When Joe Duckett flees his life as a slave to join the Union Army as a cavalry scout, he becomes more than a free man--he becomes a hero. Duckett and his regiment of black soldiers roam Mississippi, freeing slaves and keeping vital waterways open for the Union. But as the war draws to an end, Duckett embarks on his most dangerous mission yet: to return to the plantation from which he escaped to find his wife and daughter.
Inspired by the true story of the 3rd U.S. Colored Calvary, this book fictionalizes, for the first time ever, the experiences of an African-American regiment in the Union Army. Serving in more than 160 regiments, 180,000 men have dissolved into history uncelebrated. Now, renowned African-American historian Allen Ballard weaves history and imagination together to bring back to life one forgotten regiment and its fight for freedom. He also tells us the story of black women in that war, focusing great attention on the struggles of Duckett's beautiful wife, Zenobia, to make her way to freedom."
"A stunning novel."
--Professor Roger Wilkens, George Mason University
Read An Excerpt:* * *
The first thing Joe did when he caught sight of those colored soldiers wearing blue Yankee uniforms was to stand staring at them with his mouth wide open till the captain rode up behind him and whacked him across the shoulder with his riding crop.
"Don't go getting ideas, Joe. We're going to run them niggers right off into the river and drown 'em like rats."
But they hadn't.
And now, on this late June day of 1863, he was in a Confederate camp not far from Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, where a Texas regiment was licking its wounds after fighting against colored Union troops.
It was unusually quiet as the men prepared to bed down for the night. The song of the Negro mule skinners attached to the unit seemed to fit the mood of the camp.
"Soon, one morning, death come stealing in your room...."
"Wish they'd stop that," Zack said. "Make me feel funny, what with all we going to do and all."
"Best for us they keep at it," said Joe, shifting in an effort to get all of his six-foot frame underneath a tattered blanket. "You know these white men must expect it — their niggers supposed to be singing like that, all sorry so many of their masters got killed today. And by colored, too."
"With them long-assed bayonets on they guns," Zack said.
"Oh, my Lord, oh, my Lord, what shall I do...?"
The Yankees were good and close now, him and Zack wouldn't have a chance like this again. Joe felt beneath his rough-cotton trousers for the knife tied around his leg. He'd be out of this damn camp tonight. Or dead trying. After what he'd seen today he didn't much care which.
Zack moved over closer to him. "You sure this the best time to go? These Texas men's just like mad wolves now — got a killing fever on them. They was cutting up colored soldiers every whichaway — even ones already dead. If they catches us..."
"And you think if we stay here, they going to sweeten?" Joe said. "I say they'll get meaner. I ain't staying one more night with them. If there's going to be killing, I'm the one's going to do it, not them."
Zack thought about it for a minute. "You right," he said finally. "I'd a heap more rather die fighting with my folk than from some Yankee bullet."
"Hush, hush, somebody calling my name...."
The singers' voices were getting low now. Everybody was tired, and no wonder. Yankee gunboats shelling all day, horses going crazy, pack mules running wild, bumping into trees and spilling food and bullets all over the ground. Then a two-hour march to get away from the river and cannon balls...
"How soon you want to light out of here, Joe?"
"Give it another few hours. And don't you be falling asleep like you always do. We leaving soon as the camp's quiet."
The singing had stopped, and in the quiet Joe could hear crickets chirping. He eyed the sentry closest to him: Massa Clem. Sitting on a log stump, shotgun on his lap, old black hat slouched down over his face like he was asleep. Joe knew better.
Massa Clem liked to brag about how no nigger had ever run away from his mule detail, but he'd not be saying it again. Wouldn't be using that bullwhip of his neither, whipping on them all the way from Texas clear on over to the Mississippi. Well, Massa Clem, you done brought me to just where I want to be — the Yankees. Now I am through with you.
Joe sniffed the air. Rain coming soon. Would make it a little harder for the bloodhounds, if they used them.
"Clem, we took a licking today." That was the sergeant, making his rounds, damn fool talking so loud he might wake some folk up.
"I wouldn't say that. Hadn't been for them gunboats, we'd of whupped the niggers good."
"Except it's us retreating, not them. Stay awake. Don't know what to expect tonight."
The sergeant moved on. The first raindrops fell. Massa Clem's chin fell forward on his chest, his hand still resting on the shotgun in his lap.
Joe nudged Zack. He got up and walked over to Massa Clem, pointed first to his pants, then to the woods. The guard nodded, and Zack went into the trees.
Joe looked around at the other sentries. They were quiet, probably asleep. He pulled the knife out from beneath his britches.
Why was Zack taking so long to pee?
Massa Clem must have been wondering the same thing, for he got up with his back to Joe and took a few steps toward the woods. Joe held his breath. As soon as Zack reappeared, Joe was across the space between him and the sentry, quiet as a panther and just as quick. He threw his arm around the sentry's throat, pulled it tight, and drove the knife into his back — felt the blood spurt out all over his hands. Massa Clem's body stiffened, his right hand releasing the shotgun, then flailing the night air. He tried to straighten up and his hat fell off. He did manage to hit Joe in the belly with his left elbow and was trying to aim another blow when all of a sudden his body relaxed and collapsed into a heap.
Joe pulled the knife out and wiped the blade clean on the dead man's shirt. His hand was trembling. Killing a man wasn't like killing no hog. It was the first time he'd done it.
He grabbed the short-barreled shotgun and Massa Clem's old hat — be better than nothing on the hot days — and followed Zack off into the woods. He hardly noticed that the crickets had stopped chirping.
* * *
They were no more than a couple of hours from the Mississippi and the Yankee lines, Zack behind, Joe in front, and trying to keep the road in sight for a guide.
It was raining steady now, and the water from the swampy ground squished in what was left of Joe's shoes. Of late it seemed like the slightest bit of wet might bring on a coughing fit, and it wouldn't do to have one now. Everybody knew the general kept a lot of his soldiers out on picket duty.
Joe felt Zack's touch on his shoulder and they both hunkered down. Twenty feet ahead of them was a soldier, his horse tied to the branches of a tree. He was facing the river. Thank you, Jesus.
Zack pointed toward the road. Two more troopers, also facing the river. Joe looked to the left, Zack shook his head and pointed again. Joe squinted hard — another trooper was just barely visible through the trees.
Damn. Looked like they'd have to stay put for a while. The soldiers would be moving on in the morning, but once the sun came up he and Zack would be in clear sight. Freedom was on the other side of those soldiers, and that's where he was bound. Only needed a little opening. Joe wasn't part Choctaw for nothing. If they —
A horse came galloping down the road. Its rider pulled up, leaned down, and said something to the trooper at the road. The soldier walked into the woods but was back a minute later. The two still in the woods unhitched their horses, pulled out their guns — six-shot Navy Colts — and started beating the bushes, moving slowly in Joe's and Zack's direction. And far off in the distance, Joe heard the cry of the hounds.
He looked up at the sky. Any minute, dawn would be breaking. He nodded at Zack and held up his hand.
Just another minute or two. Don't jump yet, Zack. Let 'em get real close.
One of the horses neighed. The trooper closest to them straightened up and cocked his revolver.
Too late. Zack ran straight into him with his knife held hard out in front. It went clean into the soldier's chest. The horse bolted and Zack leapt for the reins just in time to dodge a bullet from the other soldier's gun. Joe let out the breath he'd been holding. That shot would be the soldier's last.
Joe leveled the shotgun, blasted the soldier in the stomach, and immediately looked toward the road. The two other men must have heard the commotion and were coming into the woods to help. He didn't see their horses, but they had to be on foot, too — even he couldn't ride a horse through those trees.
The sounds of the dogs were closer now.
He turned to Zack. "You lead the horse, I'll stay about ten yards back. I got one more load in this gun, and we got theirs now."
They made their way toward the road, Joe darting from tree to tree, searching the woods in front of him. Just like hunting wolves, only this quarry was a mite more dangerous. But not more smart, and ain't no wolf ever outsmarted me yet.
His finger tightened on the trigger of the six-shooter. He motioned to Zack to stop, and they crept into a patch of bushes not far from the road. Joe kept looking up and down but couldn't see hide nor hair of the other two soldiers.
"You reckon they scairt off?" Zack whispered.
"Scared to go into the woods after a couple of crazy runaway niggers with guns?" Joe grinned. "Shows they got good sense. Now it's our turn. Let's get out of here."
No sooner were they on the horse and headed down the road than two bloodhounds come busting out the woods, baying and growling like all hell was on the march.
Zack, who had the reins, dug his heels in.
"Not so fast," Joe said. "We going to let these sons of bitches get right up close to us."
"How close? Shit, I can feel their breath on my feet."
The dogs were blade-thin and black as night. And they were close, all right — close enough for one quick leap to bring the horse down. Then they'd have their day, oh yes they would.
Joe looked back into the red throat of the closest dog, took aim and fired. Then he shot the other one. The hellish baying stopped and the only sound left was that of the horse's hooves clattering on the packed-down surface of the dirt road.
* * *
About three miles farther on, Zack and Joe walked into the Yankee lines, leading the horse and carrying one engraved shotgun, one carbine, and three good-looking sets of revolvers.
"Howdy there, young fellow." Joe grinned at the black soldier who had a gun leveled at them. "Don't be pointing that thing so careless-like. Don't want to spoil the day, do you? Just look at that sun rising high in the sky." He tipped Massa Clem's old black hat to the soldier, walked over to him, and fingered the brass buttons on his uniform. "Now tell me, how do a man go about getting him an outfit like that?"
* * *
Captain William Stiles, Third United States Colored Cavalry, looked up from his desk at the long line of colored men waiting to enlist. Most had the look of the road — dust-covered clothes patched time and time again, battered and torn hats, sweat-stained bandannas knotted around a couple of heads. They'd been following Union troops, working as cooks, teamsters, and laborers, building roads and digging ditches for Grant's army on its way down the Mississippi to capture Vicksburg.
Some of them could ride — they'd been around horses and mules all their lives. Most of them looked hard and lean — strong the way the cavalry needed them to be. Good thing, too, because they'd be going into the fighting right away. With Grant's main units having to move eastward, somebody had to stay back and protect the hard-won Mississippi River passage from the Confederate troops and irregulars out in the woods and the bayous of Mississippi and Louisiana. The Third Cavalry — along with veteran Union outfits — had gotten the job, and by God he'd see they did it well. They had but two weeks before they took to the field.
Time to get moving.
"No last name, Massa."
"Don't call me Massa, from now on it's sir. That goes for all soldiers, colored or white."
"Got a last name you like? Everybody has to have one."
"Duckett, sir. That's a good name, I heard tell it was my grandfather's."
"All right, Joe Duckett. Now tell me how you got here."
The captain wrote it all down. A runaway, captured and impressed by them, escaped...
There was something familiar about him.
"You the one busted through the Reb lines up at Milliken's Bend? Rode with General Grant's cavalry escort as a scout up there in the Yazoo?"
A broad smile. "The very same, sir."
Now, this was a piece of luck. The man was practically a legend — a cook for Colonel Osband, one day he begs to tag along with some regulars, they mount him on a mule and give him a musket from the War of 1812, and next thing you know he's come back into camp with five Reb prisoners marching in front of him. The story was that he even had them singing "John Brown's Body," but Stiles wasn't so sure about that part.
"Me too, Cap'n," said the tall man just behind Duckett. "I rode with Colonel Osband too."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it, soldier. I'll get to you in a minute. Now, Duckett, a few questions, and then I want you to go over to the headquarters unit and wait for me. Are you married?"
"Yes, and got three children."
"My wife is Zenobia. She still up at the Kenworthy plantation in the Yazoo with my baby daughter Cally, I think. My boy and other girl — Luke and Milly — they was sold away three years ago. I'll find them someday."
Captain Stiles heard the pain in the man's voice and laid down his pen.
"After this war is over, Duckett. You understand that, don't you?"
His new recruit pulled himself erect, and did it right. The days around Grant's cavalry told.
"I will do my duty, sir."
* * *
An hour later Joe stood at attention in the tent that served as Captain Stiles's company headquarters.
"At ease, Duckett."
"I've got plenty of sergeants, good ones, who rode with me at Fort Donelson and Shiloh. They went through days such as I never want to see again, and they are true as tempered steel. What I don't have is a sergeant who knows the colored people and the country around here. I want you to be the first colored sergeant in this cavalry regiment."
Now how about that! Joe blessed his lucky stars for landing in the hands of a fellow with sense enough to come to such a conclusion.
"I know the colonel will back me up. General Grant, too. It was you and them colored boys up at Milliken's who brought him around on this whole idea of colored soldiers."
Stiles studied the dark smiling face. The man was clearly of African descent, but his black hair was almost curly, hinting at some Indian blood. He wore it parted in the middle and it fell clear down to his shoulders. He looked to be a few years over thirty, and by all accounts he could ride like a whirlwind.
"I'll be mighty proud to do it, Captain. One thing, can I have Zack Bascom assigned to my troop as a corporal?"
"If you think he can do the job, take him."
The captain wrote their names down on the roll.
"We'll get down to training tomorrow — mainly weapons and firing. The men I've picked can ride, probably better than all of us New Yorkers. But they must learn their weapons and the discipline of drill. That's all for now."
Joe snapped to attention and was about to salute.
"Oh, and one more thing. I heard that while you were up with that cavalry outfit, they did a lot of hard drinking around and with the general. I've found that whiskey and horse soldiering don't go well together. Understood?"
Joe winced, then squared his shoulders and grinned. "Yes, sir."
Copyright © 2000 by Allen Ballard
Breaching Jericho's Walls
“Breaching Jericho’s Walls is a journey-through-life book that takes the reader to interesting and very different (surprisingly so) sites of memory where compelling experiences take place. I couldn’t stop reading.” — Gloria Wade-Gayles, editor of My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women’s Spirituality
Carried by Six
The leader of an anti-violence group stumbles upon a crime scene, and unknowingly kills the brother of a powerful but imprisoned drug dealer.
Where I'm Bound
"The important story of black soldiers in the Union army has finally found a writer of historical fiction equal to the occasion."
--James M. McPherson, Professor of History, Princeton University
One More Day’s Journey: The Story
of a Family and a People
Chronicles the movement of Blacks from South Carolina to Philadelphia during the Great Migration, 1917-1940.
"Where I’m Bound
is equal parts cinematic saga, addictive page turner, and hard-core examination of the institution of slavery in its death throes.”
--L.A Times, Nov. 19, 2000
“Where I’m Bound
is a vivid, fast-paced and poignant novel about battlefield and homefront life in Civil War Mississippi and Louisiana... A remarkable, spellbinding read for its military history and its exploration of the human condition in wartime.”
--The Schenectady Gazette, October 1, 2000
“A rousing Civil War novel, starring a dashing, able, valorous, ruthless cavalryman.”
--Washington Post, November 5, 2000
“A solid novel that uses fiction to tell the true-life story of the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry in the Western theater during the final two years of the Civil War.”
--Chicago Tribune, November 19, 2000
“The fighting scenes are vivid and Ballard is adept at conveying the pride former slaves took in their new-found freedom... as well as the injustices they suffered.”
--New York Times, December 10, 2000
“A powerful novel about a soldier fighting in a war that would determine his personal destiny and that of a young nation.”
--Publishers Weekly, October, 2000
“Allen Ballard’s thrilling drama gives Civil War history real life... What a terrific story!”
--Nell Irvin Painter, Professor of History, Princeton University
“A powerful and gripping epic about the African-American military experience in the Civil War... I heartily recommend it to all Americans.”
--Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
"With Where I'm Bound,
Mr. Ballard skillfully has shown how to blend research and imagination without doing violence to history."
--Ernest B. Furgurson, The Washington Times
"Where I'm Bound
offers a perceptive look at the tragedy of American slavery... Here's hoping Professor Ballard will see fit to write us a sequel following war hero Joe Duckett through the years of Reconstruction in Mississippi."
--Mark Dunkelman, Providence Journal-Bulletin
"Built around the campaigns of the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment, the Civil War explodes through dimensions of history bypassed by a horde of historians. Now Allen Ballard has drawn back the curtain on yet another marvelous and moving epoch of the Black experience of that time in Where I'm Bound
--John A. Williams, author of The Man Who Cried I Am
"This is a stunning novel!"
--Professor Roger Wilkins, George Mason University, author of Jefferson's Pillow