When I first read about Harriet Tubman and her involvement in the Combahee River Raid, I immediately knew that I wanted to do a project around this. The Haitian Revolution project is reasonably wrapped up, so I allowed myself to contemplate something new. The American Civil War was already in my mind because there is a Sharp Practice variant, Terrible Sharp Sword, which covers this conflict. Being a huge fan of Sharp Practice, I am very curious how the story goes on, that is how the new weapons and doctrines of the Civil War era change the tactics and the behaviour of the troops.
Reading about the Combahee River Raid made my decision easy: After all, it combines my interest in warrior women with my fascination for amphibious operations. And it gives me an excuse to build the model of a gunboat!
Another fascinating thing about the Combahee River Raid is that it also was one of the first actions of an all-black regiment, the 2d South Carolina Volunteers, which had been raised by Brigadier General Rufus Saxton and Major General David Hunter. Both officers were ardent abolitionists and intent on showing that black men were as capable of fighting as Whites, something that was doubted by many Southerners as well as Northerners.
The expedition consisted of 250 men of the 2d South Carolina Volunteers, supported by men of the 3d Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. It was led by Colonel James Montgomery. It is very probable that Harriet Tubman played an important role in the planning and execution of the raid, as there are reports from similar expeditions devised by former slaves who knew the difficult terrain. The force set out on three armed transports, the John Adams, a converted ferryboat, the tug Harriet A. Weed and the Sentinel. They sailed up the Combahee River and landed troops at different places, freeing slaves, burning down plantations and destroying rice fields. Such tactics were controversial at the time, but Hunter and Montgomery were veterans of the conflict known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’, which pitted antislavery against proslavery settlers in the late 1850s and which had seen many instances of low-level guerrilla warfare.
The expedition did not meet any effective resistance. The skirmishes that were fought proved that black troops were reliable and brave under fire, and the mission was hailed as a success. Montgomery and his soldiers managed to free and bring back more than 700 slaves, many of which joined the Union army.
How to translate this story into a wargaming project? The most important things, of course, are figures. Now Mick kindly gave me as a farewell gift a shoebox full of 28mm ACW figures. At first, I wanted to use them as my basis, but I soon realised that I’m too much invested into 15mm to do so. And I couldn’t see myself building a steamboat in 28mm! So I decided to use Mick’s figures for small scale actions, which involve only a couple of figures per side and can be played with Ganesha Games’ rules, and get 15mm figures for Terrible Sharp Sword. I’ve already ordered a couple of packs from Peter Pig – I really like the style of their figures and the variety of poses they offer.
I also want to make one steamboat, probably the John Adams. There is one contemporary newspaper illustration of the raid, but it’s not fully reliable as the illustrator wasn’t present at the action. Still, he might have seen the ships coming back, so I’ll use this picture as a guideline for building the boat.
Finally, to play scenarios around the raid, especially the skirmishes at Joshua Nicholls’ plantation and at Combahee Ferry, I will try to make a dedicated terrain board. As Google Maps and Google Earth show, the terrain in the area is quite peculiar, dominated by rice fields and swamps, and I want my game to at least convey the right feel for the locale.
Of course, I also want to play non-specific scenarios, so I’ll assemble enough forces to cover different situations. This will also mean that, in the case my ambitious plan stalls, I’ll at least have the opportunity to try out Terrible Sharp Sword and learn something about a fascinating period.
Grigg, Jeff W.: The Combahee River Raid. Harriet Tubman & Lowcountry Liberation, Charleston: The History Press 2014.
Dobak, William A.: Freedom by the Sword. The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, New York: Skyhorse Publishing 2013.