Harriet Tubman's Jacksonville story
Born Araminta Ross and known as “the Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman escaped enslavement and rescued hundreds through a network of safe houses and antislavery activists known as the Underground Railroad. What’s not taught in the local history books is that she served in North Florida during the Civil War, providing intelligence that allowed the Union to capture Jacksonville without a shot.
Tubman and the third Union occupation of Jacksonville
An 1864 map of Jacksonville illustrating Union defenses surrounding the city. (State Archives of Florida)
Home to nearly three thousand residents at the time, Jacksonville was a city largely developed with Northern money and supported by a rapidly growing lumber trade. In early March 1863, based off Tubman’s lead, Higginson and Montgomery were ordered to take the First and Second South Carolina regiments from Fernandina into the St. Johns River to occupy Jacksonville. These 980 troops would be supported by the 7th Connecticut regiment.
The main objectives of their mission were to carry the proclamation of freedom to the enslaved, recruit formerly enslaved men to join the Union Army, harass and economically damage the enemy and occupy as much of Florida as possible. Planning to take the city by surprise, they waited for 24 hours at the mouth of the St. Johns River before entering. During the wait, they visited an abandoned Pilot Town (modern Mayport) and found a dismantled lighthouse. At two in the morning, they steamed upriver, arriving in Jacksonville at eight in the morning, taking the city totally by surprise.
The city was still there for us, at any rate; though none knew what perils might be concealed behind those quiet buildings. Yet there were children playing on the wharves; careless men, here and there, lounged down to look at us, hands in pockets; a few women came to their doors, and gazed listlessly upon us, shading their eyes with their hands. We drew momently nearer, in silence and with breathless attention. The gunners were at their posts, and the men in line. It was eight o’clock. We were now directly opposite the town: yet no sign of danger was seen; not a rifle-shot was heard; not a shell rose hissing in the air. The Uncas rounded to, and dropped anchor in the stream; by previous agreement, I steamed to an upper pier of the town, Colonel Montgomery to a lower one; the little boat-howitzers were run out upon the wharves, and presently to the angles of the chief streets; and the pretty town was our own without a shot. In spite of our detention, the surprise had been complete, and not a soul in Jacksonville had dreamed of our coming.
The John Sammis residence (Strawberry Plantation house) still stands in Jacksonville’s Arlington neighborhood.
In Jacksonville, the First South Carolina garrisoned the city, constructing Forts Higginson and Montgomery around the railroad terminal to the west of town, in the vicinity of Broad and Bay Streets. Albert Sammis was one of the men who served with the First South Carolina. Sammis was the son of a formerly enslaved woman and John Sammis, a wealthy white planter who owned the Strawberry Plantation in present day Clifton in southern Arlington. Volunteering for service in December 1862, Sammis became Colonel Higginson’s orderly during the occupation of Jacksonville.
Under the direction of Colonel Montgomery and with Tubman on board, the Second South Carolina continued upriver to free and recruit enslaved and engage the Confederates. They established a base of operations in Palatka. During their river expeditions, they raided several St. Johns River plantations in Mandarin, Orange Mills, Palatka and Doctors Lake. At Doctors Lake, they raided the Laurel Grove plantation, capturing Confederate Colonel Stephen Bryant and fifteen men, a group of partisan rangers, and several bales of cotton, while liberating thirty enslaved. To their disappointment, upon their return down river to Jacksonville, the were informed that their units were being recalled from Florida to help with an attack on Charleston.
The combination Tubman’s crucial intelligence and Montgomery’s raids in Florida convinced the Union that other extensive guerrilla operations were feasible. This led to the highly successful Combahee River Raid in June 1863, a military operation that became a turning point in Tubman’s military career. Prior to this, her efforts were largely anonymous. Planning and leading a raid under the command of Colonel Montgomery, she became the only American woman to lead troops on the field of battle, freeing nearly eight hundred enslaved and destroying Confederate property valued in the millions without losing a man.
328 Chelsea Street in Brooklyn is to believed to have been constructed by a USCT veteran during the 1860s. (Hurley Winkler)
In 1864, the First and Second South Carolina regiments were re-designated as the 33rd and 34th United States Colored Infantry Regiments. Both regiments would play a role in the Union’s fourth, final occupation of Jacksonville that year. After the Civil War, the 33rd was mustered out at Fort Wagner and the 34th in Jacksonville in February 1866. Many of these men who were freed by or fought alongside Harriet Tubman became the original residents LaVilla, Brooklyn, Hansontown and the Eastside.
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at email@example.com