Book Review: Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War

Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War by Edda L. Fields-Black. New York: Oxford University Press, 2024. Hardcover, 776 pp. $39.99.

Reviewed by Rich Condon

A walk along the lower Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, with its flowing black-hued waters, tall marshy grass, and pungent pluff mud shores, is a grounding experience for those who have visited the tranquil landscape. The peaceful stretch of former rice fields along the Combahee River was once home to bustling plantations where hundreds of enslaved African Americans had their labor exploited for the benefit of white southern aristocracy. It was here, on June 2-3, 1863, where 756 bonds people were liberated by Black soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry (US) under the command of abolitionist Col. James Montgomery, and through the guidance of a woman commonly referred to as “Moses” by those whom she liberated through her work on the Underground Railroad. The multi-layered history and essence of this space, and its people, is explored in detail by Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black through her groundbreaking book titled Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War.

Fields-Black, who herself is a descendant of a veteran of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry and the Combahee Raid, examines the region and its people through the lens of rice culture in an American slave society. In a larger sense, she takes a close look at the lives of the enslaved, the enslavers, and the forces which set them on their respective paths through the Civil War and Reconstruction. What took place during the Combahee River Raid did not happen in a vacuum. Those who sought freedom with Harriet Tubman and the soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina had lives before emancipation and well after, both of which stood in stark contrast of each other. Using painstakingly researched primary source material—soldier and widows’ pension files, planter records, and contemporary accounts—Fields-Black illustrates this transition from enslavement to freedom and the difficult, yet courageous, undertakings endured by those who sought their emancipation.

As Fields-Black discloses early on in the book, this publication is not intended to be a biography of Tubman as much as it is an exploration of the experiences which led her on the path of a freedom seeker and emancipator, and the factors which placed her in the U.S. Army’s Department of the South and on a course toward the metamorphic milestone of the Combahee River Raid. Broken into four parts, Fields-Black’s work chronicles the varied experiences of enslaved African Americans along the Combahee River and the intersection of their lives with that of Harriet Tubman’s; from their experiences in bondage to the U.S. liberation and occupation of the coastal Sea Islands, and the June 1863 raid to the perpetuated results of self-emancipation and transformation in Black Lowcountry communities. The impactful events described in the book, Fields-Black argues, were major contributing factors to the formation of the community which continues to thrive in the coastal Gullah Geechee Corridor.

Until the release of Combee, mainstay histories on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction in the South Carolina Lowcountry included the great works of Rehearsal for Reconstruction by Willie Lee Rose and Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption by Dr. Stephen Wise and Dr. Larry Rowland. This extraordinary offering, Combee, transcends regional narratives and contributes to a larger collective of human interest stories. Edda Fields-Black’s research and captivating storytelling does a large stroke of justice to the memory of those who found freedom along the Combahee River during the transformative raid, and, for the expanding library, presents an important historical work essential to understanding our relationship with a troubled and inspiring past.


Rich Condon is a public historian from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of West Virginia’s Shepherd University. For over a decade he has worked with a multitude of sites and organizations including The Battle of Franklin Trust, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, and the National Park Service, including work at Beaufort, South Carolina’s Reconstruction Era National Historical Park and Catoctin Mountain Park. He has written for Civil War Times Magazine, The American Battlefield Trust, as well as Emerging Civil War, and operates the Civil War Pittsburgh blog, which focuses on sharing stories related to western Pennsylvania’s role in the Civil War. Rich currently lives in Gettysburg.

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