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Harriet Tubman and the Raid at Combahee Ferry

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Among the archives of the Southampton Museum are the Civil War service records of John Bartlett Lawrence. John was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts on April 30, 1830 to Daniel Lawrence (age 43) and Sarah Custus (age 15). According to Jeannettte Rattray’s book “Ship Ashore!”, he was on board the brig Daniel Webster when she ran aground off Amagansett on March 25, 1856. The Daniel Websterwas sailing from the Canary Islands with a cargo of salt, rice, nuts and fruit. Taking advantage of the situation, John went ashore, where he met 17-year old Nancy Edwards of Amagansett. They fell in love and were married on May 11, 1857. John still loved the sea and when the Civil War broke out, the 5’ 6 1/2” tall John joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 31. On November 22, 1862 John was an Acting Masters Mate on the USS John Adams, where she was acting as a training ship at the U.S. Naval Academy located in Newport, Rhode Island. The Naval Academy had been moved from Annapolis, Maryland to Newport at the beginning of the War because there were still many Confederate sympathizers in Eastern Maryland. John was promoted to Acting Boatswain on the John Adams on April 11, 1863.

The USS John Adams was built for speed and maneuverability, with a complement of 220 officers and enlisted men and an armament consisting of twenty-four 12-pounder and six 24-pounder guns. She was built in 1799 in Charlestown, South Carolina, so it was ironic that in 1863 she was sent to fight at Charleston Harbor. There, she acted as the flagship for the harbor blockade, tasked with keeping Confederate and other ships from bring supplies to the Rebel army. John was probably on board the John Adams when she was sent to Charlestown. While in Charlestown, the John Adams was ordered to participate in a raid organized by Harriet Tubman.

Although Harriet Tubman’s exact birth date is unknown, she was probably born between 1820 and 1822 in Dorchester, Maryland. Born into slavery, she worked variously as a maid, a nurse, a field hand, a cook, and a woodcutter, preferring outdoor work to indoor. When she was about to be sold, she ran away on September 17, 1849 and, with the help of the Underground Railroad, went to Philadelphia. She spent the next ten years helping over 100 slaves escape north. The famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called her "Moses," and the name stuck. After the Civil War began, she volunteered to provide badly needed nursing care for African-American soldiers with the Union forces in South Carolina. She is considered the first African American woman to serve in the military. Though just over five feet tall, she was a force to be reckoned with. In addition to her nursing, she was also a skilled scout, spying behind Confederate lines and providing valuable information about the location of troops and supplies. Based on this information, she assisted Colonel James Montgomery, an outspoken abolitionist from Kansas, in planning a raid on several plantations along the Combahee River. The raid, known as the Combahee River Raid, was the only Civil War action organized by a female civilian.

The Combahee River (pronounced kəm-BEE) is one of the many rivers that run into the St. Helena Sound, near Hilton Head, South Carolina. In early 1863, this area of the Carolina coast saw considerable action as Union forces supported efforts to capture Charleston and Savannah. On the morning of June 2, 1863, 300 men from the 2nd South Carolina Regiment, together with some Rhode Island artillerymen, were on board the John Adams and two other ships as they sailed up the Combahee. The 2nd South Carolina Regiment (later renamed the 34th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry), was formed in January 1863 by Colonel Montgomery and consisted of free blacks and refugee former slaves. Although the enlisted men were black, they were to serve under all white officers. Commanded by Colonel Montgomery, the expedition was guided by Harriet, who directed the ships past obstacles in the river. The little flotilla sailed up the Combahee River to Combahee Ferry, where Union forces destroyed a temporary pontoon bridge and took rice and livestock from nearby plantations. In the meantime, slaves working in the fields, initially wary when they first saw the approaching Union troops, started to flock to the river. Despite the efforts of overseers and Confederate soldiers to stop them, many slaves were taken on board the ships. By late afternoon, the fighting was over and the Union forces floated back down the Combahee. The raid was a success, destroying vital supplies and freeing about 750 slaves, all without Union loss. Tubman later said that the only flaw in the affair was her choice of clothing because her dress got torn.

After the War, Tubman lived in Auburn, New York, tending to her family and working to promote women's right to vote, among other causes. She died of pneumonia in 1913 and was buried with semi-military honors in Auburn. The 34th Regiment continued to fight gallantly, including the battle at Honey Hill, South Carolina, where it fought along with the all-white 127th New York Infantry, in which many Southampton men fought. John Lawrence left the Navy in 1865 and returned to Long Island, where he settled in East Hampton. He and Nancy had six children, four of whom survived childhood. His first son, Isaac E. Lawrence, who was born in 1859, died at sea in 1897. His wife, Nancy died in 1908. After Nancy’s death,John remained in East Hampton until his death on December 29, 1915.

Although only a paper trail now remains of John Lawrence, it is a reminder of the sacrifices made by men and women, black and white to end slavery and win freedom for Black Americans.

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