So Good, It Should Be Required Reading

LiarTemptressI just finished reading Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, written by Karen Abbott, and feel as if it should be required reading for all history students. The book covers the life of four women–two Confederate and two Union Army spies–who risked their lives for what they believed. Although non-fiction and exhaustively researched, the book reads like a fictional story woven with period detail, human emotion, and suspense. And how is it that I have never heard of these women? Seventeen-ear-old Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army using her feminine appeal and outrageous bravado. Emma Edmonds decided to live as a man to escape persecution from her father, then joined the Union Army, where she served in the bloodiest battles of the civil war before becoming a spy. Can you imagine the irony of her sneaking into enemy territory posing as a man taking on the “disguise” of a woman?  The genteel Southern widow Rose O’Neal Greenhow, along with her young daughter, passed secret messages for the Confederacy and were eventually imprisoned for it, but continued to elude their guards. Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist and Union sympathizer living in Richmond, put together an elaborate espionage ring and hid escaping Union soldiers in her home under the nose of Confederate family members and detectives. Author Karen Abbott breathes life into each of these women as they lived out their lives during some of the bloodiest and most divisive years in U.S. history, brushing elbows with larger-than-life historical figures such as Alan Pinkerton, Mary Todd Lincoln, Stonewall Jackson, and Emperor Napoleon III. If you like espionage thrillers, encrypted complex codes, secret signs, spy networks, hidden rooms, and daring disguises, don’t miss this book. Bestselling NYT author Karen Abbott also wrote Sin in the Second City and American Rose.

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Harriet Tubman: Honored at Last

The name Harriet Tubman brings to mind an American legend—a woman who risked death in pursuit of freedom and continued to do so in order to bring others to freedom. She has become a mythic, larger-than-life character on the stage of history, which makes me wonder all the more—who was this woman? Where did she find the courage to do make multiple trips into slave states to free others, knowing there was a price on her head? What prompted her to live in poverty in order to continue to give to others more in need? How did an illiterate and uneducated slave become the voice of civil rights, humanitarianism, suffrage, and champion of basic human values in a time when women, especially black women, were powerless and without voice? I had to find out.

Tubman bust at UGRR Museum

Tubman bust at UGRR Museum

The best autobiography I’ve found is one by Catherine Clinton entitled Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. In it, Clinton not only provides what scraps of facts we know about the early life of Tubman (not an easy task, separating fact from legend), but also sets these events within the context of the times. Readers, be prepared to learn more about the true nature of slavery and the laws and economic conditions that perpetuated it, than you ever knew before. Tubman was born in my adopted state of Maryland, then a slave state, but also had the largest free black population by 1810. You would think that a good thing, however, it was not. Maryland became a source for slave labor when the import of slaves was halted because those involved in the trade did not care overly much whether you were free or not. Slave merchants raided Maryland’s black population and transported slaves to the south for a hefty profit. Tubman was born into this milieu and saw her sisters torn from the family and sold off into slavery in the far away deep south.

A daring rescue!

A daring rescue!

Clinton’s book should be required reading in all schools. As Annette Gordon-Reed put it, (Clinton) “rescues Harriet Tubman from empty symbolism, restoring her full humanity, while showcasing her incomparable efforts on behalf of enslaved African Americans.”

 

Tubman freed herself by walking from her home on the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Philadelphia. I cannot imagine that trek. When she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, she boasted that she never lost a “passenger.”

ChoptankMap

She was fearless and filled with a holy spirit, convinced that God would protect her. Dubbed “Moses of her people,” I understand how that moniker came about, not only for her guidance to freedom, but also because of her close relationship with God. Despite her spirituality, she was also a fierce and cunning soldier. Abolitionist John Brown called her General Tubman, and during the civil war she acted for years as a spy, a scout, and in any other number of other roles as needed. Despite her service, sadly, she had to fight for years with the U.S. government to receive any kind of compensation.

 

I am heartened to learn that a museum in her honor has opened close to her birthplace. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Historical Park in Church Creek, Maryland, is a fine museum full of compelling images chronicling her life. Miss Tubman, you were an amazing woman and so ahead of your time.

Faith_Tubman

 

 

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