Cobbs crafts suspenseful sequences that place Tubman at the head of risky scouting missions into enemy territory. She skirts aggressive alligators to map underwater mines on the Combahee and risks capture from sadistic slave-drivers when gathering intelligence about the nearby plantations. In a way, the novel unfolds a little like a heist movie, with Tubman and her Union commanders watching the clock and gaming out the ideal moment to go behind enemy lines to abscond with the prize, which happens to be hundreds of human lives.
It would be a trying situation for anyone, but Tubman must negotiate some particularly fraught dynamics. By 1863 she’s famous in the abolitionist community and a contemporary of John Brown and novelist Louisa May Alcott (both of whom get passing mentions here). At times she learns that she can use her celebrity to her advantage, but she also finds that the Union Army retains plenty of racism against black people and condescension towards women. The way she uses subtle interpersonal diplomacy to avoid conflicts and champion her cause seems not too far removed from tensions in the modern-day workplace.
Cobbs explores some intriguing footnotes from Tubman’s biography, such as her lifelong propensity for seizures when a particularly brutal overseer gave her a childhood head injury. Tubman had a brief marriage while still a slave, and the book advances a theory that she gave her daughter to one of her free in-laws to be raised in the North. In a subplot that pushes the book close to melodrama, she has a romance with Samuel, another former slave turned Union scout. Tubman is distraught when she learns that he has a wife and children on one the plantations they hope to liberate, but Samuel explains that he was forced to marry and bear children by his owners. The characters grapple over how to treat the rules for fidelity if a marriage occurred in bondage and under duress.
At one point, Tubman reflects on consequences if they were to get together: “The outside world … expected and needed Harriet Tubman to be a saint, not someone who abandoned her own child or busted up another family. No matter how much white folk said they understood the ways that slavery twisted people’s lives, they didn’t. They would look at her and her cause differently.” Her private, emotional needs can prove incompatible with her dedication to the anti-slavery cause.
“The Tubman Command” has a sharp eye for period detail, making a compelling location out of Hilton Head Island as a military encampment (a far cry from the popular coastal vacation spot of today). The dialogue incorporates period-appropriate slang that generally rings true: secessionists are called “Secesh,” former slaves can be collectively referred to as “contraband,” and a particular kind of small boat is known by the Gullah term “trus’-me-Gawd.”
Incorporating such real military figures as the raid’s commander, Col. James Montgomery, Cobbs oversees a sprawling, boisterous cast of characters. But for all the excitement of the missions and joy at its successes, a shadow hangs over the action, as Tubman and her allies are well aware that hundreds of thousands remain enslaved. The triumph only adds urgency to their cause.
In addition to being an entertaining work of popular historical fiction, “The Tubman Command” excels at capturing the person behind the iconography, whether or not she ends up on the $20 bill.
‘The Tubman Command’
by Elizabeth Cobbs
326 pages, $25.99