'The Tubman Command' Author On Harriet Tubman As A Patriotic Veteran

Nov 10, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Harriet Tubman is an American icon who escaped slavery before repeatedly returning to the Deep South to help dozens of others escape. That part of her story is known and celebrated, including in a new star-studded film called "Harriet." But there's another aspect to her story that may be less well-known. She was a daring and brilliant military scout and strategist who earned a pension for her service during the Civil War.

And we thought this Veterans Day would be a good time to acknowledge this history. So we've called Elizabeth Cobbs. She's the author of "The Tubman Command." It's a novel based on history that focuses on Tubman's leadership during a raid in Confederate territory. And Elizabeth Cobbs is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

ELIZABETH COBBS: Oh, it's my delight.

MARTIN: So most people know Harriet Tubman as the leader of the Underground Railroad. I mean, it's not quite clear how many people that she rescued, but the record suggests at least a hundred people, possibly more. But you refer to her as a veteran. Why is that?

COBBS: Well, she was - she was a military veteran. And as you mentioned correctly, she had a military pension. We tend to, I think, with women leaders, you know, we leave big parts of the story out. And with Harriet Tubman, it's really important understand that she's our foremost female patriot who really does deserve a place on the $20 bill for the reason that she hits so many levels of public service, both before the war but also during the Civil War. She's a disabled military veteran who is the outstanding spy in the Civil War. There's nobody at the start of that war who has the kind of spycraft that Harriet Tubman does. She'd make the CIA proud.

MARTIN: Your book focuses on a Union raid that liberated hundreds of slaves in the Combahee River region of South Carolina. That raid is well attested to, but even in your book and in the author's note where you quote a contemporaneous newspaper account - can I read some of it?

COBBS: Please.

MARTIN: From the Wisconsin State Journal, June of 1863. It talks about, you know, Colonel Montgomery and his gallant band of 300 black soldiers, under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy's country, struck a bold and effective blow without losing a man or receiving a scratch. The colonel was followed by a speech from the black woman who led the raid under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted. For sound sense and real native eloquence, her address would do honor to any man, and it created quite a sensation.

They never name her in this account.

COBBS: Oh, no. But they do say - the account does say if you go slightly further, it says, she is now called Moses. So this - you're right. The man doesn't even know this is Harriet Tubman. But he says, oh, it's a black woman who led and organized this raid, and she's called Moses. Now, he thinks she's called Moses because she has just brought 750 people to freedom.

But she'd been, of course, called Moses and he had used it as a code name for, you know, 11 years before the war. I mean, she's the only person who has all this experience going behind enemy lines. And that's why she was encouraged to go south and serve by the governor of Massachusetts. And so it's just an amazing thing, you know, that we tend not to know about. And yet, my gosh, it's just off the hook as a story.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit more about the raid itself? What exactly happened?

COBBS: Oh, yes. So the raid takes place, you know, after midnight on June 2 of 1863. And two U.S. gunships go up a river called the Combahee River in South Carolina, launching off from the Sea Islands. And what they do is that they burn to the ground six or so plantations. They liberate those people. They destroy an enemy bridge across the river. And this is on the approach to the railroad between Savannah and Charleston. And so what they do is they destroy enemy stores. They free 750 people. And they prove that black soldiers can carry out these kinds of missions successfully.

MARTIN: You know, I was wondering why this aspect of Harriet Tubman's life is not better known. I wonder why you think that is.

COBBS: I think we tend to do this thing of when we think of war, we think of guys. You know, it's sort of men. And, of course, obviously, they led the fight. But we tend to just write women out of war, and I don't know why we do that with Harriet Tubman. Some people, some historians - amateurs, mostly - have said, well, you know, what proof do we really have? You know, we have this, you know, we actually have quite a bit of proof.

We have as much proof of what she did in a military sense as we do of what she did in the Underground Railroad. Everything she did was clandestine. Spies do not document what they do. But we have a lot of proof. And so I think we do need to redefine her as America's greatest patriotic figure - female patriotic figure.

So I want to see her on Black History Month, you know, defined a certain way. But I also want to see her on that list - that short, short list of outstanding Americans who are founders of our nation - and in her case, as with Lincoln's, founders of a modern America.

MARTIN: That is Elizabeth Cobbs. She is the author most recently of "The Tubman Command." She's also a professor of history at Texas A&M University and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Professor Cobbs, thank you so much for talking with us.

COBBS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.