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Deeds of a Colored Soldier During the Rebellion
cover design Kurt Ozinga.



"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."

Frederick Douglass
August, 1863



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Deeds of a Colored Soldier During the Rebellion

a Novel of the American Civil War


F. W. Abel





Jedediah Worth, 70, Distinguished Soldier & Lawman

One of Langston’s most prominent citizens, Jedediah Worth, passed away yesterday peacefully in his sleep, just two months short of his 71st birthday.

Mr. Worth was well-known in Langston City, having served as our sheriff for more than a decade. Before settling here, Mr. Worth had a long and notable career in the United States Army, during which he rose to the highest non-commissioned officer grade, Regimental Sergeant-Major, in the celebrated 10th U. S. Cavalry.

He was the recipient of the highest award the nation bestows for bravery in battle, the Medal of Honor, not once, but twice, a feat almost unique in the annals of the American military. He was the first Negro to be awarded the Medal, for deeds of valor performed during the Rebellion, when he was only seventeen years of age.

A widower when he died, of Mr. Worth’s children, two still survive: Jubal, his only son, and Harriet, a daughter. His funeral will be held at 10:00 a. m. tomorrow at the Bethel Baptist Church.

This obituary, clipped from the Langston Herald, gave me deep sadness when it arrived from Oklahoma. For I had the privilege of knowing Jedediah Worth for more than twenty years.

I saw him for the first time in the spring of 1891, when I was a reporter for the Washington Colored American. Sergeant Worth was among the heroes from the Negro regiments sent to Washington as an honor guard in the nation’s capital. Our meeting was brief. Because White soldiers objected so vigorously to their presence, the Negro soldiers were quickly sent back to the frontier.

I met him again in the fall of 1898, when he was the Regimental Sergeant-Major of the 10th United States Colored Cavalry, the famed "Buffalo Soldiers." The 10th Cavalry had just returned from "the splendid little war" to free Cuba from the Spanish. Because the authorities feared the tropical diseases to which they had been exposed might become epidemic among the general population, soldiers returning from Cuba were quarantined. The men, White and Negro, were kept in a camp established at Montauk Point on Long Island, some 130 miles east of the city of New York.

The Colored American sent me out to Montauk to interview Negro soldiers about their experiences in the war. My editor was concerned that their contributions would not be acknowledged by the white-owned papers. Indeed, if you read only Hearst’s New York Journal, you would have thought that the only regiment that did anything of note at all was the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, Theodore Roosevelt’s headline-grabbing "Rough Riders." The Colored American was determined that the fortitude and pluck of the Negro soldiers be publicized.

(I suppose things have not changed much since then, as the paper is sending me off to France with the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, newly re-designated the 369th Regiment. We are determined that this latest group of Buffalo Soldiers not be ignored, either.)

Upon my arrival at Montauk, the officer acting as the liaison with newspaper reporters and correspondents gave me leave to enter the camp of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, and the 24th and 25th Regiments of Infantry, all of which were composed entirely of Negro enlisted men. He advised me to make the acquaintance of each regiment’s sergeant-major, the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in the regiment. The sergeant-major, even more than the regiment’s colonel, was the man who made sure the enlisted men were trained and disciplined, sheltered and fed. In short, he was the man responsible for having the men behave and carry themselves like soldiers. In this way, I was re-introduced to Sergeant-Major Worth.

You might expect, given his responsibilities, to find a dour, humorless, authoritarian man, quick to admonish and slow to praise; harsh, even brutal, made narrow-minded by the need to enforce discipline and regulations.

As I interviewed his men, I discovered the affection and respect in which he was held, not only by the soldiers, but by the white officers also. I shy away from the term "legend," but there is no other way to describe the man, as can be intimated from just reading his obituary.

Of course I wanted to find out more about him, but when I approached him for an interview, he refused and insisted that my news reports be about his soldiers, of whom he was intensely proud. But I am a reporter, a "news-hound" if you will, and over the course of several weeks was able to question Sergeant-Major Worth about his life and military career, and learned even more in subsequent meetings through the years.

It took me a long time to get to know the man. Even now, I recall that when I first looked on his weather-worn and war-scarred visage, how I concluded that the crow’s-feet around the eyes had to have come from squinting into the Southwestern sun and the lines about the mouth etched by the strain of having to immediately judge the correct course of action during battle. I know now that they were equally the result of laughter.

It is only now, years after I met him and two years after his death, that I am able to set his story down in chronological order. Apart from some endnotes I added in clarification or support of his reminiscences, the words are those of Jedediah Worth, a slave who became a soldier, a soldier who became a hero.

LeOtis Henry
Washington, D.C.
February, 1918


Book I

Got an Eagle on My Button



You’re a newspaper man, so why would you want me to tell of events that happened more than thirty years ago? Events so old, they certainly don’t qualify as news. But I don’t consider them to be history either. I’ve always been of the opinion that history is what happened in the distant past, not what happened in one’s own lifetime. Maybe when I have white hair, not gray, and am sitting in a rocker on a porch, then it will be time to tell my life story. Of course, by then, who’d want to listen to the rambles of a senile old man? There’s been a lot of dullness and monotony in my life, just as in any lifetime.

You say that people will be interested, that our young people need to be reminded about the times of slavery. I think that many of us who were slaves might prefer to allow the memory of slavery to fade into oblivion, just as the institution itself has. But I can also see your point that, to fully appreciate freedom, our people perhaps should be reminded what slavery was like.

However, I think that, as our people continue to be discriminated against in so many ways, often with the connivance of the very government for which we fought, we need more to devote our energies to ensuring that our people are free in fact as well as in name. The lesson that should have been learned is that legal freedom was, of itself, no panacea–much to the chagrin of most abolitionists.

But, yes, the very idea of freedom for those of us who were enslaved was a powerful impetus. Witness the great colored pugilist of the early century, Tom Mollineaux. The promise of freedom was enough to raise him almost literally from the dead.

You remark about my use of words. Do you think that journalists are the only people with "nickel" vocabularies? But I do have to admit that I have gone out of my way to catch your ear. Many civilians, I’ve found, regard soldiering as being for those too lazy or ignorant to make a go of civilian life, so I wanted to dispel that notion right from the start.

I was lucky to have learned to read while fairly young and thus developed a taste for it as a leisure-time activity, as well as a continuance of education. Sitting in an isolated, dust-scoured fort in the desert allows ample time for reading, a welcome change from the arduous living on the campaign trail and the excitement, and terror, of combat. Reading fills one’s mind and occupies one’s time and goes a long way in keeping one from becoming a drunk or a deserter, the scourges of the frontier army.

Let me say, though, drunkenness and desertion both occurred far less often in the colored regiments than in white ones–a minor miracle given the undesirable locations in which we were usually posted. The Seventh Cavalry was especially prone to both, understandable given their commanding officer. But I am already rambling.

Yes, I understand that there is a great deal of interest in the War of the Southern Rebellion, especially by those too young to remember it. Witness the popularity with which General Grant’s memoir was received–probably read by more people, Americans and foreigners, than any American writer save Mark Twain.

And I can see the need for veterans of the Rebellion to tell our stories, especially in light of the romanticism currently accrued to the Confederate version of the war, their "lost cause," doomed from the start, to defend an honorable way of life and principles of the Constitution. Let us just call it a myth. The Southern planter class led their region into rebellion to protect slavery, and their lower classes followed out of notions of white supremacy. General Grant said it well it his memoir when he said it was one of the worst causes for which men ever fought. In contrast, Unionists fought for the morality of freeing an enslaved people, even if many of them did not see it that way at first. The Northern veteran said it best when he wrote that they fought not just to save the Union, but for a Union worth saving.

I can tell you about the Rebellion as I experienced it, but don’t expect a grand view of it, like that depicted by General Grant. His was the unique perspective of the commanding general of all the National armies. My range of vision at its widest was limited to a company, and that was when I was a sergeant. When I was a private, it didn’t get much wider than that of a squad. Think of the descriptions of battle found in The Red Badge of Courage.

Of course I have read The Red Badge. It’s a remarkable work, especially when you consider Crane’s innocence of war. Just about any enlisted man, in any time since the invention of the musket, could read Crane’s work and say to himself, "That’s just about the way it was." However, that very thing is one of its flaws as a novel about a Northern volunteer, as it does not render the sanctity with which the Northern man regarded the cause for which he fought. Our cause, the freedom of all Americans, was nothing like that of the Southerner, who convinced himself he was defending "states’ rights," but was in fact fighting to prolong slavery and white supremacy.

The other flaw as a novel about the Rebellion is that the protagonist is portrayed as believing that he, himself, one soldier, could make a difference. Although by the end of the story, it must be said, he has come to realize his own insignificance and, more importantly, has come to accept the inevitability of his own death, "the great death," as Crane called it. This, in his first battle. I guess I wasn’t as precocious, as I didn’t come to that acceptance until the night between the first and second days at Nashville, two years after my first battle, and after having been wounded. But in The Red Badge, there’s none of the fatalism, almost despair, that afflicted many Union soldiers, especially the volunteers of 1861, during the autumn of ‘64 and the following winter. That’s when ran rampant the chilling thought that all the sacrifices might have been in vain, when it appeared McClellan and the "Peace Democrats" could win the presidential election and end the war by giving the Confederacy its independence. But I’ve heard that The Red Badge was set fairly early in the war, so maybe it’s not such a flaw after all.

That was why the enlistment of colored troops made such a difference to the outcome of the Rebellion. It wasn’t just our numbers. It has been said that the best men, on both sides, were those who enlisted in 1861. What they lacked in soldierly skill, they made up for in enthusiasm and determination. The men who followed, the conscripts and bounty men, just weren’t up to their standard.

Except for us. The coloreds who enlisted in ‘63 and ‘64 possessed all the enthusiasm and determination of the volunteers of ‘61. We appeared at a propitious time, when many of the ‘61 men were war-weary and losing heart, or were dead. If the Confederacy had the wisdom to enlist slaves, promising freedom to those who enlisted, the war might have ended differently. I’ve often thought the Confederacy was akin to the protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy, doomed by his own flaws. In the South’s case, it was the fatal flaw of slavery. Most colored troops in federal service were from the South. Not only did the South not benefit from the fortitude of their own colored population, the valor of Southern coloreds was turned against the Confederacy. Except for an incident in which I was involved that occurred in the spring of 1865. The description of that will have to wait until its due time.

On the other hand, coloreds almost didn’t get a chance to fight for the Union either. It may seem nonsensical, but powerful forces in the federal government were opposed to colored soldiers, at least at first. For coloreds, who had the most to gain or lose as a result of the outcome of the war, the first battle was for the right to be Union soldiers at all. We had to fight for "Sambo’s Right to be Kilt," as that apparently scurrilous, but actually clever, poem was titled, which helped change opinion toward the use of colored soldiers.

You have to understand that, of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of having been in the first battle fought by colored troops during the Rebellion. It was small, so small we didn’t even give it a name at the time. It’s now called the battle of Island Mound, because it took place on a small island in the Osage River in Missouri. Given what a signal event it was, it’s lamentable how few people today even know of its occurrence.

It took place in the autumn of ‘62. That’s right, before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The real wonder of it all was the number of people who simply ignored the federal government and allowed us to soldier in the first place.

My road to Island Mound started with me in bondage in Kentucky. I went with my master’s sons when they joined the Confederate army. I was with them at Belmont and Shiloh. Then I got the chance to run for freedom. While on the run in Tennessee is when I met my best friend, Samson, the African warrior who became Sergeant-Major Miner of the 9th Cavalry, and Effie, Belle and Josh, who became family.

Even now, as I relate it, I’m astonished at how simple my life seemed then. I suppose that one problem with living past one’s youth is the amount of regret one tends to accumulate. I was young, not much more than a boy, really. My boyhood was spent on Wentworth Farm, one of the largest horse-breeding farms in Kentucky. The farm produced some of the finest horses for racing and hunting in a state famous for its horseflesh.

When I call it a "farm," you might get the idea that it was small, but Wentworth Farm covered more than six hundred acres, surrounding a red-brick mansion fronted by six white fluted columns. Although some of it was covered by scrub forest and underbrush, most of it was devoted to large pastures, bound by whitewashed plank faces. Closer to the center of the farm were smaller paddocks, also divided by fences, where single horses roamed; the whole estate was sprinkled with stables and the small cabins in which the servants lived.

"Servants" was the hypocritical term usually employed by our masters, but we were slaves alright, bought or born, and there were more than eighty of us, mostly to care for the horses. There were trainers, jockeys, grooms, stableboys, two blacksmiths and, the most expensive of all, a veterinarian. There were field hands to grow hay and vegetables and take care of cattle and pigs and mend fences, and house servants to take care of the four members of the Wentworth family.

The field hands were organized in gangs of ten or a dozen, each under a driver, who was himself a slave, but had the function of making sure that the field work was done. I’m sure that now, many of our people who were not born into slavery, would consider them turncoats to their own people. But a good driver was expected to be the voice of his gang, standing up for them if the master became unreasonable in his demands or harsh in his treatment. The reason I mention it is because many of the non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals, of the first colored regiments had been drivers. They knew how to lead, and they knew how to handle our white officers, many of whom, coming from up North as they did, just didn’t know how to deal with us.

The reason I had been bought at the age of twelve, some three years prior to the war, was to help with the horses. I was somewhat tall for my age and working with my hands had made my shoulders broad, while riding horses had given me well-muscled legs. Muscle is heavy, and my height and weight caused me some concern, because I wanted to be a jockey, and most jockeys were short and lightweight. But again, I digress.

I guess a good starting point for the story of how, to borrow from Frederick Douglass one of his most noted phrases, I got "an eagle on my button," is a day in May of 1861.

Like most days, this day started with me shoveling horse manure. Of course, I would have already gotten dressed and gone out to the privy and then the pump house to clean up. I was then ready to start my chores.

As I said, my first chore concerned the collection and disposal of horse manure. The spring grass was plentiful and lush, and it seemed that the horses barely swallowed it before it came out the other end. The stable I took care of, built for twelve horses, had ten just then, but that was still a lot of manure.

I would then pump the trough full of water, and take the horses, two-by-two, to drink, before turning them out on their paddocks to graze. I would do all this on my own, without any orders or overseers. All of us who worked with horses were "on task" and were trusted to get done whatever needed doing. All that mattered to Mister Wentworth was that the horses were properly cared for.

I recall that, as I awoke that morning, I had no notion it would be such an uncommon day.



"You’re goin’ t’ the army, Jed," old Gideon told me. "You and Obie both."

"The army? What army?" If I hadn’t been so bewildered, I would never have talked back to Gideon, the Farm’s head groom, who was in charge of all of us who worked with the master’s horses.

"The master’s sons are joinin’ up. All the young masters in these parts are. Master Brady and Master Wade’ll need servants." Normally, Gideon would never have bothered with an explanation, he would have just cuffed me one, but I guess he knew the news had to have been such a shock.

"You go on up t’ the main house now," Gideon ordered. The main house, where Mister Wentworth lived with his family, was normally off-limits to any but the house servants. The front was imposing, with a white portico supported by six white pillars formed from the whole trunks of large, tall pines. Up to that day, I had never seen the inside.

"Yes, sir," I said meekly, although I wanted to ask why.

Gideon again took pity on me and explained.

"You’re t’ be taught how t’ cook. The young masters’re takin’ only one servant each, so you and Obie’ll have t’ know lots besides takin’ care o’ their horses." You have to understand that, in those days, no Southern man of stature and family was expected to do menial chores, even as a private in the army. "Now get on up there."

"Yes, sir."

Normally, after I took care of my morning chores would come breakfast-time. The grooms and stableboys would meet in the clapboard shed behind the main house. Food from the separate cook building would be brought out to the shed and we would all eat together. It was a happy, relaxing time of the day, if short.

However, that day, I hurried to the house and knocked on the kitchen door.

The door was opened by Libby, one of the serving girls. "What d’you want?" she scolded, her neck crane back to look me in the eye. "You know you’re not supposed t’ be here. You eat in the shed with the grooms and stableboys."

"I was told t’ come in t’ learn how t’ cook. When the young massers go t’ th’ army, I’m goin’ wit’ ‘em, t’ take care of ‘em." At the time, I spoke with a soft drawl, the speech of central Kentucky. Most hard sounds at the end of words just dropped off.

Libby just scowled and made no move to let me in. I just stood, stupidly.

"What do you think you’re doin’, girl?" snapped a voice, richer, deeper. "You let him in right now!"

Libby quickly stepped back and allowed me to enter the kitchen.

Maddie, the head cook, was the person who had spoken. A large, imposing woman, she looked me up and down with a jaundiced eye. "The first thin’ you need t’ learn about cookin’ is you better be clean. You get on over t’ the sink and scrub your hands right up t’ your elbows."

I went to the sink, pumped some water and lathered up with a bar of brown soap. Maddie inspected my hands carefully before she nodded.

"Now get on over there with Obie," she said.

Obie was a groom like me, maybe a couple years older. We both tried to outdo each other in taking care of our horses. It was a competition that never went too far, and we were friendly toward each other. Today, I guess we each felt out of place in the kitchen, and so we just nodded to each other.

"One o’ the best ways t’ learn t’ cook is t’ do it," Maddie told us, "and then eat what you cooked t’ see how it tastes. I’m goin’ t’ have you fix some ham and eggs and biscuits and coffee." Maddie showed us how to measure flour and milk and baking powder and mix it together to make biscuit batter.

"Ain’t goin’ t’ be no hearths in the army," she told us. "So you’ll need t’ learn t’ bake in a Dutch oven over a fire."

While the biscuits were baking, Maddie showed us how to measure and boil coffee, how to slice and fry ham in a skillet and how to fry eggs in lard. I felt like I was "getting over," because eggs were a special treat for us slaves, only served on Christmas and Easter.

The biscuits that we made were a little hard, the eggs that I fried were brown on the bottom and runny on the top, and the coffee was weak, but I think it was a good first try. Maddie sampled our work and told us what we did wrong.

After breakfast, we cleaned the pans and plates and knives and forks we had used. Maddie inspected them all.

"The best way t’ get th’ trots is t’ have dirty cookin’ gear" she said. Obie and I both gave a laugh, but we abruptly stopped laughing when Maddie turned on us.

"Don’t you’all be laughin’ about th’ trots, you hear? Th’ trots likely t’ kill you faster’n a Yankee bullet. Plenty are th’ people died from th’ trots." No matter if it were called the trots, the runs, the squirts, or more military, the quick-step, a reading of the casualty lists in almost any war would show how distressingly correct was Maddie’s assessment.

"Now you get on outside and finish your mornin’ work. When you come back at noon, you’all make sure th’ first thin’ you do is wash your hands," she called after us, as I raced Obie over to the tack shed to get bridles, saddles and saddle blankets.

The farm bred horses for racing and hunting, as well as for riding and pulling wagons and buggies, so there were a lot of horses, and all needed to be exercised. I was proud of myself, as I was allowed to ride, at least as a warm-up. Only the most trusted grooms were allowed to ride the saddle horses, for they were too valuable and too easily hurt for just anyone ride them. On many of the neighboring farms, a groom was only allowed to put a long halter on a horse and have it run in circles around him while he held the rope.

The other, equally important reason was that a slave might take a horse to try to run away. I remember the time a runaway from a neighboring farm was caught. It was soon after I had come to Wentworth Farm. The masters from the roundabout farms sent their own slaves, mostly the grooms and jockeys, to see what happened to runaways.

The man’s hands were tied to a large wagon wheel and his shirt was ripped off his back. An overseer, one of the white men who made sure the slaves did what they were told, instead of a cat-o’ nine-tails, took a short, thick bullwhip to the runaway’s back.

The man jumped as the first stroke hit him and raised a welt. After the third or fourth stroke, small trickles of blood bubbled up from his skin. By the tenth, blood flowed freely down his back, and by the twentieth, bits of skin began to come off and the man was screaming. By the fiftieth, the man’s pinkish-white ribs and backbone were visible, but by then, thankfully for him, he had fainted.

"He’s got another fifty comin’," said the overseer, "but we’ll save ‘em for another time. Be a waste of time if he can’t feel nothin’." We were then marched back to our farms and plantations and told to tell the others what we had witnessed.

Maybe it was because I was so young, and so new to the farm, but the horror of that scene has stayed with me. Even now, years later, the memory can still make me skittery.

On the other hand, I should probably mention that a whipping was an exceptional occurrence, at least in the farm country of Kentucky. The generation of coloreds born after Emancipation might think that slavery was how it was depicted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but most masters would not dream of gratuitous cruelty to a slave, any more than to a horse.

This wasn’t necessarily kindness; you have to recall that we slaves were valuable property. The punishment of the runaway had probably meant the loss of most of his value to his owner. A "prime buck" could cost more than two thousand dollars, and those were pre-war gold dollars, not greenbacks, so you see why we were treated the way we were.

In a way, that’s the repulsiveness of slavery - the owners had so much money tied up in the institution that, to defend it, they resorted to such horrors as whipping a man half to death, and then to justify that, they invented the notions of inequality that plague us to this day.

When Obie and I reported back to Gideon, I was delighted to learn that I was to exercise Caesar, a three-year old hunter. Hunters were horses trained for cross-country riding and steeplechase racing. They were large and fast, with good endurance, and nimble in jumping obstacles.

As I approached Caesar’s stall, I began talking softly. Many of the thoroughbreds were skittish, but Caesar just looked at me with warm, intelligent eyes and let me put the bit in his mouth, adjust the headstall and saddle him with no kicking, rearing or any trouble at all. I walked him out of the stable and over to a fence. Caesar was a sorrel, and so big that I had to climb to the second rail just to get enough height so as to get my foot in the stirrup.

I walked him over to the training paddock, which had a few hedges and ditches. Of course, I wouldn’t take Caesar over the obstacles, I’d just warm him up for Peter, who was the trainer for the hunters.

Peter sat atop the fence, keeping an eye on me as I had Caesar walk a bit, then trot for a while before I had him canter. After about five minutes, Peter motioned to me and I brought Caesar back down to walk for a few minutes. Then I slid out of the saddle and held the stirrup as Peter mounted.

As Peter guided Caesar through the course, I had to admire the effortless grace with which the powerful horse soared over the jumps, bars set at the highest position. After a half dozen circuits, Peter rode back over to the gate. The sweat from his exertions had darkened Caesar’s coat to reddish-brown and his sides were heaving, but ever so slightly.

"A few mo’ days and he’ll be ready fo’ a real hunt," Peter said approvingly. "Make sure you cool him down slow an’ give ‘im a good rubdown. An’ give ‘im an extra ration o’ oats. An’ an apple. Be real nice to ‘im. He’s one o’ the horses goin’ t’ the army wit’ you’all."

As I remounted, Tom, another stableboy, began warming up Tucker, a two-year old bay, before Peter put him through the course. I walked Caesar for ten minutes, watching Peter and Tucker. The bars were set to the second lowest position the first two times through. For the third circuit, Peter had Tom up the bars to the third position. I dismounted to cover Caesar with a blanket.

Peter put spurs to Tucker. But at the first jump, the horse balked, reared and went down. Before the horse could fall on him, Peter had kicked out of the stirrups while, in a flash, I was over the fence, to help him drag himself clear. The iron-shod hoof of a thrashing horse could easily cave in a man’s skull. Peter, Tom and I then surrounded Tucker, talking softly to calm him before he could hurt himself.

"Thanks, Jed," Peter told me. "Quick thinkin’. I’ll make sure Gideon knows. Now you’all go back t’ takin’ care o’ Caesar."

I led Caesar back to the stable and took off the saddle and removed the bit. When I was sure he was cooled down, I led Caesar by the halter over to the trough for a drink. Back at the stable, I sponged out his mouth, nose and dock, and felt his legs and checked his shoes to make sure that there were no problems with either. Then I combed and brushed him until his coat was like brown satin.

When the dinner bell rang for the noon meal, I ran to the kitchen door as fast as my boots would let me. I saw Obie coming, so I waited to knock until he got there. Libby opened the door and let us in, without sassing us this time. Heeding Maddie’s words from that morning, Obie and I went over to the sink and scrubbed vigorously with brown soap.

Maddie showed us how to make cornbread in a skillet and fry cuts of beef. She had dried black-eyed peas soaking in water to soften, and showed us how to simmer the peas so they would be ready in time for supper. In between her lessons, Maddie made sure that Libby served the Wentworths properly in the dining room.

While Obie and I ate, we heard snatches of conversation every time Maddie or Libby pushed through the door between the kitchen and the dining room.

Soon we could hear right through the walls as Mr. Wentworth began to shout. "North Carolina seceded on the same day our damned legislature voted to remain neutral. Neutral! The very word leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It means Kentucky doesn’t have the damned gumption to support one side or the other."

"Thomas, you can use any language you want outside or in the stables, but I will not have you swearing in this house," said Mrs. Wentworth severely.

"But I was provoked beyond all endurance, my dear. Kentucky is a Southern state and as such, belongs with the Confederacy. Any fool, except maybe those who constitute our legislature, understands that." Mr. Wentworth was not quite shouting, but he still talked loudly.

"Does this mean that Kentucky will not field any soldiers for either army, Father?" asked Brady, the older of the two Wentworth brothers.

Wade, younger by three years, interrupted before his father could reply. "Nothing’s going to stop me. I’ll go to Missouri to join up if I have to."

"Wade, please mind your manners, and do not interrupt your father," said Mrs. Wentworth. "And at seventeen, you’re too young to be a soldier."

"But Father said–" Wade protested, but Mr. Wentworth hurriedly interrupted.

"Missouri has not yet voted to secede from the Union either. After all the damned trouble Missourians caused in Kansas, Missouri is not doing any more than Kentucky!"

"Thomas, I have already asked you once not to swear in my house!" Mrs. Wentworth was now close to shouting herself.

"Sorry, my dear. I was again provoked beyond all reason. Missouri men, by employing violence to try to force Kansans to permit slavery, greatly added to the ill-feeling between the two regions. The fools in Washington could maybe have patched together another compromise, had not the bigger fools in Missouri spilled blood."

"But Pa! What about John Brown?" demanded Wade. "Not only did he kill Missouri men in cold blood, he tried to start a slave rebellion. Nothing done by the Missourians could have been worse than that!"

The greatest fear of all slave-owners was that their slaves would rise up in a bloody revolt. Revolts did occur from time to time. Cato’s rebellion in the last century killed twenty-two whites before a clash with the South Carolina militia resulted in forty-four coloreds and twenty whites dead. Turner’s rebellion in Virginia thirty years before saw the death of fifty-seven white men, women and children before it was savagely suppressed. John Brown’s raid had occurred only a year and a half prior, and the bitterness it had aroused on both sides was still fresh.

"I’m surprised that John Brown’s trial, or rather his hanging, did not start a war sooner," Brady said quietly. "I thought the abolitionists would make him a saint and, under that banner, attack us then."

"Understand that most Yankees are not abolitionists," replied Mr. Wentworth. "Most of them could care less about coloreds. If the abolitionists got their way, coloreds would be free to slave in factories like Yankee workmen, and it’s a well-known fact that we treat our livestock better than Yankee factory owners treat their workers. Our servants would be far worse off with the Yankees than they are with us." As I have said, like most Southerners, Mr. Wentworth rarely referred to the people he owned as slaves.

"However," he continued, "the election of Lincoln showed quite clearly that the North will not just allow us to leave the Union without trying to stop us. They believe that states do not have the right to make their own choices in this regard, even though the Constitution gives the states any rights not specifically given to the Federal Government. The states voluntarily entered the Union, therefore they should be able to voluntarily leave it."

"But what about Kentucky, Father?" Brady returned the conversation to his original question. "Does the vote of neutrality mean that the militia will not be called out?"

"I suppose that’s exactly what it is intended to mean," replied Mr. Wentworth. "But as your hot-headed brother says, that will not prevent individuals from joining either side, even if they have to go to another state to do so."

"We sure–" Wade began but was again interrupted by Mr. Wentworth.

"Let us finish eating before the food gets cold."

At the time, I knew what a Yankee was, but I had never heard of an abolitionist. I thought Maddie might know, since she lived around the masters all the time, so I asked her.

"You hush!" Maddie whirled around and faced Obie and me. She lowered her voice. "Don’t ever let white folks hear you say that word, or even that you know the word, or it’s worth a whippin’." Maddie looked over her shoulder, then whispered. "The abolitionists believe that colored people should be free and able t’ go do what they want, just like white folks. Now, don’t let me hear you ask about that no more. Clean up th’ pots and pans and go back t’ tendin’ th’ horses like you should."

That night, Obie and I were moved into the same loft to sleep. Below us was the stable housing those saddle and pack-horses going with us to the army.

As we bedded down, Obie began to talk. "Jed, remember what Maddie said today? What would you do if you were free?"

"I never gave it no thought before. It didn’t ever seem possible."

"Why not? There’s free coloreds, you know."

"I knew that."

"So what would you do if you were free, Jed? If you didn’t have t’ tend the master’s horses?"

"I like tendin’ horses," I replied.

"You don’t mean to say you like shovelin’ manure," he said mockingly.

"No, not that part. I guess I’d rather be a jockey or a trainer, and just ride the horses and let someone else shovel the manure."

"That’s all? You want nothin’ more than that?"

"Well, there ain’t no sense spendin’ so much thinkin’ about it," I said crossly. "You’all might as well go t’ sleep, cause there ain’t anythin’ you can could do about it, Obie. Freedom’s about as real as whatever it is you’ll dream tonight."



The next few weeks were more of the same: taking care of the horses while learning my new duties. Obie and I began cooking so well that Maddie would sometimes have something cooked by one of us sent into the dining room. She wouldn’t tell the family, so she could judge their reactions. Only rarely did they ever notice any difference.

We were learning other things as well. We already knew how to mend and polish leather from taking care of saddles and harnesses, but now we polished boots and mended clothing. Some of what we learned, like cooking, laundering clothes and making soap was rightly women’s work, but we learned it and the dozen other things we would have to know when we accompanied the Wentworth brothers into the army.

We started to spend more time in the house, to train as personal servants to the brothers. Obie was assigned to Brady, the older brother, about twenty years old, who carried himself with a quiet dignity. I waited on Wade, almost eighteen. I was glad to get the easy-going Wade, with his sense of humor. Brady, serious and formal, almost stiff, made me feel uncomfortable.

As his personal servant, I cared for Wade almost like I cared for a horse. I heated and poured his bath water, emptied his chamber pot, laid out his clothes and polished his boots. The one thing that Obie did for Brady that I didn’t have to do for Wade was shave him. Wade had not yet sprouted real whiskers.

The extra work did not take up much time, because the Wentworth brothers were away from the farm most of every day. They constantly met with other wealthy young men like themselves to discuss the military unit they were forming to fight for the Confederacy. Because the young men were almost all sons of horse breeders and racers, the unit would of course be cavalry.

One afternoon, while Obie and I were in the kitchen cleaning up, the by-now familiar voice of Mr. Wentworth sounded from the parlor.

"Damn me!"

"Thomas, will you please stop swearing!" Mrs. Wentworth shouted.

I left the kitchen and sneaked across the dining room so I could hear what was being discussed.

"Sorry, my dear. Events are again provoking me. Tennessee has seceded from the Union. Tennessee!" Mr. Wentworth said it as if bewildered. As he resumed speaking, his voice kept getting louder. "There is hardly a plantation there worthy of the name, and half the damned, sorry my dear, benighted state is full of Yankees, or people who are more like Yankees than any true Southerner should be, and yet even they have the fortitude to secede, and here Kentucky sits on the fence and does nothing!"

Any comment that Mrs. Wentworth was preparing to make was interrupted by a shout from outside.

"Come look at us!" sounded Wade’s voice, full of eagerness.

While the Wentworths hurried out onto the front portico, Obie and I ran out the back and around the house.

In front of the house sat Brady and Wade, both very straight on their horses. Each had a drawn saber in his hand. At the same time, they brought the hilts up to their faces and then swept the blades down to the right in salute. The afternoon sun reflected off the gleaming brass and steel with painful brightness.

"First Lieutenant Wentworth at your service, ma’am," Brady smiled at his mother. He sheathed his saber in the brass-mounted steel scabbard that hung next to his left leg. The cock-tail plumes in his black slouch hat shook with a quiet rustling sound as he moved.

Brady wore a short gray jacket with strips of yellow frogging across his chest, with a yellow standing collar and yellow pointed cuffs. There were two horizontal bars of gold braid on each side of the collar and a strip of gold braid in an ornate pattern climbed up each sleeve past the elbow. I found out later that soldiers referred to the sleeve braid as "chicken guts."

A yellow tasseled sash encircled his waist under his sword belt. A narrow welt of gold braid bordered each side of the yellow stripe that ran down the outside seam of each trouser leg. His boots had large square tops that came up over the knee.

Wade was dressed the same way, except his uniform didn’t have any chicken guts. Instead, his jacket had two downward-pointing, parallel stripes on the upper arm of each sleeve.

"Corporal Wentworth at your service, Ma", he said with a smile wider than Brady’s.

"Oh, my! How magnificent. And how handsome you both look," Mrs. Wentworth gushed. Then she frowned. "I suppose this means you’ll be going away soon," she said almost to herself.

"We wanted to surprise you, Father," said Brady. "We have an entire company already formed. ‘We are ‘The Mercer County Cavaliers.’ I’m First Lieutenant and Jonathan Ballard was elected Captain. James Butler from up-county is the Second Lieutenant. You may recall he was introduced to you last Christmas season at the Ballards’ holiday ball."

"I’m the youngest corporal," said Wade proudly. "We don’t have our firearms yet, but they should be coming within a week or two."

"Wade ordered two pistols," Brady said with a hint of disapproval in his voice, "in addition to a carbine."

"I need them because I’m going to be actually fighting the war," Wade answered good-naturedly. "We can’t all be officers like you, just waving swords and yelling orders, big brother. I mean, sir."

"What is a carbine?" asked their mother.

"A short rifle, especially for mounted troops," Wade answered. "As soon as everyone in the company gets their weapons, it’ll be ‘boots and saddles,’ as we old soldiers like to say."

The Wentworths all laughed at Wade’s mocking attempt to play the old soldier as they went into the house.

Obie and I led the horses to the stables, then Obie blurted, "I sure hope the Yankees win this war."

You may think it odd, even stupid, but I was shocked. "You mean you’all want us t’ lose the war? How can you’all say somethin’ like that?"

"What do you’all mean by ‘us,’ Jed?" asked Obie scornfully.

"Us. The South. This is our home, too. You’all want the Yankees t’ come destroy our land?"

"It’s not our land any more than it’s the horses’ land," Obie snapped. "What about abolition, Jed? Don’t you want it t’ come true?"

"I don’t think we should talk about it. You’all heard what Maddie said."

"Yeah, but what if we have a chance to be free? If it meant we’d be free, would you care if the masters lost the war?" Obie persisted.

"You’d better hush up like Maddie said. You’all are goin’ t’ get in more trouble than you need, if you’all are not careful. You don’t need that kind of trouble. Besides, ain’t nobody done any fightin’."

"Yeah, but if there ain’t goin’ t’ be no fightin’, why’d Brady and Wade join the rebel army? Why’d they need swords and guns?"

"Obie, the rebel army’s the place where you and me’s goin’ to. You’all better stop thinkin’ about abolition, or you’all are goin’ t’ say somethin’ in front of the white folks that’s goin’ t’ get the hide whipped right off you." By the sound in my voice, I tried to make it clear that should be the final word on the matter.

"Yeah, but you’all still know the army we should be goin’ t’ is the Yankee army. Even if you won’t admit it out loud."

A week later, the pistols and carbine arrived. I carried the package to the parlor and watched as the Wentworths all gathered round as the weapons were unpacked. The brothers proudly showed their parents their new firearms.

"It was made by Shawk and Maclanahan of St. Louis," said Brady, holding up a beautifully tapered, elegant-looking pistol.

"It’s thirty-six caliber, isn’t it?" asked Mr. Wentworth.

"Yes, Father, it is."

"What does that mean?" asked Mrs. Wentworth.

"It means the diameter of the bullet is just over a third of an inch, Mother," Brady said. "It can fire six shots before it has to be reloaded. To reload, you put a cartridge into each chamber." Brady showed his mother the six chambers in the revolving cylinder and a bullet glued into a paper cartridge.

"Next, you use the rammer attached under the barrel to make sure the charges stay in each chamber securely. Then, you put a percussion cap on the nipple at the back of the cylinder, one over each chamber.

"This is the hammer. Before each shot, you thumb it back, then pull the trigger. The hammer falls on the cap and it explodes, sending a thin flame through the nipple to ignite the powder charge in the chamber."

"How complicated it all sounds," Mrs. Wentworth said.

"It’s splendid!" exclaimed Mr. Wentworth. "When I was your age, we had to prime with powder–"

"Thomas, we are not interested in a history lesson," said Mrs. Wentworth, then she smiled. "Especially ancient history."

Wade unwrapped his pair of pistols. Compared to Brady’s pistol, they looked squat, almost ugly. They didn’t have any of the shiny brass; they were made of steel only.

"Mine are LeMats. They were invented by Doctor LeMat of New Orleans. The LeMat’s a ten-shooter. Nine shots are pistol bullets, but you can pivot this little pin on top of the hammer to fire buckshot through this short barrel underneath the main one. This hook on the trigger guard is to help hold the gun steady when you fire the buckshot. The kick must be tremendous. I’ve also got a LeMat carbine."

Wade displayed a gun which was like the pistols, but with a longer barrel and a stock so it could be aimed from the shoulder like a rifle.

"I’m so distressed that you take this pride in such infernal machines," Mrs. Wentworth said, looking at Wade.

"I’m lucky to have received them," Wade replied, carefully not looking at his mother. "The shipper said that, because of the difficulty of obtaining raw materials, Doctor LeMat is shortly going to move to France to manufacture his pistols."

"It’s certainly lethal-looking, I’ll give you that," Brady kidded, picking up one of the LeMat pistols.

"You be careful with those things!" Their mother looked at them reprovingly, waving her hands at the pistol as if to ward off an evil. "You could hurt someone," she said sternly, as if they were children caught playing with matches.

Within a few days, the brothers were ready to leave and join their company. Each of them took two horses, hunters. Caesar was one of Brady’s horses.

Obie and I both rode saddle horses. A pack-horse carried the brothers’ spare clothing and personal effects and another carried the food, cooking gear and ammunition for each of the weapons, as well as Wade’s LeMat carbine. The carbine came apart where the stock was joined to the rest of the gun, so it was a package somewhat longer than a pistol, but not much bulkier.

Obie and I had already said goodbye to Gideon, the jockeys and the other grooms. Maddie made sure we got a special breakfast of ham and eggs. Even Libby wasn’t as gruff as she usually was as she said goodbye.

We waited as Brady and Wade each kissed their teary-eyed mother and manfully shook hands with their father. The brothers then mounted their horses, waved goodbye one last time, then rode side-by-side through the gate. Behind them, Obie and I each led a packhorse with a spare hunter on a long lead trailing behind.

"Well, we’re finally off on the great adventure," Wade said gaily.

"I just hope we don’t live to rue the day," Brady replied somberly.

We followed the Wentworth brothers down the road toward Fair Oak Farm. I hadn’t been off Wentworth Farm since the whipping of the runaway, so, for me, being on the open road was a heady experience. Fair Oak was the home of Brady and Wade’s friend, Jonathan Ballard, the captain of the Mercer County Cavaliers. Fair Oak was where the company would gather prior to joining the Confederate army headquartered at Union City, Tennessee.

"Once we’re all gathered at Fair Oak," Wade asked Brady, "instead of Tennessee, why don’t we head east, into Virginia?"

"You know the Yankees pushed the Confederate army out of western Virginia a week ago, with their victory at Philippi."

"That may be so, but the big battle is still likely to be fought in Virginia, somewhere between Washington and Richmond. We should be there."

"Don’t worry, we probably will, when the western army moves east."

At this point in the Rebellion, just about everyone, civilian and soldier, general down to private, was convinced one battle, fought by each side’s strength concentrated into one army, would decide the outcome.

Their conversation was cut off by the sound of hoof beats. A horseman, dressed in the same uniform as the Wentworths, rode up from behind us.

"Henry Crump!" exclaimed Wade.

"Good morning to both of you," said Henry. "One of our field hands reported that you were riding by, so I came to join you."

"Where are your baggage and servants, Henry?" asked Brady. "Surely you’re not going off just in the clothes you’re riding in?"

"No, my servants are still packing. They’ll join me at Fair Oak once they’re done."

"Aren’t you afraid they won’t get there?" asked Wade.

Henry looked befuddled. "Why wouldn’t they?" he asked, as if the answer to the question was self-evident. "We treat them well."

There, in two sentences, was captured the attitude toward slavery of many Southerners of the time. They couldn’t even imagine us wanting to be free. It’s paradoxical, but many of them regarded their slaves almost as part of their families, at least in the way that pets are considered part of the family. At the same time, most states had organized patrols to prevent slaves from fleeing.

The three white men became so engrossed in conversation with each other that Obie and I were able to fall back a bit, so we could talk between ourselves.

"Do you know how old you are, Jed?" asked Obie.

"Around fifteen. I don’t know what day my birthday is, but I remember my ma once sayin’ I was born the day the war with Mexico started."

I never knew if she meant the day that the fighting started, which would have been April 25th, 1846, or the day that war was officially declared on May 13th. I guess either date is close enough but I’ve since taken to celebrating my birth anniversary on April 25th.

"I’m seventeen," replied Obie. "I don’t know my birthday either. I do know that I was born on a farm in Benton County, in Tennessee, but I don’t know where that is. I remember it was close t’ a big river. The farm had a lot of milk cows and we used t’ milk ‘em and take care of ‘em. Some of the other slaves used t’ make cheese and take the cheese and pails of milk t’ town in a wagon with the master. I used t’ help take care of the horses that pulled the wagon. There were about ten or twelve of us slaves. One day when I was about ten or eleven, the master said he was selling the farm so a cotton planter could add it t’ his plantation. Some of us slaves got sold along with the land. My ma was one of them. I got sold t’ an agent and then went t’ the Wentworths." A faraway look crept across Obie’s face. "I never saw my ma again."

I could see the pain in Obie’s eyes, but I didn’t know what to say. To break the silence, which was uncomfortable, I started talking about myself.

"The first thing I remember was livin’ in a town. Lexington. When I got big enough, I was put t’ work in a livery stable. I’d hold horses when the white gentlemen rode up. We’d unsaddle the horses and water and feed them if they were goin’ t’ be there a while, or just leave the saddles on and water ‘em if they weren’t goin’ t’ be there long.

"My ma was a maid in one of the big townhouses. Then she got sold t’ the Wentworths t’ serve in their townhouse. She begged the master t’ buy me. When he heard I had worked with horses, he bought me for the farm. He was goin’ t’ send ma t’ the farm too, but she died before she could go." I paused, because I remembered something I hadn’t thought of since my mother died. "Ma never called me ‘Jed.’ She always called me ‘Jedediah’."

You might have noticed that we didn’t even mention fathers. You must understand that many slaves didn’t know their fathers, although I later found out that one or two Southern states had enacted ordinances acknowledging the legal validity of slave marriages and forbidding breaking up slave families.

"I remember when you came t’ the farm," Obie replied. "I always wondered just how you knew so much about takin’ care of horses, bein’ new and all."

We rode in silence for a little while before Obie spoke again.

"Jed, you ever think about runnin’ away?"

"Were you there when they whipped that runaway two summers ago?" I asked. Obie nodded and I continued. "After lookin’ at what they did to that man’s back, I just never gave it another thought."

"That’s when I started t’ want t’ run away, after I saw that. Master Wentworth never had us whipped like that, where a man almost died. I didn’t know white folks would do somethin’ like that. I never even thought about runnin,’ not until I saw that," Obie said fiercely.

"I can’t understand you wantin’ t’ risk that same thing," I said, truly mystified that he hadn’t reacted the same way I had.

"I can’t understand you bein’–" He stopped, looking embarrassed, then changed the subject. "I always wondered why he ran in the first place. Was he runnin away from somethin’ worse than a whippin’? Or for some other reason?"

"Obie, why do you want t’ run?"

"I want t’ be free," Obie said with conviction.

"But what does that mean? How’s it goin’ t’ be different for you if you’re free? You’all would still have t’ work. All you know is takin’ care of horses. Do you think you’ll ever goin’ t’ have enough money t’ have horses of your own t’ take care of? So what’s the difference whether you’re free and payin’ for what you need t’ live on, or workin’ for white folks and them givin’ you your food and a place t’ live?"

"If I was free, and my ma was free, then nobody could ever keep us apart no more. You don’t have a ma, so how would you know?"

The remark stung me, but I kept my hurt from showing on my face.

Obie was quiet for a while. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that."

"That’s all right," I said, but Obie looked even more embarrassed than he had before. We again lapsed into silence.

Thinking about it, even at the time, I guess I was not so much hurt by Obie’s words as frightened by the realization that, except for being owned by the Wentworths, I was alone in the world. Now, I considered Obie my friend, but we were together because somebody else had decided we would be. I wondered what it would be like to live with people who accepted me, and not just because we were all owned by the same master. I wondered how I would feel if my mother was still alive and I had family.

"Jed! Obie!" Wade dropped back to talk to us. "Things are getting a little tedious, so the three of us are going to ride cross-country to Fair Oak. The ride’ll probably turn into a steeplechase before we’re done, so you won’t be able to follow, leading the spare mounts and packhorses and all. Just keep on down this road and you’ll come to a gate within about three miles. When you get there, go in back of the main house, to the servants’ quarters. Somebody’ll tell you where to stable the horses and bed down for the night."

With a whoop, the three young men jumped their horses over the white plank fence alongside the road and raced away.

I could see from the look in his eyes that Obie was already thinking that this was a chance to run away. He looked quickly down the road behind us and then his eyes darted to the open field on the left side of the road. About two hundred yards beyond the field was a stand of trees that looked a few hundred yards wide. In the distance, there were more open fields.

I was suddenly afraid. I didn’t know what I’d would do if Obie ran, whether I’d try to stop him, or go with him, or just do nothing.

I remember thinking of reasons against running, which were numerous. We didn’t know where to go and the countryside would be full of soldiers. If we were stopped, we’d never be able to explain where we were going with six fine horses, one with a gun packed in its baggage, and no masters with us.

Then I heard the sound of galloping hooves coming up the road behind us. I turned to see seven Confederate soldiers overtaking us. I don’t know whether I was alarmed at how close we might have come to running away and getting caught, or relieved that now we couldn’t attempt it, or regretted the missed opportunity.

I glanced quickly at Obie and saw a wild light suddenly come into his eyes, like he had been caught doing something he shouldn’t. Then, quickly, the gleam went out and Obie turned to face the soldiers, taking off his hat as he did so.

"Afternoon, sir," Obie said to the soldier in the lead. His uniform jacket had the same frogging across the chest as the jackets worn by the Wentworths.

The soldier looked at Obie suspiciously. "What are you doing on the road, boy?" he asked.

Obie looked down slightly as he answered. "Master Wentworth said t’ follow the road until we came t’ the gate for Fair Oak Farm, sir. The masters and Mister Crump just jumped the fence right here t’ race t’ see whose horse could get ‘em t’ the big house first."

The soldier looked at Obie through narrowed eyes for a few moments. I just sat in the saddle with my hat in my hands, trying to remain unnoticed.

"Well, do what your master said. But just wait a bit for our servants here. You can all ride together."

I looked back down the road and saw a group of riders leading other horses and pack mules trotting to catch up. They were all colored except for one white man in a Confederate uniform.

"Heywood, these two belong to Brady and Wade Wentworth," the man who questioned us told the soldier with the servants. "Make sure they get to Fair Oak."

"Sure thing, Clint." The soldier motioned for us to move into the column right behind him.

"Dandy, you stay with Heywood." Another soldier moved to ride behind us.

The remaining six jumped the fence and galloped away.

"Let’s move," said Heywood as he spurred his horse.

We servants followed in silence. With the two soldiers there, none of us spoke, so I had plenty of time to ruminate on what had just happened. Would I have run with Obie, or would I have tried to talk him out of it? What would I have done if talking didn’t work? Was the reason I so quickly thought of so many arguments against running because I was being sensible, or because I was afraid?

Would Obie try it again, or rather, what would I do when Obie tried it again, as he was sure to do?

The questions still chased each other around in my head with no clear answers for the rest of the ride, right up until the time I bedded down and tried to sleep.

By the second morning after we had arrived at Fair Oak, the other members of the company had joined us.

We had a quick breakfast, then the servants packed baggage on mules and took spare horses in tow. After an equal amount of confusion, the soldiers were also ready to begin the march to join the Confederate army gathering in western Tennessee. I say soldiers, but at that time, the only soldierly thing about them was their uniforms.

Just before we set out, Captain Ballard’s mother presented the company with its guidon. A guidon is a small, swallow-tailed flag, used to mark the company’s place on the battlefield. The guidon of the Mercer Cavaliers was modeled after the Confederate national flag, the "Stars and Bars."

Now, there are a lot of people who think the Stars and Bars was the red Confederate flag with the two diagonal blue stripes crossing in the center. This was actually the "battle flag," used primarily in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The Stars and Bars resembled the United States flag, the "Stars and Stripes," except that, instead of thirteen red and white stripes, it had three broad bars. The top and bottom bars were red and the middle bar was white. On the white bar of the guidon, Mrs. Ballard had embroidered "Mercer Cavaliers" in gold thread.

With much weeping by the women, cheering by the men and shouting by the children, the company set out for Tennessee.

We were able to travel by road almost the whole way, so the going was easy. The weather was mostly dry, so the three wagons that carried our food and the grain for the horses didn’t get bogged down to slow our march. Captain Ballard’s father had donated the wagons to the company, along with the teams and harness. He also donated three teamsters to drive them.

You remark that it must have been awful for those three men, to be considered as not much more than accessories of the wagons. I guess it was, but remember that there were over one hundred of us slaves. We had all been "donated," just as much as the teamsters had been.

We marched in the middle of the company, with the baggage and spare horses and pack mules, followed by the wagons and about twenty of the soldiers. Since there were no stables, at night the horses were tied in rows to long ropes by shorter ropes from their halters.

At the time, we felt like we were really living "in the rough," but compared to how we lived later, it was almost an extended picnic.



Almost three weeks after starting out, we rode into the camp of the Confederate army near Union City in western Tennessee.

Obie and I were split up then. Because Brady was an officer, he shared a large tent with James Butler, the company’s second lieutenant. Wade shared a tent with three of the soldiers in his squad. Obie went with Brady, while I stayed with Wade.

We servants didn’t get tents to sleep in. We were instructed to make lean-to shelters from oil-cloth, pine boughs and anything else we could find. The shelters were referred to as "shebangs." I found myself sharing a shebang with Daniel, who was a little older than me. The other two servants in our group, John and Isham, built their own shebang next to ours.

While Daniel and I were in the tent getting our masters settled in, Brady came to talk to Wade.

"You’ll never guess who our commanding officer is, Wade! John Hunt Morgan, from Lexington," Brady continued before giving Wade a chance to answer.

"I never met the man, but of course I’ve heard of him," Wade replied. "I heard he raised the Lexington Rifles. They’re infantry. So what’s he doing in charge of us? We’re cavalry!"

"The Lexington Rifles may be infantry, but Captain Morgan was a cavalryman in Mexico. I met him on a trip to Lexington with father. I’m glad he’s our commander," Brady said with enthusiasm. "Tell Jedediah that if he’s separated from us, he should ask for Company C of the Kentucky Cavalry Squadron. That’s what we’re called now."

Of course Brady was talking about General John Hunt Morgan, the famous raider. He was only a captain then, but I learned just about as much about cavalry tactics from eavesdropping when he talked as I learned on Grierson’s Raid. Morgan had that much talent as a commander.

The squad soon settled into camp routine. Unlike many of the other men in camp, the men in the company didn’t spend as much time at the "sinks," the latrine dug for bodily functions, as some others. Many men in the camp had the "trots" and a few had even died from it. The Mercer Cavaliers had servants to do the cooking and washing, and they all seemed to have heard a lecture similar to the one I had heard from Maddie about cleanliness.

The Cavaliers did lose a few men to other diseases. Like many Southerners, most of the men in camp came from rural areas, and did not have the immunities to contagious disease that many city dwellers did. Wade was glad they stayed so healthy.

"How do you write to the folks back home to say that ‘in defense of Southern liberty and states’ rights, your son died heroically of the measles’?" he fumed.

One morning, after I cooked Wade’s breakfast and saddled his horse, I asked if I could watch the squad at drill. I must have called him "master," because he told me not to any more.

"Jed, from now on, just call me by my exalted rank, which is ‘Corporal’," he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. "And sure you can watch, as long as you get your work done and have dinner ready on time. By the way, you’re doin’ a great job with the cookin’."

After I cleaned up from breakfast, I walked over to the field in which the company was drilling. Wade was with his seven men, practicing going from column into line.

The drill was important because cavalry marched in column. To be able to fight, they had to be able to go quickly and with no confusion from column into line. In line, each man faced the enemy and was able to use his weapons without fear of hitting someone from his own side.

After about twenty minutes, Wade’s squad was fairly good at changing from column to line. I say that with hindsight, having watched dozens of corporals and sergeants drill their men the same way. At that time, I had no idea of what was really going on.

When Wade told his men to take a break, I walked about a quarter-mile to where infantry regiments were drilling.

Some units were practicing getting into different formations. Others were doing rifle drill, learning how to shoulder arms and fix bayonets, thirteen-inch long blades, to the ends of their rifles.

I became so engrossed in what the infantrymen were doing, I started to follow their movements. The sergeant would commanded "On guard" and I would bring my hands out in front of myself, as if I held a bayonet-tipped rifle.

"Thrust" and I would stab forward. "Develop" and I’d twist the blade. "Recover" and I’d pull it out and return to "on guard."

"What ya’ll think yer doin’, boy? Think yer a sojer?" said a mocking voice right behind me. I was so startled, I probably jumped six inches off the ground.

I turned around to face a soldier maybe a couple years older than me. He had sandy-colored hair, freckles and a face that might have been handsome, if not for the sneer that seemed to be a permanent feature. I found out later his name was Martin Hawkins, and he was one of the few Southerners I met who I’d say absolutely hated colored people.

"No, sir. I’m no soldier. I just take care of Master Wade, I mean, Corp’ral Wentworth."

"A corp’ral with his own servant, huh? The corp’ral must be a cavalryman, ain’t he, boy?"

"Yes, sir, Kentucky Cavalry Squadron. And I better get back there right now and start cookin’ the noontime meal." I knew I didn’t need any trouble from him, or any other soldier for that matter, so I hurried back to the company area.

I barely had the food cooked when Wade returned to the company area with his squad. They walked, leading their horses. I started to serve his food, but Wade stopped me.

"In the cavalry, the horses come first. Unsaddle him and take him down the creek for a drink. I’ll serve myself."

Now, after some thirty years in the U. S. Cavalry, where all the enlisted men care for their own horses, I think back on the attitude of those Southern boys early in the war and it still makes me laugh sometimes. Especially when you remember that, for fighting efficiency, most Yankee cavalry couldn’t hold a candle to them, at least at that time. But, by war’s end, they were taking care of their own horses, that’s for sure. And by then, the Yankee cavalry could more than hold a candle to them, they could hold their feet to the fire.

Daniel, John, Isham and I unsaddled the horses then led them through the camp and over to the creek so they could drink.

"Give him some oats and tie him to the picket rope," Wade instructed me when we returned to the company area. "I’ll use the mare for afternoon drill. Might as well get both horses used to bein’ warhorses. Did you watch us, Jed? How’d we look?"

"You’all looked liked good soldiers, Master, I mean, Corp’ral. The Yankees see you ridin’ down on them with swords wavin’, they ain’t goin’ t’ wait around t’ ask who you are."

Wade laughed. "I hope we’re as good as you think we are, Jed. All the boys are good horsemen, and most of us are good shots, but I think we have a lot to learn before we’re good cavalrymen."

"Yes, Corp’ral," I said, gratified Wade had asked my opinion. I had hardly ever been asked what I thought before, and certainly no white man had ever sought my approval. Wade’s question had made me feel mighty pleased.

That was the beginning of my affection for Wade. You might think it servile of me to have been grateful to be permitted to call him "Corporal," just like the soldiers did, and preen at his compliment, but I was grateful. It shows how little recognition most coloreds received, for something that small to have been such a big thing. But that’s the way it was at the time. Most other masters wouldn’t have thought to do it in ten years. To this day I admire Wade for trying to treat me like a person from the first. And I’ll be forever grateful for what he did right before Chickamauga, but I’ll relate that in its proper place.

The other servants and I were almost finished cleaning up after the meal, while Wade lounged around with the men from his squad, waiting for afternoon drill to begin, when we were all startled by a popping noise. The sound quickly changed to something like that of a brushfire in a pine woods, or maybe like heavy cloth tearing.

"Must be infantry learning how to fire in volley," Wade said as his puzzled look changed to a grin. "Let’s go look." He said it to the squad, but I decided to take it as permission to go with them. When they walked off in the direction we’d heard the firing, I tagged along close behind.

We came upon the infantry just as they cut loose with another volley. Although all the men were supposed to fire at once, the sound of firing lasted almost ten seconds. A cloud of dirty white smoke from the exploded gunpowder hung in the still air and almost hid the infantry from view. Even from a hundred yards away, I could smell the smoke, with its whiff of rotten eggs. At the time, I supposed that was what old soldiers had meant by the smell of battle.

The infantry reloaded. It wasn’t like now, with magazine rifles where you just snick the bolt and a new round slides into the chamber, ready to fire. In those days, we used muzzle-loaders. We didn’t even have metallic cartridges, with the bullet and powder charge all one unit. Loading was a lot more laborious, and a lot slower process.

"Load at will-Load!" The single command indicated that these soldiers were not completely untrained. If they were brand-new men, the officers would have given them a separate command for each of the nine steps of the loading procedure. Or the sergeants would have been putting them through the motions, without their burning powder at all.

The infantrymen reached back into the cartridge pouches on their right hips and withdrew a cartridge. As they tore the cartridge paper open with their teeth, some of them rested their rifle butts on the ground and poured the powder from the cartridges down the barrel. Other infantrymen held their weapons in one hand, balancing them while pouring some of the powder in the lock before they put the butts on the ground and poured the remainder of the powder down the barrel.

"Some of them have old-fashioned flintlocks!" Wade exclaimed.

The infantrymen wadded up the cartridge paper, and put it on the muzzle. They were firing blanks so there were no bullets to shove down the barrels on top of the paper. They then withdrew the long thin ramrods from their pipes under the barrels, and used them to send the wadded cartridge paper all the way down the barrels, right on top of the powder charges. If they had not been firing blanks, the ramrods would have pushed bullets down with the paper.

The men with percussion rifles fished around in the cap pouches on the front of their belts for a percussion cap. The lock was thumbed halfway back, the old cap knocked off, and the new one pushed onto the nipple on the lock.

"Ready!" called out the officers. The men, whether they had percussion locks or flintlocks, thumbed them all the way back.

"Aim!" Rifles were brought up to shoulders.

"Fire!" commanded the officers, sweeping their swords down. The men all pulled their triggers, more or less at the same time. Even if they had pulled them at exactly the same time, percussion locks fired faster than flintlocks. The smoke cloud almost completely hid the line of infantry. I could hear a sergeant yelling at a soldier who had left his ramrod in the barrel and shot it away.

"Why aren’t they using bullets?" Charlie Rosser asked.

"They’re still learnin’ how to fire in formation and in unison." replied Wade. "Be a waste of lead to use bullets just yet."

"Boy, are they slow," Charlie’s brother Rob snickered. Wade and the other men chuckled.

"They could blow you’all and your horses into food for the crows, fancy boy," said a voice behind us. We all turned around to face a group of soldiers, infantrymen by the light blue trim on the collar and cuffs of some of their uniforms. The speaker was Hawkins, who recognized me.

"If it ain’t the darkie who wants t’ be a sojer! Didn’t I tell you’all t’ stay in your own camp, boy?"

"You tell your own boys anythin’ you want," Wade replied, a hint of challenge in his voice, "but he’s my property and he does what I tell him, nobody else. Got that, cornpone?"

"You damned horsemen think you’re so high and mighty! I guess it’s safer t’ gallop around on the back of a nag, so when a fight gets too hot, you can just skedaddle in that much more of a hurry." The infantrymen laughed.

"Any skedaddlin’s more likely to be done by your flock of sheep," taunted Wade. "Don’t tell me you walk because you like it. You probably tried out for the cavalry, but they don’t let you in if the horses are smarter than you are."

"Now while you’re down off your plug and can’t skedaddle, maybe I should teach you some manners." I thought that Wade and Hawkins would begin throwing punches.

"Corporal Wentworth!" a voice boomed. "Why in hell aren’t you and your men at drill?" We all looked around to see the large form of First Sergeant Moore bearing down on us.

First Sergeant Moore was the highest ranking non-commissioned officer in the company, ranking after the captain and the two lieutenants. He and Wade were friends, but Preston Moore was responsible for the men’s training and drill, and he took his duties very seriously. Wade came to attention. "I beg your pardon, First Sergeant. This here foot soldier was castin’ aspersions on the honor of the cavalry and I was just tryin’ to get him to admit his error," Wade said mock-seriously.

"He was insultin’ us," rejoined Hawkins. "I was just tellin’ him that we could lick him and his fancy-pants boys and their nags in a real shootin’ match."

"I don’t know what military courtesy is like in the infantry," First Sergeant Moore responded, "but in the cavalry we address our superiors properly. What’s your name, Private?"

He straightened up a little, but didn’t quite come to attention. "Private Martin Hawkins, First Sergeant."

"That’s better. Fortunately or not, we’re all on the same side, so we can’t go shootin’ each other. But it would be educational to see whether a line of infantry could stand up to charging cavalry. Corporal Wentworth, you get your men saddled up and back to drill. Private Hawkins, lead me to your First Sergeant."

I ran back and saddled Wade’s second horse in record time. After Wade rode off to drill, I realized I was angry, but didn’t know if I was more angry at Hawkins for mocking me as an inferior or at Wade for referring to me as nothing more than a piece of property.

I had never questioned my lot as a slave before, even after the whipping of the runaway. Maybe Obie’s idea of being free had affected me more than I thought, or maybe it was because I had started thinking of Wade as a friend. Quite a dangerous thing for a slave to do with his master, because friendship implies a lack of fear.

I knew better than to show anger in front of any white man, though. Coloreds who got angry, or "uppity" as the whites called it, were likely to find themselves sold, chained, or even whipped or hanged.

By the next afternoon, the company was buzzing with the news that they would fight a mock battle with a company of infantry from Tennessee. Both first sergeants thought it would be a great way to motivate their men to do well in training. Each also intended it to give their men the confidence they needed to face a real enemy in battle.

It was to be a friendly contest, just between their men. They agreed that the highest-ranking participants would be sergeants; no officers would be involved. To add some "incentive, other than bragging rights," as First Sergeant Moore said, the losing company would give the winners a full barrel of whiskey.

The Tennesseans staked "charcoal-mellowed, aged Lynchburg sour mash." To underscore just how smooth, the Tennessean First Sergeant had poured a generous tot from a jug he had close at hand, and offered it to Moore with his compliments. Against it, the Kentuckians wagered the finest bourbon in the company supply. That last part of the wager made many of the Cavaliers take notice; they hadn’t known that the quartermaster sergeant even had bourbon. Many troopers started coughing and said they needed to get some of the whiskey for "medicinal purposes."

The two first sergeants decided that the contest would take place in a week or so. It would give both units some time to catch up on their training and also allow the infantry to accumulate the blank cartridges they needed. Because this was an unofficial exercise, with a wager to boot, both sides had to be careful so the high command wouldn’t prohibit it. To keep officers from interfering, it would take place when the men of both companies were likely to be off-duty.

They set the date for what they assumed would be a holiday, right after the review and parade to welcome the new commanding general, Leonidas Polk. After the parade, the officers would attend a reception for the new general, so they would be out of the way.

Wade thought it would be a good idea to check from time to time on how well the Tennessee infantry were doing. He had me "wander over" to their training ground every other day and report back on their progress.

"Jed, you make an excellent spy," Wade told me one day after I had finished reporting. "You have a good eye for detail and give really clear reports." Again, I warmed with pleasure at Wade’s compliment, but Charlie Rosser broke the spell.

"Jed’s a perfect spy," Charlie told Rob. "Nobody expects darkies to understand anythin’ more complicated than a cotton gin."

I looked up sharply. It was plain from the look on his face that Charlie wasn’t trying to be insulting; he really believed what he had said was fact.

Later, I wandered through camp, thinking about Charlie’s remark. I recalled hearing stories about dogs saving people from fires and finding lost children and dragging injured people to safety. I was always amazed at how, in those stories, the dogs could understand the dangers the humans were in and know what to do. After all, they were just dogs.

The other assumption was that, even if a dog had put itself into danger to save the human, well, that was to be expected. Humans were the lords of creation and it was natural that an animal would have the need to please them. It made me wonder if the Rosser brothers and other white people regarded me, and all coloreds, as something like an intelligent and eager-to-please dog.

I was shaken out of my thoughts by a soldier brushing past from behind. I looked around and saw numerous soldiers gathering around an artillery battery that had just arrived in camp. I had never seen a cannon before and, from the look of it, neither had many of the soldiers. The cannoneers were pleased to be the center of so much attention. A sergeant with a red-trimmed uniform and a flair for the dramatic was explaining about the guns. I moved closer to hear what he was saying.

"Four of these guns are six-pounders and the two bigger ones are twelve-pounders."

"Even the small ones look heavier than that," some wag shouted. Only a few soldiers laughed before the artillery sergeant resumed.

"Pounds refers t’ the weight of the solid shot they fire. Smithfield, open the caisson and gimme a solid shot. Get out one of each of the other kinds, too."

Smithfield opened the seat on the caisson, the two-wheeled cart that was hitched between the horse team and the cannon, and took out a solid iron ball. The sergeant took it and held it up with two hands.

"This is a twelve-pound solid shot, or roundshot as it’s also called. It will carry about a mile. If it hit a file of men ten deep, dependin’ on the range from the gun, it will tumble all ten, maybe only eight at extreme range. And the pieces of bone flyin’ from the men it hits will wound the men next to ‘em.

"Sometimes they don’t even have t‘ be hit. The wind of one of these passin’ close can suck the air right out of a man’s lungs and kill him without even makin’ a mark. And if you see one of these rolling along the ground, just let it go by. I just know somebody is goin’ t’ put out a foot to try t‘ stop a rollin’ roundshot. If you do that, you will have a nickname, I assure you. Something like ‘Pegleg,’ ‘cause even if it’s rollin’ real slow, it will still take off your foot." The sergeant handed the roundshot back to Smithfield and was handed another iron ball.

"This is a case shot. It looks like a roundshot, but it’s hollowed out and filled with powder. This bronze plug is an Alger fuse. It’s also been hollowed out and filled with powder. When it burns through, it ignites the main charge and explodes the ball into small pieces of iron. What we like t‘ do is cut the fuses so that the shells explode while still in the air, just overhead. That way, the ground doesn’t soak up any of the force of the explosion. More death for the dollar, we like t‘ say." The sergeant laughed and so did the cannoneers, but nobody else did. He grunted as he picked up what appeared to be a tin can nailed to a round of wood and shook it, making a muted rattling.

"This is canister. What you hear rattlin’ around are inch and a half iron balls. Twenty-seven of ‘em, packed in sawdust. The charge just rips the can apart when it leaves the muzzle. Turns a cannon into one big shotgun. When the enemy is really close, we just shove one o’ these down the barrel, touch it off, and before the smoke even clears, we can go back t’ playin’ cards. Don’t even have t‘ bury the bodies. Not enough o’ one left." Again, the cannoneers laughed, but everyone else seemed to be quiet and pale. The artillery sergeant finally appeared to notice the effect he was having.

"But, hey, boys, we’re here to do all that t’ them Yankees!" The men cheered. Then an artillery officer rode up.

"Sergeant Ashley, I know you love an audience, but the horses need to be watered and fed, and so do the men."

"Yes, sir, Cap’n Rutledge, sir." Sergeant Ashley did indeed look like he would miss his audience, but he got the artillerymen back to work. The crowd started to break up and I headed back to the Cavaliers’ part of camp.

As I walked back, I was still in awe of the cannons. I couldn’t believe all the ingenuity that had gone into creating the different types of shot, especially canister. How could a sane man have invented something like that? Did he just sit down one day and say, "Hmm, we still have the annoying problem of not being able to kill more than a single file of men at a time. What to do about it?" You have to remember, this was before such luminaries as Gatling, Maxim and Browning had appeared to lend their respective genius to mass killing.

I shuddered. For a fleeting instant, I was almost glad to be a slave, who could never be a soldier.



Deeds of a Colored Soldier During the Rebellion Copyright © 2014. F. W. Abel. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.




Author Bio

F. W. Abel was born in New York. After graduating from Fordham University, he served for eight years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army and currently works for the federal government. He lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., within a few hours’ drive of most of the Civil War’s eastern theater battlefields, where he has walked the same ground once trodden by heroes.

TTB title: Deeds of a Colored Soldier During the Rebellion

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"Deeds of a Colored Soldier During the Rebellion is one of the best Civil War novels ever. F.W. Abel captures the rhythm of battle as scenes crack like a shot from Jed Worth's Lemat repeater carbine. The strategy and the tactics of the war are masterfully drawn, without overshadowing the human drama of an escaped slave's coming of age and the struggle of soldiers and civilians, both Northern and Southern."

~ S. W. O'Connell, author of The Patriot Spy

"In this engaging, well-researched, and emotional historical fiction novel, F. W. Abel relates the story of Jedediah Worth, a colored teen during the Civil War who escapes slavery and joins up with the U.S. Army. Through the eyes of this fictionalized character, the reader is drawn into the harsh reality of war to see firsthand the cost of freedom."

~ Christine Amsden, award-winning author of the Cassie Scot series





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