My favorite books are the ones that teach me something.
Elizabeth Cobbs’ The Tubman Command taught me more about Harriet Tubman than two years of American History in high school, a B.A. in history at college, and countless documentaries, books, and movies ever did. It taught me about a part of the Civil War that seems painfully forgotten in our collective recollection of that defining war. And it taught me that the best stories we can read are the ones that are closest to being or having been real.
Everyone knows (and if you don’t, you really should) that Harriet Tubman led about seventy people to freedom in Canada as a ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad. That’s what gets the attention, as well it should. Sometimes we see that she was a scout and a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, but that’s often glossed over. Without judging whether one is more important than the other, because they are equally important, it seems most important to know the whole story. That Harriet Tubman went back into the Deep South to act as a spy for the north, with a heavy bounty on her head for her work on the Underground Railroad, should be known as well.
It should be known because it brings with it a deeper understanding of the war, a reminder that cotton was not the only commodity produced by enslaved people in the South. Plantations along the South Carolina coast produced rice that fed the South and was grown by thousands of enslaved people. The Carolinas were all the more important early in the Civil War, when the North was not winning and when the strongest bases of support for the Confederacy were there. The Union Army couldn’t focus there because the Confederate Army was pushing north, and that lack of focus meant the outcome of the war hung in the balance.
That Harriet Tubman chose to go there is a testament that makes what she did before the war all the more powerful.
Books that make me look things up, make me add other books to the list of books I want to read… they are the books I like best.
The Tubman Command is that book. Through the fictionalized story Cobbs wrote, I learned that Southern slaveholders who did not support the Confederacy were allowed to bring slaves into Northern free states. I learned that Northern slave states were not required by the Emancipation Proclamation to free their slaves, and that proclamation itself was not issued until after the Union Army suffered a few defeats. I learned about General Hunter who, on the brink of being removed from command, ordered a raid up the Combahee River to burn the rice fields and destroy Confederate supplies but also to free the slaves who worked the plantations there. For General Hunter, it was partly a means to enlist freed slaves in the Union Army. He commanded Colonel James Montgomery to lead the raid and Montgomery, who had been part of Bleeding Kansas and a supporter of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, knew that the men would not enlist while their families were enslaved.
So, with Harriet Tubman, he led the raid.
My history classes never taught me this, even on days spent dedicated to Harriet Tubman.
I feel kind of cheated.
But not by Elizabeth Cobbs’ book. This book is one of the best I’ve read this year and one of the best historical fiction novels about a real person that I’ve ever read. If you like history and fiction, if you like a story that teaches you something about true heroism and valor in the face of danger, and if you like novels that tell a story of humanity on it’s basest, purest levels…
Well, then, please read this book.
I received a copy of The Tubman Command from BookishFirst in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.