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Arts & Culture

Harriet Tubman Like You've Never Read Her Before

Book cover of 'The Tubman Command.'

Harriet Tubman is an American legend. History books know her best as the architect of the underground railroad, but she was also the brains behind a dangerous expedition during the Civil War.

She may have also had a rich and complex love life, but the details of that for now are mostly fictional ones, portrayed in the new historical novel “The Tubman Command” (Arcade/2019).

Historian and New York Times-bestselling author Elizabeth Cobbs brings to life Tubman’s lesser known historical feats, while also providing readers some romance and sauciness to keep them intrigued.","_id":"00000178-136d-ddcb-affb-d3ed6d8f0000","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="margin: 0px; padding: 0px; border: 0px; font-variant-numeric: inherit; font-variant-east-asian: inherit; font-stretch: inherit; font-size: 15px; line-height: inherit; font-family: "Segoe UI", "Segoe UI Web (West European)", "Segoe UI", -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, Roboto, "Helvetica Neue", sans-serif; vertical-align: baseline;" target="_blank">","_id":"00000178-136d-ddcb-affb-d3ed6d8f0000","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">

Host Frank Stasio speaks with Cobbs ahead of her talk at Bookmarks in Winston-Salem on Tuesday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m.

Interview Highlights

On how Harriet Tubman was recruited as a spy by the Union Army: 

She'd been sent to South Carolina by the governor of Massachusetts, which itself is interesting, right? Who gets sent by the governor? And he told the commanding general of the Union forces … He says: She's a very valuable woman. And so she goes there, and historians have tried to tease out exactly what she was doing. But what we think she was doing is that she was leading — as she said in her petition later to the U.S. Congress — a team of scouts.

Cobbs on why she fictionalized the life story of Tubman:

It's really kind of my mission in life, you might say, to bring the pieces of American history that we have a vague understanding of and make them accessible — bring them to life in a way that can really move our hearts and educate us today. Give us things to look back on, where we say: You know, we are better than this. And this is the ways in which we've advanced the cause of freedom. 

On the military work of Tubman:

The army record doesn't keep clear track of her, or you know, of any woman … So, with Harriet Tubman, what we do know is that she interrogated slaves and refugees who came off the mainland, who infiltrated onto the islands and got intelligence from them. [In fact] the Commanding General Rufus Saxton … He said that she made many a raid inside the enemy's lines with untiring zeal … This book is about the Combahee River Raid of June 1863. And James Montgomery [the man she went with on that raid with] called her invaluable as a scout. So she was somebody we believe went behind the lines many times to find intelligence.

On why Tubman made a good spy:

Being a woman means you're not seen. You are invisible. A black woman at that time, she thought of herself sometimes as like a ghost. You know, that she'd become a ghost. [People] would look at her and say: Well, what's this puny woman doing? [She] was five feet tall. And I think she was about 110 pounds wet. So she's just this little thing. She also is very good at disguises. And we know this from the documentary record, she'd often portrayed older people, you know, and so she kind of hunched up, and then she really looks like nothing.

And so she used being female to her advantage. And I think we sometimes think: How can a woman be so brave? And really, you know, how could anybody but a woman do this? That's how she's able to do it is because she's a woman. And of course, she just does have this innate bravery. But she also has this tremendous sense of cost. I mean of the cost that she's paid and others have paid, and she wants to make sure it's for something. She gave up her first husband. She had to leave him, and she gave up her family. She goes back for most of the family, but her husband won't come with her. And so he marries another woman and that breaks her heart, but it increases her fire.


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