I read Elizabeth Cobbs’ 2019 historical romance “The Tubman Command” in kindle ebook, which I received from Skyhorse Publishing through netgalley.com, in exchange for publishing an honest review. The novel's publication date is expected to be 21 May 2019. I am primarily a reviewer of science and science fiction, and so you may question what I think I am doing reading a book like this. The explanation is simple – I live in Beaufort South Carolina, on Lady’s Island to be precise. In case you are unaware, the Sea Islands here were Union territory during most of the US Civil War, adjacent to the Confederate mainland. The Raid on Combahee Ferry, that freed over 750 enslaved people, is a well-known part of the local lore. I kayak in the saltwater Beaufort and Coosaw Rivers along the route taken. Every time I drive to Charleston, I pass over the Hwy 17 Harriet Tubman Bridge, over the Combahee River, and look at the site of the raid just to the side of the road. There is a campaign by local Tabernacle Baptist Church to erect a monument to Harriet Tubman in Beaufort to commemorate her role. See https://www.harriettubmanmonument.com/. I often wonder what it was like back then.
I am no historian, but one of the challenges must be that the historical records of Tubman’s role are scant, because of her status as an escaped slave, and because of her sex, not to mention that her operations were of course conducted in secrecy. But there is little doubt that she played an active role, conducting surveillance missions and accompanying the troops on Colonel Montgomery’s raid. The reading I’ve done only speculates on how pivotal her role was. So I’m under no illusion that a novel could have been written that only conforms to documented history. But readers need to be aware that Cobb did not just write a fictionalized account of events – she wrote a romance novel. Whether the sexual liaison between Harriet Tubman and Samuel Heyward really took place (there is zero evidence), or even if it was remotely possible (there is also zero evidence against it), I feel it to be disrespectful of the actual historical figures.
While on the subject of actual historical figures, there are also cameo appearances by Robert Smalls and Laura Towne. Robert Smalls is another local figure, known for his commandeering of a Confederate military transport ship and the surrender of it to the Union Navy off Charleston. Later, during Reconstruction, he served as representative of Beaufort in the US House of Representatives. He doesn’t actually have much to do with Harriet Tubman and the Raid on Combahee Ferry. But it was nice to include it. Laura Towne, however, is badly misportrayed. It is ironic that the fictional Harriet Tubman’s experience at a Shout in a St. Helena Praise House, is actually an experience from Laura Towne’s diary. While the fictional Laura Towne is portrayed as a vocal and condemning missionary. Towne’s contributions in demonstrating the educational potential of the freed slaves of the Sea Islands, paved the way for national policy in Reconstruction. (which sadly was deconstructed within a few more years). The Unitarian Laura Towne and her partner, the Quaker Ellen Murray founded the Penn School as part of the Port Royal Experiment. If you want to know the actual history, I recommend Penn Center: A History Preserved, by Orville Vernon Burton and Wilbur Cross.
So what to do about my rating? It is an important and fascinating task that Elizabeth Cobbs has taken on in writing a fictionalized account of Harriet Tubman and the Raid on Combahee Ferry. But I had to hold my nose to get through descriptions of her physical craving for the bulging muscles of Samuel, and the trashing of Laura Towne. What a shame. 2 stars, I guess.