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"Roundheads and Ramblings"


Remembering Harriet’s Triumphant Journey on Combahee

This is a re-blogged article that first appeared yesterday to honor the memory of Harriet Tubman.  Queen Quet tells a story that also appears in my "The Road to Frogmore," so some of you will recognize the details.

June 2nd is the date that Mama Moses Harriet Ross Tubman also known as "General Tubman" worked shoulder to shoulder with Colonel Montgomery as they led the "Combahee River Raid" just up the road a piece and along the waters that now flow under the only bridge in the world named in her honor.

I thought about the many awards that I have been presented with bearing Harriet Tubman's name and image.  I remembered when I first uncovered the records of her living in the City of Beaufort, SC and having a laundry co-op and a bakery.  I remember when it appeared that no one else knew or took much interest in this aspect of Beaufort history, but me.  

I remember being a re-enactor in the parade in Beaufort and I walked as Harriet Tubman along side two men who were there to portray Nathaniel Heyward and Gullah Statesman Robert Smalls.  We ended the parade teaching the children at Beaufort Elementary who each of these people were and their significance to our county and to the history of America.  I remember going home each of those times with songs in my soul.As

 I continued to work with other historians around the country to get the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom established, we continued to discuss the strength and multifaceted roles of Harriet Tubman and how these have been down played and ignored.  We would no longer allow her significance to be ignored!  So, we pushed on as she would have done and finally we got the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom established and proceeded with getting her recognized nationally via the Harriet Tubman Study as well.  The study now gave us a chance to revisit all that I had uncovered before and to bring it to the table with the records of her work in Maryland and New York.As more and more pages were amassed about this powerful woman, amongst these were the records of what took place on June 2, 1863.  

On this date, Harriet Tubman became the first woman to plan and guide a significant armed raid during the United States Civil War. Harriet Tubman and the 2nd Regiment South Carolina Volunteer Infantry which was an all Black regiment that contained many native Gullah/Geechees destroyed millions of dollars worth of Confederate supplies and freed close to 800 people from bondage in the rice fields along the river which divides Beaufort and Colleton Counties today.

According to the dispatch which appeared on the front page of a Boston newspaper called, The Commonwealth on Friday, July 10, 1863:

Col. Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off near 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch. It was a glorious consummation. 

After they were all fairly well disposed of in the Beaufort charge, they were addressed in strains of thrilling eloquence by their gallant deliverer, to which they responded in a song. “There is a white robe for thee,” a song so appropriate and so heartfelt and cordial as to bring unbidden tears. The Colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman, who led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence, her address would do honor to any man, and it created a great sensation... 

Since the rebellion she had devoted herself to her great work of delivering the bondman, with an energy and sagacity that cannot be exceeded. Many and many times she has penetrated the enemy’s lines and discovered their situation and condition, and escaped without injury, but not without extreme hazard.

Mama Moses Harriet Tubman surveyed the area herself as she was known to do as the true scout that she was.  She was willing to lead the 150 "Negro troops" in the raid as long as Colonel Montgomery was in charge of it.  According to "Scenes in  the Life of Harriet Tubman" (p. 39.):

The Combahee strategy was formulated by Harriet Tubman as an outcome of her penetrations of the enemy lines and her belief that the Combahee River countryside was ripe for a successful invasion.  She was asked by General Hunter “if she would go with several gunboats up the Combahee River, the object of the expedition being to take up the torpedoes placed by the rebels in the river, to destroy railroads and bridges, and to cut off supplies from the rebel troops. She said she would go if Col. Montgomery was to be appointed commander of the expedition…Accordingly, Col. Montgomery was appointed to the command, and Harriet, with several men under her, the principal of whom was J. Plowden…accompanied the expedition.

"The success that this united force had together turned the tide of the Civil War and allowed Harriet Tubman and the troops to return to Beaufort County, SC.  Although they never provided her an appropriate military title after this, we could easily call her "Colonel Tubman" since that was the leading role that she played in this triumphant journey up the river.   Accounts of that day even state that she also made her way to her station at my home island of St. Helena.  

So, it is not surprising that the flow of the tide onto St. Helena's shores awoke me this morning with songs of freedom in my mind just as Colonel Mama Moses Harriet Tubman sang a song of freedom upon the Combahee.  I pray that these sounds from our souls get into the hearts and the minds of others.  Not another day should sail by without the story of her outstanding role as a soldier that went to the front lines for the freedom of our people-of Gullah/Geechee people-is told!  Like the fort, Harriet Tubman's story still stands strong and the songs of freedom flow on!

College of Charleston's Jubilee Project

Last year I participated in a year-long project by the College of Charleston to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Emancipation and the subsequent desegregation of South Carolina schools. My book, The Road to Frogmore, told part of that story.  The project came to a close last November, but today I received a request from the director:

"We would appreciate it if you could write a reflection about your book, The Road to Frogmore. Your comments should focus on what you found to be most important about your work--share what you found to be most rewarding, most difficult, most surprising, whatever you find to be most significant to your individual experience and the project overall."

After a bit of stewing about the prospect of yet another writing project , I realized that I had already written such a reflection as an "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book. So here it is, with only a bit of editing so that the article can stand alone as part of the archive of The Jubilee Project.

Carolyn P. Schriber
“Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”
~Francis Bacon
The Road to Frogmore tells the story of Laura M. Towne, who came to a small island on the coast of South Carolina during the Civil War and almost single-handedly created a school tha could turn former slaves into producive American ciizens.  The book is fiction, but its story is true, and its characters are real. How can that be? It is true because it is based on documented historical evidence. It is fiction because I have had to use my own imagination to fill in the blanks within the evidence.
There is no shortage of sources material for the story of Laura M. Towne. Laura, like most of her colleagues, kept a diary throughout the first years of her stay in South Carolina. All of her Gideonite colleagues were inveterate letter-writers, and much of their correspondence is still available. As a result, a researcher suffers from an over-abundance of material evidence. Almost every event during the Port Royal Experiment had multiple witnesses and participants. The problem, of course, is that when nine different people write their own descriptions of a particular event, they produce nine different truths—and all of them may be “true.” Truth changes, depending upon who tells the story.
Diaries, too, can be untrustworthy. The diarist tells what she knows, but she may not be able to
tell what she has chosen to forget or what she failed to see. In Laura’s case, her diary entries
often reveal a dark side to her character, and her fears come out to play in the dark. Her letters
can seem cloyingly sweet and cheerful. She was very likely to write to her sisters to tell them she
was bursting with good health, that she never felt better in her whole life. But a diary entry
written the same night may indulge in descriptions of raging headaches, nausea, and muscle
cramps that she feared were symptoms of terminal illness. Which one was the true Laura? That is
the question her diary and letters fail to answer.
The Port Royal Experiment was marked by ongoing disagreements—religious differences,
opposing political and economic theories, and widely varying reactions to the conditions under
which they were all living. The result was, of course, a narrative of disagreement. In a novel, the
reader wants to know how much is true, but there is a difference between truth and fact. Facts
reveal details but can hide the truth behind a wall of distorted mirror images. Which image is
The writer of historical fiction must take the details and transform them into a story that makes
sense. Sometimes that task demands a new search to ascertain the “truth” and sometimes it needs
a healthy dose of imagination to make facts understandable. In The Road to Frogmore, all the
characters are real, and I have changed no names to protect anyone from the consequences of his
or her actions. Events are factual; dates are accurate; outcomes fully revealed. Is the story true?
Perhaps. But it is also fiction because it reflects my own interpretations of how the characters felt
and how they must have talked to one another.
My greatest challenge came when I tried to portray the slaves who were the heart and soul behind Laura’s story. The slaves of St. Helena Island left no written record of their experiences and feelings. Yet every time I described a crisis point in their story, I knew I was missing an important factor because I had no evidence of how the slaves interpreted the event. At last I chose one individual as a spokesperson for them all. That spokesperson was Rina, the slave woman whom Laura paid to be her laundress.
Throughout Laura’s diary, she referred to Rina in ways that suggested that this woman was a keen observer of her surroundings.  Time and again, Laura writes, “Rina says . . .” and the following comment turns out to be a crucial  observation. Rina appears throughout
Laura’s diary, all the more frequently as Laura came to rely on her as a conduit into the slave
community. In my book, she functions in the same way as a Greek chorus does—watching the action while remaining aloof from it and commenting on the behavior of those who don’t fully understand the culture in which they are embedded.
I must add a word about Rina and the language she speaks. Rina, like all of the slaves in the Low Country, spoke Gullah, a language in its own right, with its own rules of grammar, a distinct syntax, and a vocabulary that contained both English words and words from several African languages. It also used certain sounds that a speaker of a European language cannot pronounce. Linguists no longer see Gullah as patois, or a form of broken English. But for that reason, it became a daunting task to reproduce it authentically, while making it understandable for readers of English.
While I wrote, I kept by my side a Gullah dictionary and a wonderful translation of De Gullah
Nyew Testament produced by the Penn Center’s efforts to preserve the Gullah language. Yet the
closer I came to being able to recreate the speech of a St. Helena slave, the more unintelligible it
became for readers. With the help of my editor, Gabriella Deponte, we finally settled on a
version of Gullah that preserves much of the authenticity of the original language while making
it accessible to speakers of English.
We started by eliminating all apostrophes. An apostrophe suggests that there is a right way to
pronounce a word, and that the speaker has failed to include all the correct syllables or sounds. It
privileges the English form over the Gullah instead of recognizing that they are separate
languages. An English speaker says “Tomorrow we are going to Beaufort.” A Gullah speaker
says “Morrow we gwine go fuh Bufor.” Both are understandable. Apostrophes are unnecessary.
We included a few words that appear only in Gullah, such as buckra, which means a white man
or white person. We also used the Gullah fuh in place of an English infinitive to and replaced all
forms of going to with the Gullah gwine.
The verb to be, with all its forms (am is, are was, were, have been, has been, had been) appears
in only two forms in Gullah (be or bin). A similar reduction occurs with pronouns, which for the
most part are not inflected (no possessive or accusative forms). So a speaker of Gullah says, “He
bring food fuh we” (not “for us”).
Gullah speakers do not (perhaps cannot) pronounce a sound that would be an unaccented syllable
at the beginning of an English word. This happens most often with words that begin with a
vowel, such as accept, which becomes cept or exactly, which becomes zakly. The result is a
speech pattern that always begins with an accented syllable and produces a strong rhythm similar
to the poetic sounds of an English dactyl.
Finally, certain common English sounds are difficult for a speaker of Gullah. Our version
changes all fricative th sounds to d (they becomes dey; other becomes udder). An aspirated th
changes to a simple t (thing becomes ting; thumb becomes tum). Similarly, most v sounds change
to a b (never becomes neber; very becomes bery).
With those adaptations, Rina’s voice rang true, and she was able to speak directly to the reader, putting into her own words the inchoate feelings of her fellow slaves.  Hers is the voice that guides the reader down the long road to Frogmore Plantation and the founding of the Penn School.

The Abolitionists

We watched the second installment of "The Abolitionists" last night on PBS.  While I'm enjoying the programs and in general think they are doing a fairly good job of character portrayal, I come away from each segment thinking, "Yes, but. . . ."

Certainly Angelina Grimke, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and, and Frederick Douglass are important figures in the movement, and yes, their actions had much to do with starting the Civil War. But so far, the programs have failed to reveal some of the flaws in the abolitionist movement.  

As I was writing "The Road to Frogmore," which deals with a group of abolitionists who traveled to South Carolina in 1862 to work with the newly freed slaves, I was repeatedly struck by the abolitionists' "innocence" -- the degree to which they failed to recognize the problems they  were facing.  Commend them all you like about their stance that slavery had to be abolished.  But did none of them ask, "Then what?"  Did none of them look at the total number of slaves in the South and wonder how in the world they were going to assimilate them once they were free?  And did no one ever realize that the slaves might have an attachment to the land where their families had lived and worked for generations? 

I found instance after instance in which Union soldiers approached the slaves whose masters had abandoned them with similar questions: "Don't you know you're free now?  Why are you still living in that old slave cabin? Go on! Move on! You're free now.  You can go anywhere you like." And none seemed prepared for the answer to be, "We don't want to leave.  This is home."

Many of the abolitionists were disturbed to find former slaves addressing them as "Missus" and Massa," and although they were often made uncomfortableby the need to take the place of the slave-owners in order to have any influence over the freedmen, it was also much too easy to "become" a slave-owner.  When they offered army rations, or started classes to teach the children to read, or went from cabin to cabin to provide medical care, or handed out clothing, they were doing things that slaves had become accustomed to seeing their owners do.

When some enterprising northerners bought up plantation land and hired former slaves to do the work, they were all too aware that to the former slaves, they were little different than their former owners.  Yes, there was some payment of wages, but the work was just as back-breaking as it had always been.

These issues crop up over and over again in "The Road to Frogmore." For many of the people portrayed in the book, the problems were too great.  The realization that emancipation was not an end to the problem but only another beginning sent many abolitionists home to find another line of "good works."

Perhaps that's why I came to admire Laura Towne.  She didn't have any more answers than the rest of her colleagues, but at least she was willing to see the problems through. She and Ellen Murray spend the rest of their lives -- some 40+ years -- trying to solve the issues caused by slavery. I'm going to be watching the next installment of the PBS series closely to see if they address these questions.

Day of Jubilee!

January 1, 1863

A Proclamation: Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

Most people in the Low Country could recite the opening lines of the Emancipation Proclamation by heart, long before it went into effect. For the Army, it meant a rich new source of manpower. For the Gideonites, it was the culmination of all their years of campaigning for abolition. And for the former slaves, it was a guarantee that Uncle Sam himself had declared them forever free.

The provisions of the proclamation reassured the whites that the former slaves would abstain from violence except in self-defense. Even long-time abolitionists found that something of a relief. It urged the freedmen to work hard in exchange for reasonable wages. The field hands saw a guarantee that wages would be paid on time; the superintendents put their faith in the blacks’ instruction to keep working at jobs where they were needed. Permission for former slaves to enter the armed services meant that the newly formed black regiments would have a steady supply of enlistees. Everyone was happy, with the possible exception of the die-hard former plantation owners, but, for everyone concerned, there was a need to hear the proclamation read out in official terms.

Lincoln Rejects Gen. Hunter's Emancipation Decree

One difficulty Hunter faced was the lack of administrative support. Since his scheme did not have official governmental approval, he had to scrounge for staff officers. Some of the Roundheads, invited to help with the formation of the black regiment, witnessed at first hand the unit's problems of leadership and organization. John H. Stevenson reminisced:

This was called the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, though the fact of volunteering was far from being a fact, as many of the slaves were brought in as recruits by squads of armed white soldiers. [I] was tendered a commission, but Col. Leasure dissuaded me from accepting the same, though quite a number of "Round Heads" were accepted as captains [and] lieutenants, and this regiment was subsequently disbanded as the government did not seem to be ready for such a bold scheme.

            The real problem was that the Federal government was not yet ready to accept emancipation, and President Lincoln acted quickly to repeal Hunter's decree. On 19 May, he issued the following statement:

I, Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, proclaim and declare, that the government of the United States, had no knowledge, information, or belief, of an intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation; nor has it yet, any authentic information that the document is genuine. And further, that neither General Hunter, nor any other commander, or person, has been authorized by the Government of the United States, to make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free; and that the supposed proclamation, now in question, whether genuine or false, is altogether void, so far as respects such declaration.

Lincoln went on to explain that he would encourage any state to consider the gradual emancipation of slaves and would offer the cooperation of the federal government in such efforts, but Hunter's decree was effectively dead. Most of the blacks rounded up in the recruitment drive of 12 May were home within ten days.

Little wonder, therefore, that when the official announcement finally arrived later that year, the slaves were reluctant to believe that this time the government really meant it.  On New Year's Eve, we are told, slave churches were full, holding "Watch Night" services, but with fervent prayers that the coming Emancipation Proclamation would last longer than the previous one.