African American Transportation History: With Water Transportation and Plenty of Courage, Harriet Tubman Helps Liberate Hundreds of Enslaved People in South Carolina

Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1849. She subsequently risked her life to help others in that region of Maryland escape to freedom. As an Underground Railroad conductor in the years prior to the American Civil War, Tubman made approximately 13 trips to the Eastern Shore and led about 70 enslaved people to the North. In addition, it has been estimated that Tubman gave guidance to at least 70 other individuals escaping from slavery on their own. Tubman’s courageous and effective efforts as part of the Underground Railroad established her reputation as a fierce champion of freedom.

Another one of Tubman’s accomplishments in her fight against slavery — and something that relied very much on water transportation — took place during the American Civil War. This accomplishment involved the largest one-time liberation of enslaved individuals in American history.

Tubman worked for the Union Army in a variety of roles, including that of a scout for troops making their way into the Confederacy. It was in this capacity that Tubman accompanied Union troops on a military operation along the Combahee River in South Carolina in June 1863. Tubman helped plan this expedition, and the U.S. Navy ships transporting her and the others were the Sentinel, Harriet A. Weed, and John Adams.

Many of the enslaved individuals in the area who saw the Union ships and troops quickly made their way to the banks of the river. Overseers as well as Confederate soldiers tried to get the ever-growing number of enslaved people away from the river, but those individuals remained in place on the shore there and called out for the Union troops to rescue them. Rowboats from the Navy ships each made several trips to pick up as many enslaved people as possible and bring them on board the ships.

Tubman, for her part, exhorted those escaping from slavery to stay hopeful and focused throughout this frenzied and high-risk effort on their behalf. The Boston-based Commonwealth newspaper reported that “her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation.” Ultimately, more than 750 enslaved people were transported from the banks of the Combahee River to lives of freedom.

(The above photo of Harriet Tubman was taken during the late 1860s.)

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Additional information on Harriet Tubman’s activities and achievements during the American Civil War is available at

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