These new books center the efforts of Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Hubert Humphrey to better the lives of the underprivileged and underrepresented.

Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom during the Civil War

Edda L. Fields-Black. Oxford Univ, $34.95 (784p) ISBN 978-0-197-55279-7
Carnegie Mellon historian Fields-Black (Deep Roots) exhumes in this immersive study new information about the Combahee River Raid by Black Union troops and Harriet Tubman’s pivotal role escorting 756 enslaved people to freedom. Fields-Black, whose ancestors fought in the raid, exhaustively mines U.S. pension files, including Tubman’s, to profile many of the 300 Black soldiers who on June 2, 1863, were led by Union colonel James Montgomery into the “breadbasket of the Confederacy”—the rice plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina—where they destroyed $6 million in property and helped hundreds of enslaved people escape on Union gunboats. Fields-Black weaves into her narrative an impressive and varied array of topics, among them genealogies of the region’s plantation owners, an overview of the rice plantations’ brutal conditions, and Harriet Tubman’s early life and crucial wartime work for the U.S. Department of the South as an “indispensable spy and scout” who recruited other Black spies for the Union. As for the Combahee raid itself, Fields-Black mines the dramatic operation for enthralling detail. (When the rush of enslaved people to the shoreline became frantic, Montgomery shouted to Tubman “to sing to the freedom seekers to bring calm” and she did so to the abolitionist tune of “Uncle Sam’s Farm.”) Sprawling and kaleidoscopic, this is a marvel of deep research. (Feb.)

Brought Forth on This Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration

Harold Holzer. Dutton, $35 (464p) ISBN 978-0-451-48901-2
Historian Holzer (A Just and Generous Nation) offers an elegant examination of Abraham Lincoln’s political evolution on the contentious issue of immigration. Chronicling the “seismic political realignment, cultural upheaval, and personal growth” that led to Lincoln openly encouraging immigration and making it a “policy priority” in an historic November 1863 address to Congress, Holzer explains how Lincoln’s proposal resulted in the “first piece of proactive federal legislation” supporting immigration, which would also be the last of its kind until 1965. Holzer is balanced in his estimation of Lincoln’s statements and actions during the years preceding the Civil War, when “poisonous” ethnic tensions flared: he faults Lincoln for “dallying with deplorable nativists” to gain a political edge, but acknowledges a “signal moral achievement” in Lincoln’s “consistent revulsion for the hatred of Catholics and foreigners.” Adding texture to Holzer’s political analysis are profiles of the president’s foreign-born close associates, mainly Germans, like Carl Schurz (the first German-born American elected senator) and Lincoln’s private secretary John Nicolay. (Lincoln’s relationship to the primarily Democratic-voting Irish community was thornier, particularly given his persistent use of ethnic humor—Holzer provides some off-color examples from Lincoln’s “trove of Irish stories.”) This robust and lively account makes cogent connections between history and today’s immigration policy that will resonate with a wide readership. (Feb.)

True Believer: Hubert Humphrey’s Quest for a More Just America

James Traub. Basic, $35 (528p) ISBN 978-1-541-61957-9
Journalist Traub (What Was Liberalism?) offers an admiring biography of firebrand politician Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978). Raised in a small South Dakota community, Humphrey attended the University of Minnesota. In 1945, he became the mayor of Minneapolis, and his considerable support of the city’s oppressed Black and Jewish communities made him a national liberal figure. In 1948, his impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention led to the party’s adoption of a vigorous civil rights platform, despite the opposition of the Truman administration. That same year, Humphrey won a seat in the U.S. Senate, where he was eventually lead author of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Elected vice president in 1964, Humphrey had a fraught relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, who “wanted a servant, not a copilot.” Humphrey’s support for the war in Vietnam tarnished his progressive legacy and contributed to his 1968 presidential election defeat by Richard Nixon, according to Traub, who leaves no doubt of his affection for his subject—he describes Humphrey as not only “extraordinary” and “abundantly gifted,” but “profoundly good.” Detailed coverage of Humphrey’s career after he left the Senate makes this a valuable complement to Samuel G. Freedman’s Into the Bright Sunshine, which focused on the previous periods of the politician’s life. (Feb.)