Cobbs' (The Hamilton Affair, 2016, etc.) third novel follows Harriet Tubman as she leads a crucial raid on behalf of the Union Army.
This novel veers away from what Tubman is primarily known for: engineering the Underground Railroad and smuggling, often single-handedly, fugitive slaves from the South to the North. Now, Tubman, aka Moses, is assisting Union troops hoping to turn the tide of the Civil War, which, as of May 1863, the North is losing. Up to now, there has been a hands-off policy toward civilian property, but it has dawned on the war office that Southern plantations constitute an unbroken supply chain for the “Secesh” resistance. A disastrous defeat in Charleston harbor has led certain officers, notably Col. Montgomery and Gen. Hunter, to espouse a new approach—crippling the slavery-based agrarian economy. Tubman and her small band of escaped slaves volunteer as scouts for a pivotal mission that forms the throughline of this novel: They are to guide U.S. gunboats, carrying 300 black soldiers, from their base on Port Royal Island to the South Carolina coast. On landing, Union forces intend to free hundreds of slaves and destroy the rice harvest. But to further this goal, the scouts must first determine the exact locations of underwater mines planted by the Rebels. Under cover of night, Tubman twice sneaks behind enemy lines to a plantation to gain intel and alert the enslaved. Tubman’s world is vividly brought to life as we see her go about her daily routines: making gingerbread, befriending a cat, taking on humble duties in a military hospital. She is extolled by abolitionists in the North but still greeted with some suspicion on the part of the white Union military. Re-creating the speech patterns and culture of black and white characters alike, Cobbs strives for verisimilitude while avoiding caricature. Although Cobbs allows her heroine a brief love affair, her treatment of her protagonist is so reverential as to render Moses almost superhuman.
A stirring fictional tribute to an American icon.