Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent by Thomas B. Allen (review)

Harriet Tubman woodcut

Harriet Tubman, woodcut used in Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah H Bradford (1869). Artist unknown.

“Dad, what was your favorite Civil War battle?” When Leo asked this a couple of years ago, my first impulse was to give him a speech about how there weren’t any good battles — no matter how brilliant the strategy and tactics, no matter how bravely the soldiers fought, it was all a horrific slaughter. Then I thought for a moment, and said: “The Combahee River Raid.” I told him how this was when Harriet Tubman led Union troops in an attack on South Carolina plantations, hitting at the heart of the Confederate slave economy and, most important, freeing hundreds of people from slavery. How this was an important military event that most of his Civil War books didn’t even mention. So a while later I was excited to find a children’s book that focuses squarely on the Combahee River Raid and the woman who spearheaded it.

“Long before the Civil War began, Harriet Tubman started her own war against slavery.” These words open Thomas B. Allen’s Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent, and they encapsulate two of its central themes. First, the war against slavery wasn’t started by Abraham Lincoln or the Union Army. It was started by black people, and the U.S. government joined in much later (or more accurately switched sides). Second, Harriet Tubman wasn’t just a brave, determined woman who escaped from slavery and helped others do the same. She was a soldier and military leader — the only woman who led troops into battle in the Civil War, but also someone whose combat experience started much earlier. Her work as a spy — and someone who recruited, trained, and directed other spies — was part of that long war. These points will appeal to those young readers who are drawn to cloak and dagger stories or battlefield history, but they can also deepen kids’ understanding of the struggle against slavery and racial oppression more generally.

Putting things in simple, concrete terms, Allen writes that as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, “Harriet learned some of the basic spy procedures that today’s intelligence agents call ‘trade craft.’ For example, if two spies must meet, they try to set up a meeting in a way that puts only one in danger. Harriet did this by having escaping slaves meet her seven or eight miles from their cabins. Chances were that anyone spotting their escape would capture them before they reached Harriet” (31). And Allen shows how Tubman applied this experience after the Civil War began. In 1861, when her home state of Maryland was teetering on the edge of secession, Union commanders asked her to do spy work there, since she knew the region intimately and already had a network of Underground Railroad contacts in place. Later they sent her to Beaufort, South Carolina, a coastal town occupied by Union troops, where she recruited plantation escapees as spies and soldiers in between stints as a nurse, cook, and laundry worker.

Allen’s portrait of Harriet Tubman as a fighter is especially vivid in his account of the Battle of Troy, New York, in April 1860 (about a year before the Civil War began), in which a crowd of black people attacked police in order to free Charles Nalle, who was about to be shipped back south into slavery. It was Tubman, disguised as an old woman, who led the action (and probably planned it in advance). Tubman also worked with John Brown, who took up arms against slavery in Kansas and then led the failed 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry armory. Allen may be wrong when he claims that it was Brown who “introduced Harriet to the violent world of pikes and killing” (50). But he has a point that in the Combahee River Raid and other South Carolina operations during the Civil War, Tubman and Union commanders “found themselves carrying out, in the Deep South, the plan that John Brown had conceived for the Appalachian Mountains: Find slaves, arm them, and send them against the slaveholders until, with more and more ex-slaves armed, the slaveholders would be defeated” (137). This is not what kids get in most books about Harriet Tubman or the Civil War.

Up close, the Combahee River Raid is even more amazing than I had realized. Major General David Hunter, commander of Union troops in South Carolina, asked Tubman to go on the raid, and she said yes, but only if Colonel James Montgomery (who had fought with John Brown in Kansas) would be leading it. Hunter agreed. As Butch Lee points out in Jailbreak out of History: the re-biography of Harriet Tubman, Tubman worked with the Union Army, but she never subjected herself to its military hierarchy — she was an independent combatant who negotiated with generals.

Photo of Harriet Tubman, seated in chair, wearing white shawl and dress

Harriet Tubman, about age 91, probably at her home in Auburn, New York, 1911. Photographer unknown.

The June 1863 operation relied on intelligence that Tubman’s local spy network had gathered, and was carried out by the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment composed of men who had escaped from slavery. Tubman and Montgomery planned the raid together. “Montgomery handled the military strategy, combining standard army tactics with the guerrilla warfare he had learned long ago in Kansas. Although he was in charge as the commanding officer, Harriet was the real leader of the black soldiers. She had recruited many of them and had helped their families” (148-49). The troops hit at least nine plantations, where they seized horses, cotton, rice, and other crops; torched buildings; flooded fields; and liberated about 750 people from slavery. Despite clashes with small groups of Confederate troops, not a single Union soldier was lost. The Combahee River Raid was Tubman’s only such Civil War mission for which there are detailed accounts, but as Allen points out, “the documents do have references to¬†expeditions, not just one expedition” (164).

Another strength of Allen’s book is that it doesn’t focus on Harriet Tubman alone, but also tells us about some of the many other African Americans who acted as spies against the Confederacy. We learn about Mary Touvestre, Norfolk housekeeper, who stole the top-secret plans for the Confederacy’s ironclad warship the Virginia (formerly the Merrimac), made her way secretly to Washington, and presented the drawings in person to Lincoln’s secretary of the navy. Also Robert Smalls, Charleston harbor pilot, who liberated an entire ship and its all-black crew (along with their relatives), surrendered the ship to Union blockaders, and provided detailed information about Confederate coastal defenses. And most dramatic of all, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who “is believed to have worked as a servant in the mansion of Confederate President Jefferson Davis,” and to have passed top-level information through a spy ring led by Richmond socialite Elizabeth Van Lew. It was because of African Americans such as these that Robert E. Lee declared that “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes” (111).

In these accounts, Allen shows his special knack for using spy craft as a way to help young readers engage with politics and history. For example, slaves “had lived their lives as invisible people. That quality of invisibility‚Ķbecame the basis for using ex-slaves as spies for the Union” (95). Since “most people in the South did not believe a slave was clever enough to be a spy,” black spies could often carry out their work without disguises or false papers (97-98). At another point in the book, Allen uses the espionage catch phrase “walking back the cat” to explain how historians make tentative inferences based on limited knowledge: “The spymasters begin by going back to some place or some moment that provides definite information. Then they try to move on to the next piece of definite information. Usually, as the trackers move further and further from the starting point, they are dealing with less and less reliable information” (70). (The book’s margins also contain tiny secret messages written in a code used by Elizabeth Van Lew.)

I especially like this passage, from the book’s Epilogue: “Good spies know how to keep secrets. Harriet Tubman kept many of her secrets, as did the other African Americans who spied for the Union during the Civil War. To tell the world you were a spy, you had to feel safe. You had to believe that no one will find you and seek revenge. After the war, African Americans who spied did not feel safe enough to reveal their secret lives. And most of them, like Harriet, did not know how to write down their recollections.” Allen points out that we know very little about what black spies did in the war, partly because many black people were forcibly denied access to literacy, partly because many government documents were scattered or lost — but also because of conscious choices that ex-spies made as skilled professionals in a context of continuing racist terror. It’s another statement of respect by Allen for Harriet Tubman and her colleagues as historical agents, not just victims.

Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent is illustrated by Carla Bauer. It is a National Geographic Children’s Book published in 2006. 192 pages. For ages 10 and up. List price: $16.95 hardcover, $5.99 paperback.

This website maintained by the Harriet Tubman Historical Society includes a wealth of information and historical documents about Tubman’s life and work as an anti-slavery leader, combatant, and spy, and about efforts to preserve and share that history.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, by Sarah H. Bradford (1869)
This first book-length biography of Tubman is often disjointed and mythologizes its heroine, but includes much reliable information. Bradford later published a revised and expanded biography, Harriet, the Moses of Her People, which is better organized and more polished but even more exaggerated than the original. Both books have been fully digitized by the University of North Carolina and are available online.

Jailbreak out of History: the re-biography of Harriet Tubman, by Butch Lee (2000)
Not a children’s book, but a political analysis that resonates with Allen’s account in interesting ways. Butch Lee, who describes herself as a revolutionary Amazon theorist, argues that Tubman was a brilliant military figure and far more radical than most people realize.

George Washington, Spymaster, by Thomas B. Allen (2004).
Another National Geographic Children’s Book by the author of Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent, this one traces the pivotal role that spy craft played throughout the Revolutionary War, from the opening battles of Lexington and Concord to Washington’s decisive victory at Yorktown. The book is full of interesting stories and offers a fresh take on the war by using it explain modern espionage concepts such as dead drop, sleeper, double agent, and diplomatic cover. But it has almost nothing about the politics of the American Revolution (such as: liberty for whom?).

Image credits
The images used in this post are in the public domain and are available via Wikimedia Commons.