and nurse for the U.S. Army in South Carolina—at least officially. But she had been issued a pass by Gen. David Hunter, a leading voice for emancipation, that gave her freedom to move about the countryside unimpeded. Visiting camps of escaped slaves that had been set up on the South Carolina coast, she recruited ten men to scout the Combahee River and the Lowcountry plantations along its shore. She also paid escaped slaves for updated intelligence.
Hunter asked Tubman if she would go upriver with three gunboats and show the troops where mines had been planted, where railroad bridges were located and where escaped slaves were hiding. Tubman agreed to go if Col. James Montgomery was given command of the mission. Montgomery, a Kansas jayhawker, was an ardent abolitionist who had ridden with John Brown before the war.
The mere presence of the Union flotilla set off an exodus of slaves out of the fields bordering the Combahee and toward the gunboats. “In vain, then, the drivers used their whips in their efforts to hurry the poor creatures back to their quarters,” wrote Tubman biographer Sarah H. Bradford. Tubman said she’d never seen such a sight: “Here you’d see a woman wid a pail on her head, rice a smokin’ in it jus’ as she’d taken it from de fire, young one hangin’ on behind, one han’ roun’ her forehead to hold on.” Almost 800 slaves gave the lie to Southern claims of their passive loyalty as they flocked to be rowed out to the gunboats and freedom.