In 2016, Jack Lew, President Obama’s treasury secretary, announced a redesign of the twenty-dollar bill that would feature on its front a likeness of Harriet Tubman, arguably the most significant African American female
Clinton’s approach is to recreate Tubman’s life as close to the colorful adventure it certainly was, without falling victim to sensationalism. She relies on scholarship to sketch the skeletal framework for Tubman’s life, then turns to a variety of sources and reports to put flesh upon it, sharing with the reader when she resorts to surmise to shade aspects of the complexion. In this effort, she largely succeeds.
Born Araminta Ross in Maryland in perhaps 1822—like many of the enslaved she could only guess at her date of birth—Tubman survived an especially brutal upbringing in bondage that witnessed family members sold, a series of vicious beatings and whippings, and a severe head injury incurred in adolescence when a heavy metal weight tossed by an overseer at another struck her instead, which left her with a lingering dizziness, headaches, seizures, and what was likely chronic hypersomnia, a neurological disorder of excessive sleepiness. It also spawned vivid dreams and visions that reinforced religious convictions that God was communicating with her. By then, she was no stranger to physical abuse. Tubman was first hired out as a nursemaid when she herself was only about five years old, responsible for rocking a baby while it slept. If the baby woke and cried she was lashed as punishment. She recalled once being whipped five times before breakfast. She was left scarred for life. Tubman’s experiences serve as a strong rebuke to those deluded by “Lost Cause” narratives that would cast antebellum slavery as a benign institution.
Despite her harsh treatment at the hands of various enslavers, Tubman proved strong and resilient. Rather than break her, the cruelties she endured galvanized her, sustained by a religious devotion infused with Old Testament promises of deliverance. Still enslaved, she married John Tubman, a free black man, and changed her first name to Harriet shortly thereafter. When she fled to freedom in Philadelphia a few short years later, he did not accompany her. Tubman’s journey out of slavery was enabled by the so-called “Underground Railroad,” a route of safehouses hosted by sympathetic abolitionists and their allies.
For most runaways, that would be the end of the story, but for Tubman it proved just the beginning. Committed to liberating her family and friends, Tubman covertly made more than a dozen missions back to Maryland over a period of eight years and ultimately rescued some seventy individuals, while also confiding escape methods to dozens of others who successfully absconded. In the process, as Clinton points out, she leapfrogged from the role as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad to an “abductor.” Now known to many as Moses, she was a master of disguise and subterfuge; the illiterate Tubman once famously pretended to read a newspaper in order to avoid detection. To those who knew her, she seemed to be utterly fearless. She carried a pistol, not only to defend herself against slavecatchers if needed, but also to threaten the fainthearted fugitive who entertained notions of turning back. She never lost a passenger.
At the same time, Harriet actively campaigned for abolition, which brought her into the orbit of John Brown, who dubbed her “General Tubman.” Unlike other antislavery allies, she concurred with his advocacy for armed insurrection, and she proved a valuable resource for him with her detailed knowledge of support networks in border states. Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was, of course, a failure, and Brown was hanged, but her admiration for the man never diminished. With the onset of the Civil War, Tubman volunteered to help “contrabands” living in makeshift refugee camps, and also served as a nurse before immersing herself in intelligence-gathering activities. Most spectacularly, Tubman led an expedition of United States Colored Troops (USCT) on the remarkable 1863 Combahee River Raid in South Carolina that freed 750 of the formerly enslaved—then recruited more than 100 of them to enlist to fight for Union. She is thus credited as the first woman to lead American forces in combat! She was even involved with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw in his preparations for the assault on Fort Wagner, later dramatized in the film Glory. When the war ended, Tubman went on to lobby for women’s suffrage, and died in her nineties in 1913—the end of a life that was given to legend because so very much of it more closely resembled imagined epic than authentic experience.
In this biography, Clinton the historian wrestles against the myth, yet sometimes seems seduced by it. She reports claims of the numbers of the enslaved Tubman liberated that seem exaggerated, and references enormous sums slaveowners offered as reward for her capture that defy documented evidence. There’s also a couple of egregious factual errors that any student of the Civil War would stumble upon with mouth agape: she misidentifies the location of the battle of Shiloh from Tennessee to Virginia, and declares Delaware a free state, which would have been a surprise to the small but yet enduring population of the enslaved that lived there. For these blunders, I am inclined to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt; she is an esteemed scholar who likely relied on a lousy editor. Perhaps these mistakes have been corrected in later editions.
I reviewed an earlier book by Clinton here: Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton