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A group of ex-farmers, a terrorist from Kansas, and a schoolteacher attempt the greatest covert operation of the Civil War.
JACK HITT: Stories about Civil War monuments have been in the news all summer.
CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: But the monument that bothers us the most doesn’t feature Robert E. Lee or the Confederate Flag. In fact, it features Abraham Lincoln.
CHENJERAI: It’s about - how high is that. Maybe 20 feet?
JACK: Yeah, probably about 20 feet.
CHENJERAI: Lincoln is kind of looking down on us, his hand is extended. You’ve got this black man, on his knees, in front of Lincoln. Maybe trying to stand-up or rise. Still got a shackle around his arm. It looks like maybe the enslaved person might be shining Lincoln’s shoes or something.
CHENJERAI: The statue is called the Freedman’s Memorial. It’s in Washington, D.C., put up in 1876.
JH: It’s so much, in the statue. I mean, the man - the freed man who may be rising - he’s got a broken chain on his arm. But he’s dressed like, he’s only got like a loincloth. Otherwise he’s absolutely naked. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln is in a full 19th Century dress coat, pants, boots.
CK: Lincoln is still standing over the dude and in a way this doesn't really give any credit or represent the agency of black people who are freeing themselves … black people were trying to free themselves, rebell from slavery before the Civil War even started. I hate this statue.
JH: I hate it too.
JH: I’m Jack Hitt
CK: And I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika
JH: This is Uncivil.
CK: Where we ransack America’s history.
JH: And discover that past is never really past.
CROWD: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us!
CHENJERAI: This fall, we’ll bring you stories of espionage
FEMALE VOICE: In that day and time you had to be a spy. There had to be a lot of spy in you in order to be black and survive.
FEMALE VOICE: I feel like someone has put a dagger through my heart.
CHENJERAI: Con artists.
MALE VOICE: He produced 15 million dollars worth of fake money.
JACK: And black people fighting back.
FEMALE VOICE: They helped free themselves, you know? The girl was bad (laughs), you know?
CHENJERAI: Do you think the Civil War is still relevant now?
MALE VOICE: American society is, was built out of the Civil War. The story of slavery, the story of the Civil War, the story of the statue is the story of America.
CHENJERAI: We’re going to kick things off with a story that was written out of the official history just weeks after it happened. It’s about the most ambitious covert operation in the Civil War. And, it’s about black people who never thought they’d pick up a gun - but they did.
JACK: One of those people was named Shedrick Manego. To his family, he was Pa Shed.
FALLON GREENE: He was a short man. He was a dark-skinned man. He had like a little bit - I guess he had like a little bit of a beard.
JACK: This is Fallon Greene, Pa Shed’s great-great grandaughter. She’s a paralegal in Beaufort, South Carolina, just a couple miles from where our story takes place. Growing up, she’d heard a little about Pa Shed. She knew he’d built the church her family went to. But as she got older, she began digging deeper into her family history, and started asking about him. And it turned out, one of her living relatives, Uncle Baby, actually knew Pa Shed.
FALLON: So I was told I should go to my Uncle Baby and try to find out a little bit more of the details.
JACK: You said that Uncle Baby knew Pa Shed. Is he the first person to tell you about your great-great-grandfather?
FALLON: He’s the first person to tell me the truth.
FALLON: And um, the light was a little … it’s not lit very well. It was a little, I wouldn’t say magical. But anyway the light kinda cascaded on him, and he sat, and he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He kinda started to think back, and he said lemme get it right. And he starts to tell me about the story. And it was just...lightning.
CHENJERAI: The story that Uncle Baby told Fallon was that right at the beginning of the Civil War, Pa Shed was sold to a plantation in South Carolina, called Hazel Farm.
FALLON: And when he gets to Hazel Farm, he hates his overseer, or whoever it is that’s there, so he decides to run away.
CHENJERAI: And he had an idea about how to do it.
JACK: You gotta remember, Pa Shed was deep in the Confederate-controlled South. Maps now show the South as Red, the North as blue. But there were patches of blue in the South. One of them was a Union-controlled fort on an island in Port Royal sound. And it happened to be not far from where Pa Shed was enslaved. So, on the fly, he came up with a plan to get over to the fort.
FALLON: And what they do is, they fashion a pine log.
CHENJERAI: Basically they cut down a tree to make a raft.
FALLON: And then they put it by the banks of the Beaufort river. They cover it with brush, they come back in the dark of night, and they of course uncover the pine log…
CHENJERAI: Push it into the river, and then hop on.
FALLON: And the visual that I'm given with the story is that they straddled that pine log, and they floated, as it was said to me, floated to mainland Beaufort.
CHENJERAI: That morning, Pa Shed and his brother made it to freedom. As it turned out, just a few weeks before they got there, new military leaders had arrived at Port Royal. And among them was a radical abolitionist - Colonel James Montgomery.
JACK: To really get a sense of this guy, you need to see a daguerreotype picture of him. HE has that thousand mile stare of an underfed lunatic, and bed hair that looks like he cut it himself - with broken glass. Montgomery wasn’t trained at West Point. He learned guerilla warfare fighting against pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. One time, after his farm was attacked, he tracked the men back to where they lived, and burned down the entire town. In Kansas, people like Montgomery were called jayhawkers. Nowadays, they’d call him a terrorist.
BRODY JAMES MONTGOMERY: I’m Brody James Montgomery. I am the third great-grandson of Colonel James Montgomery. I am the owner and founder of Brody’s Spirits. We make moonshine. (laughs)
CHENJERAI: Brody is proof that genetics is not always destiny. The colonel wasn’t your standard frontier wildman - he was was fiercely religious. And to his great-grandson’s dismay, he was also a prohibitionist.
BRODY: He wasn’t known to drink? Who doesn’t drink? (laughs)
CHENJERAI: Montgomery came to Port Royal ready to fight, and he wanted to recruit freed black people like Pa Shed to fill out his regiment. But military leaders up North weren’t into it. In fact, they specifically forbid arming black men. Montgomery and his commanders did it anyway.
BRODY: And I can see him just going outside and going, “Alright everybody, come on over, grab some guns. Let’s go kill some people. These guys need to die.”
JACK: It’s hard to know exactly how Montgomery’s new recruits felt about all this. Pa Shed had just risked his life to gain his freedom, but then he found out he only had one: to enlist in the United States Army.
FALLON: I don’t think he was like, “Oh yeah, let me fight. I’m so excited.” Maybe in that fervor of other men saying ‘I’m taking up arms, and I’m going to fight for my freedom,’ you get this feeling of, ‘Wow this is big.‘
JACK: One summer morning, Montgomery and the other officers lined up their new recruits.
FALLON: Then they ask you again what your size is, what shoe size you have. You don’t have shoes. You’ve never worn shoes. They they give you a uniform, they tell you to keep it clean. You put on the trousers. You’ve never really had trousers that went all the way down, but now you do. You’ve got polished buttons that are your own buttons, not some other person’s buttons. You got to learn how to march. You got a hat. You’ve got a gun.
CHENJERAI: Let’s be clear about something. The history of slavery -- 250 years of it -- is a history of keeping guns out of the hands of black people. Even being found near a gun could get you hanged. Now, men like Pa Shed were going to pick up guns, and use them.
FALLON: It was just an ordinary thing he did, but stumbled into this great moment in history, and happened to be standing next to Col. James Montgomery.
JACK: Montgomery called his new unit The 2nd Regiment South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent). And even though lots of slaves were escaping to Port Royal, Montgomery still needed more soldiers. So he and his commanders decided, why wait for men like Pa Shed to come to them? Why not go straight to the plantations? But he needed a plan. He needed good intell, and a strategy. What he really needed was a spy.
CHENJERAI: And the perfect person was already at Port Royal.
KIMBERLY CORNISH: There’s a youthful quality to her. She had incredible bone structure. I mean she was shorter than I am. I’m 5’2, she like 5 feet. She’s just a tiny thing. But she did this massive job, right?
CHENJERAI: That’s Kimberly Cornish, a descendant of the spy. And here’s another descendant:
JADE LEE: And I think in that day and time you had to be a spy – there had to be a lot of spy in you, to be black and to survive. she grew up on a slave plantation so she knew what it was like to walk by a master and hear information, then tell another slave that information. She had a lot of experience being a spy and being under pressure by the time she met Montgomery.
My name is Jade Lee and I’m the great, great, great grandniece of Harriet Tubman.
CHENJERAI: Yeah, that Harriet Tubman -- the conductor of the underground railroad. The government assigned her to Port Royal to work as a nurse and teacher, but she quickly took on a new role as well.
JEFF: The escaping slaves were debriefed by Harriet Tubman. They would have had some intel and that’s where Harriet Tubman kind of shines.
JACK: That’s Jeff Grigg. He runs a boat motor repair shop near Port Royal, and spends many of his weekends researching this expedition. He wrote a book about it. It’s the only book exclusively dedicated to Montgomery and Tubman’s plan. What they came up with was audacious, bordering on reckless.
JACK: They would take boats up a nearby river, deep into heavily-fortified Confederate territory, and raid eight separate plantations. They would recruit all of the black people enslaved along the shore, and somehow make it out alive.
CHENJERAI: How would they pull it off? Harriet Tubman could help.The banks of these rivers were usually lined with cannons, but the Confederates had pulled them from several of these rivers. One of them was the Combahee. Only a few riflemen remained. And while the river was filled with explosive mines, men who laid them had escaped, and told Tubman exactly where they were.
JEFF: She is not so much the scout or the spy. She’s the one who took the information, gathered it, put it together, disseminated to the proper people, which made this raid possible.
JACK: I think that’s what the CIA would call a spymaster. Right?
JEFF: I’d liken it to, she was not the James Bond, she was M. Who is more important? James Bond, while a good figure for a movie, is expendable. M was not expendable.
CHENJERAI: On June 1st, 1863, some 300 mostly black soldiers, including Pa Shed, got on three gunboats led by Tubman and Montgomery, and steamed off into the harbor.
[SOUND OF MOTORBOAT]
GRIGG: Eventually we’ll get to the mouth of the Combahee River, and start going up the Combahee River, where the raid really started.
CHENJERAI: After the break: the Second South Carolina Regiment goes deep into Confederate territory.
[SOUND OF MOTORBOAT]
CHENJERAI: Jeff Grigg took us out on the water so we could see what Pa Shed would’ve seen as the boats approached the Combahee.
JEFF: The landscape kinda looks like an African savannah, except we’re broken up by the dark waters of the St. Helena sound. This area’s filled with dolphin, turtles, even in summertime we get manatees that come up into this area.
CHENJERAI: The gunboats had set off under the cover of night.
JEFF: Three ships left Beaufort at approximately 9PM on the First of June.
CHENJERAI: Once the soldiers entered the mouth of the river, they sat in silence all night. I could just see Pa Shed there in that boat, wondering what’s gonna happen when he gets upriver to the plantations. He’d been enslaved there, and now he was going back. And if he got caught, he knew he’d be shot, or tortured and sent back to slavery.
JACK: The trip upriver took all night. It was dawn when the boats pulled up on the first plantation. People were already working in the fields. The soldiers jumped off the boats and began marching up the levy. It didn’t take long for the enslaved families to figure out what was happening, and to start running to the landings. And then, Montgomery gave his regiment another order: Burn it all down.
GRIGG: When they went on these raids, they would literally burn everything with the exception of the slave streets. Because if there was any that did not come, they wanted them to still have housings. But the main houses, the barns, rice mills - all that would have been burned. Anything to economically hurt the plantation owners.
CHENJERAI: So if I’m, you know, like part of one of the Second Volunteers under Montgomery, I’m still going to a place that was like hell to me. What would I have been thinking in that moment?
GRIGG: I would think that if you came from one of these plantations, you would be glad to be going back to be liberating your people. When they got to the Heyward and the Lowndes plantations that’s across a mile-wide marsh that is nothing but open rice fields. There was no trees, there was no cover - absolutely open ground. They were ill-trained, they had only been in existence for a few months, and not the first man turned around. Nobody shirked. And I think it’s one of the greatest examples of bravery by any troops, anytime in the war.
JACK: Now imagine you’re one of the plantation owners. You get up at five o’clock in the morning like you always do, walk over to the window, and what do you see? Hundreds of uniformed black soldiers, heading straight towards you.
We actually found a letter from one of these plantation owners. His name was Joshua Nichols, and he wrote to the local paper, describing what happened. When he sees the soldiers, he panics, and calls together all of his “faithful” slaves” … he actually used the word “faithful.”
CHENJERAI: Yeah, let me read this part:
“My house servants all stood around me, professing the utmost attachment and their perfect willingness to obey my commands, but not exhibiting the slightest degree of alarm or surprise I ordered them to follow me and take to the woods,. They all professed a willingness to do so, but not one made a sign of moving. So, I was forced to fly to the woods for protection.”
JACK: So picture that scene. Nichols turns to his slaves and says, “The Union is coming! Let’s go!” And they’re like, “Yeah! You first.”
CHENJERAI: When those gunboats showed up the power dynamic switched up so fast that Nichols can’t catch up. He really thinks his slaves are going to follow his ass? These folks are looking at those same black soldiers, and what they see is freedom.
JACK: And then Nichols sees something else. Here’s what he says in the letter: “I saw the enemy come up to my house, and in a very short time it was set on fire.”
CHENJERAI: Yeah. Now Nichols was really panicked. See here’s how he puts it:
“The negros, men and women, were rushing to the boat with their children, now and then greeting someone whom they recognized … they were utterly transformed, drunk with excitement, and capable of the wildest excesses. The roaring of the flames, the barbarous howls … the blowing of horns, the harsh steam whistle, and the towering columns of smoke ... made an impression on my mind which can never be effaced.”
JACK: Up and down the river, plantations burned. Hundreds of now free people climbed onto the soldiers’ boats.
FALLON: My Pa Shed would have been on the boat. I see him on that boat looking out at the women coming. I see him there.
CHENJERAI: When they got to the banks of that plantation, what do you think they saw?
FALLON: I think they saw the world being right again. I think they saw their families. I think they knew each other, and maybe had someone rescued, you know, over there. They may have been liberating their kids.
When I look at who I would be if I was in that time, I think, wow, I think it’s beautiful. I think it is something I never would have dreamed of. I think it’s… you know how you need something so much and it just never happens, and you just forget it ,and you don’t ever think about it because it’s just a terrible thing to think about it because it hurts. And then one day that one thing happens that you need, and you’re just overwhelmed.
CHENJERAI: The boats headed back down the Combahee River. At the last bend, enraged Confederates appeared with cannons. But Montgomery’s troops fired first, and slipped past with just enough time to chug out of range. On board were more than 700 newly freed people.
JACK: Just to put that in context, if you look at Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad, most conservative estimates say that she helped to free roughly 75 people, over the course of ten years - but in the Combahee Raid, more than 700 in a single trip. After they got to Port Royal, nearly all of the men of fighting age immediately enlisted. And by the end of the war, ten percent of the US Army was African American.
JACK: The success of the Combahee Raid was front page news in 1863, North and South. Heading up a river? Daringly making a strike behind enemy lines? A month later, Robert E. Lee tried the exact same tactic at Gettysburg - a daring dash behind enemy lines. And we all know how that worked out. Major movies have been made about Lee’s greatest disaster…
CHENJERAI: But there’s never been a movie about the success of the Combahee raid. In fact, I only heard of it because it was the name of a feminist collective in the 1960s who took their name from Harriet Tubman’s leadership in the raid. It’s not in any standard history textbooks. The only official recognition is a tiny bridge, down where the highway crosses the Combahee. It’s named after Harriet Tubman. But it took two years of political wrangling to get a small sign placed at the river.
JACK: So Chenj, if you did make a big Gettysburg-like movie out of this … I mean, why haven’t they made a movie about this?
CHENJERAI: Well probably because it wouldn’t have like, that typical Civil War ending. You know, the kind where everybody just dies in glory at the end. You know, especially the black heros?
JACK: So how would it end, then?
CHENJERAI: Well, you’d have to talk about Harriet Tubman. So she buys some land up in Auburn, and then basically spends all kinds of time and energy trying to fight for her pension. Then you’d have to talk about crazy-ass Montgomery.
JACK: Oh yeah.
CHENJERAI: He basically moves back to Kansas and just continues being a terrorist for good, or something.
JACK: Yeah, and then you’d have to talk about Pa Shed. What’s his legacy?
CHENJERAI: Well, number one, he lives. He has a family, he becomes this local leader…
JACK: So what would be the last scene in your movie?
CHENJERAI: For me the last scene, we’re in Beaufort, right? And you just see this log, and an axe comes down on the log like “Bam!”
CHENJERAI: But this time, Pa Shed isn’t making a raft to escape slavery. He’s splitting the log to build his church.
CHENJERAI: You know? And so then you see him take the pine logs, and then maybe you have one of those sequences where we see them build the church.
JACK: And then the camera pulls back.
JACK: There’s the church. It’s like a beautiful Southern da - blue sky, clouds in the harbor…
JACK: spanish moss on the trees. And you see the crowd beginning to file in for the church service. And then you realize from the clothes they’re wearing: this is 2017.
JACK: It’s Pa Shed’s church, and this is his family. And then, you hear the final voiceover.
FALLON: My ancestor Pa Shed was the man who, um, basically built the community where we live in now. Like, he, in 1892, he donated the four acres that we have now - four acres to build the church. It was his son, him and his sons split the pine logs to build Second Gethsemane Church today - Baptist Church. And it stand today and people still worship and go. My mom still goes.
[MUSIC FADES IN]