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 attack?"
"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 Harriet Tubman."
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 about."
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 squallin'."
[This is a direct quote from Miss Tubman's own narration of what happened.]
"What about the plantation owners and overseers, Colonel?"
"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 again."
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 Island.
"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 said.
"You'll get what you need, one way or another," he promised.
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.