The next morning was delightfully cool, and the teachers
from St. Helena enjoyed the short boat ride across the river to Beaufort. As
they approached the city, they could see a small crowd gathering at the water's
edge, but nothing seemed amiss.
Lottie Forten was delighted to see that Doctor Rogers was there. He
greeted her as she stepped off the boat. "Come," he said, "I
want you to have a place in the front row. You're going to enjoy this."
Mystified, she followed him through the crowd, noticing that
many of Colonel Higginson's men were present. "I don't see Colonel
Montgomery anywhere," she said.
"He'll arrive shortly," Doctor Rogers said with a
slight knowing smile.
A shout went up from somewhere in the crowd. "Gunboats
approaching from the west!"
"From the west? Coming down the river? Are we under
"No, this is a scheduled arrival."
Lottie stood on tiptoe and strained to see the boats more
clearly. "They appear to be loaded down with passengers, and there's
someone standing at the prow, but that's all I can make out."
As the gunboats came closer, she caught her breath.
"They all appear to be black, but I still don't understand the person at
the front of the boat. It's certainly not Colonel Montgomery. It looks more
like a small child."
"No, not a child. More like a very tiny lady wearing a
turban. Recognize her now?"
"Is it… no, it can't be. Miss Tubman?"
"I believe so. Listen now. We'll have an announcement
as soon as the boats tie up."
Colonel James Montgomery was the first to disembark. He
strode to General Saxton, saluted crisply, and shouted so that all could hear.
"Sir, I have the honor to present to you some 750 former slaves, newly
liberated from the plantations along the Combahee River through the efforts of
the 2 South Carolina Volunteers under the leadership of Miss
A gasp went up from the crowd and then applause and cheers
filled the morning air.
The passengers now poured off the boats and for a while
chaos reigned. Saxton had planned well for this moment, however, and his
officers soon sorted the newcomers into manageable groups. A hundred or more
strong young men had volunteered to join Montgomery's regiment, and a couple of
black sergeants soon had them lined up and marching toward a makeshift camp.
Miss Tubman bustled about, identifying the elderly and ailing so that Dr.
Rogers and his staff could assess their conditions and arrange for their
medical needs to be treated in one of the local hospitals. The remaining family
units assembled close to the docks. Each group of fifty or so had its own
military officer and one of the teacher-missionaries.
General Saxton addressed these groups last. "I have
arranged for you to be transferred to St. Helena Island, where your needs will be
met. Military rations are already there and will be distributed to each family,
along with temporary shelter in the form of tents. As soon as we determine how
many houses will be needed, we'll be assigning you to empty dwellings on the
island. If we need more room, our Army engineers will provide building
materials to help you erect your own new homes.
'Please tell your leaders about
any special skills you may have that can help us build your new community.
We'll want to identify the cooks, the carpenters, the farmers, the stable
hands, and so forth. Welcome to the United States and freedom!"
At last he turned to Laura Towne. "Sorry to keep you in
the dark about all of this, but we wanted to make sure the boats made it back
safely before any announcement. I've asked Colonel Montgomery and Miss Tubman
to join my staff in the mess tent for a debriefing. Would you and Miss Forten
care to join us? I'm sure you must be curious about how all this came
James Montgomery opened the meeting by describing Miss
Tubman's efforts. "She has been prowling around the interior for the past
month with her small band of spies. They infiltrated the plantations, talked to
the slaves, and learned where the river had been mined to prevent any invasion.
She promised her people that they would be rescued when they heard gunboats
blowing their whistles. Yesterday she met my gunboats at the mouth of the
Combahee and served as our pilot, guiding us around the Confederate torpedoes
and taking us straight to the banks of the richest plantations in the area. But
she should describe what happened from there."
Harriet beamed with pride as she stood. She described the
scene as slaves dropped whatever they were doing and ran to the banks of the
river when they heard the whistles. Some tried to wade out to the boats while
others clambered into rowboats. A few overseers tried to hold the slaves back.
Others, frightened lest this be a trap, hesitated on the banks.
"I tol' de soljers to take der caps off an' let de
people see der wooly heads," she laughed, "but some uh dem slaves
stil dint trust us, even if we was black like dem. So I stood on de prow uh de
boat an' I sang to em:
Of all the whole creation in the East or in the West,
The glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best.
Come along! Come along! don't be alarmed,
Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm.
"Dat was a song I jist made up 'cause I don't know de
Gullah language an' we had trouble unnerstandin' each udder. But dey unnerstood
bout Uncle Sam. Dat did de trick an' dey all come on da boats.
"I nebber see such a sight," said Harriet;
"we laughed, an' laughed, an' laughed. 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, 'tother han'
diggin' into de rice-pot, eatin' wid all its might; hold of her dress two or
three more; down her back a bag wid a pig in it.
One woman brought two pigs, a
white one an' a black one; we took 'em all on board; named de white pig
Beauregard, and de black pig Jeff Davis. Sometimes de women would come wid
twins hangin' roun' der necks; 'pears like I nebber see so many twins in my
life; bags on der shoulders, baskets on der heads, and young ones taggin'
behin', all loaded; pigs squealin', chickens screamin', young ones
[This is a direct quote from Miss Tubman's own narration of
"What about the plantation owners and overseers,
"A few got themselves shot, sir. And we torched the
plantation buildings and crops. The bosses who were left were too busy with the
fires to make any effort to stop us."
Lottie Forten noticed that Colonel Higginson's jaws
tightened at the thought of wanton destruction, no matter whose property was
involved. "Was that necessary?" he asked.
"Didn't want to leave valuable crops behind, but we
were too full of slaves to transport anything else. And we didn't want those
Rebels to think about coming after us. With their plantations burned around
their ears, they have no further need for slaves. When you find a bed of
snakes, Colonel, you kill them all and destroy their den so they don't bite you
To ease the tension, General Saxton offered lunch, and the
assembled group made its way to the kitchen tent for filled plates. Laura and
Lottie talked with General Saxton over the meal, discussing what additional
supplies would be needed to accommodate six hundred new residents of St. Helena
"It's not as bad as the situation was when you dropped
1500 Edisto Island residents on us," Laura said, "but our resources
are being more fully utilized now. Our plantations can put many of the former
slaves to work, but only if you can guarantee that the government will provide
enough money to pay them. We'll need more teachers, too."
"We have no choice but to provide for them," he
"You'll get what you need, one way or another," he
Lottie was sorry not to have had more time to talk with
Harriet Tubman, so in a couple of days she made excuses to return to Beaufort
for a visit to Camp Saxton. As usual, she was a welcome visitor, but when she
asked about Harriet, Doctor Rogers winced.
She's gone, I'm afraid."
"Gone? Gone where?"
He shrugged. "Nobody knows."
"But what if something has happened to her? She could
have been captured by the Confederates, or she could be ill somewhere, or…"
"This is the way she operates, Lottie. She is a
phantom. She appears where she is needed, and then moves on. She works in the
shadows, blending into the background so that no one notices her. She could be
anywhere, but she won't be found if she doesn't want to be found."
"I wanted to thank her."
"She neither wants nor needs your thanks. She knows the
value of her work, and that's all that matters to her. If you want to show your
appreciation, you'll not endanger her by trying to find her."
This whole short story collection is now available on Kindle Select. Members of KOLL or Amazon Prime can read it for free any time. And starting today and running through midnight on Tuesday, [June 5-7, 2016] anyone can download a personal copy of Left by the Side of the Road.
-- Compliments of the author, as well as all these interesting folks who keep demanding to have their stories told.