If you know anything about Harriet Tubman, then you probably know that she was an escaped slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, bringing many slaves to safety at great risk to herself. She was strong and she was brave.
But less well-known is that she acted as a spy for the North during the American Civil War. Many of her activities are unknown, or unconfirmed, with only a few sources documenting Harriet Tubman’s spy work. Apparently, there is little surviving documentation, from either the North or the South, about intelligence work as much of it was destroyed to protect agents from reprisals. (This insight could make for an interesting discussion about doing research under such conditions.)
Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: how daring slaves and free Blacks spied for the Union during the Civil War by Thomas B. Allen (973.71 AlH 2009) gives us a full picture of this time period: what it meant to be a slave; the risks to both self and those who assisted if a slave decided to escape ; the Abolitionist movement; the Underground Railroad; the Fugitive Slave Act; Southerners fear of a black uprising; key figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass, amongst many others, as well as the role spies played in the Civil War.
Harriet Tubman was only one of many whites, blacks, freemen and slaves in the service of the government of the North. Confederate General Robert E. Lee recognized that slaves were the source of the most significant leaks of information. It’s not difficult to imagine what the consequences were for a slave if caught passing information.
The book includes a 'cast of characters' that helps young readers track significant players. It has fantastic illustrations (woodcuts, photographs) from the 1800s plus contemporary pictures, as well, maps, a timeline, appendices for footnotes, sources and bibliography and an index. Throughout the book are encrypted secret messages which can be decoded using the cipher (p.172) Elizabeth Van Lew devised when smuggling messages to the Union army.
The book itself feels like an old text that could have come directly from this era, with its small size, Caslon Antique font and illustrations.
This is an intriguing read about a lesser known element of the American Civil War that I would recommend for grades 6 and up.
Today's Nonfiction Monday event is being held at Gathering Books. Stop by to find a list of children's literature focused on nonfiction.