Memory  /  Book Review

Harriet Tubman and the Most Important, Understudied Battle of the Civil War

Edda L. Fields-Black sets out to restore the Combahee River Raid to its proper place in Tubman’s life and in the war on slavery.

Accounts of the Combahee invasion have, somehow, been incapable of imagining it as a slave rebellion, much less part of a larger slave revolution. Yet the American slave revolution, which we have come to call “the Civil War,” shares all the hallmarks of the Haitian Revolution, on an even grander scale. Just as in Haiti, America’s slave revolution came amid a larger white man’s war, which slaves transformed to include their own revolutionary agenda: immediate emancipation and full Black citizenship. Just as in Haiti, America’s enslaved Black revolutionaries allied with white military forces to achieve their goal of emancipation. America’s Black radicals even convinced liberal white reformers, the core of the Republican Party, to become momentary revolutionaries themselves: As the Jacobins did in France, the Republicans in America formalized the freedom that slaves won for themselves, in places like Combahee, by enshrining emancipation in the United States Constitution.

In some ways, America’s slave revolution was even more radical than Haiti’s. America’s Black revolutionaries did not force most of the white people to leave, nor did they create an exclusively “Black” republic. Instead, they persuaded their leaders, in large part on account of their wartime activities, to enshrine the more revolutionary principle of universal citizenship, regardless of class or race. Nor, as Haitians and most other emancipated peoples were forced to do, did America’s Black rebels compensate their former enslavers for their lost “human property.” To be sure, Black radicals hardly got everything they demanded. There would be no land given to them, to say nothing of reparations. Nor would they receive protection against the vicious white backlash that followed in their revolution’s wake. But perhaps most troubling is that, even today, few people see the war waged by enslaved Black Americans as a veritable revolution. How did we miss it?

It is the task of Edda L. Fields-Black’s remarkable new history, Combee, to recover part of this ignored slave revolution. Her focus is not on the entire war, only its most significant battle: the Combahee River Raid. Though hardly unknown to historians (and perhaps best remembered for the Black feminist collective that took its name as inspiration), the raid is one of the least studied battles in what we call the Civil War, and it features as only a bit chapter in the revolutionary life of one of its main participants, Harriet Tubman. Fields-Black, an accomplished historian of West Africa and the slave South, as well as a descendant of one of the Combahee slave rebels, has set out to restore this battle to its proper place in the life of Harriet Tubman and the larger war on slavery, calling it “the largest and most successful slave rebellion in US history.”