Authors: Joyce Hansen
Question: Have you been a slave?
Answer: Yes, sir.
Question: How long have you been in the army?
About two months.
Report #65-United States Congress
Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War
April 20, 1864
April 12, 1864
At one time he'd simply been Obi, the slave of John Jennings. When he joined the army he was told he had to have a family name, so he used his former master's last name. His superior officers addressed him as Private Jennings, but he wouldn't allow his fellow soldiers to call him thatâjust Obi.
He dreaded the sound of his name at roll call. It was as ill-fitting as his clumsy boots.
“Private Jennings!” the sergeant yelled.
“Here, suh!” he yelled back, standing at attention and holding his rifle against his thigh. He kept his head erect while his large, deep-set eyes stared directly ahead, as the Yankee drillmasters had taught him. His tall frame was as lean and straight as a young pine.
The sergeant continued talking after he took the roll call. Like most of the men of the Sixth U.S. Heavy Artillery of Colored Troops, Sergeant Johnson was an ex-slave.
“You men be alert. General Forrest an' his Rebs burn
down Union City an' kill everything movin',” he said, rocking his stocky body back and forth in time to his words. “Union City ain't far from here.” The sergeant's eyes, as round as the gold-colored buttons on his blue jacket, scanned the black and brown faces of his men. Some of them were as old as forty-five, but most were youngerâmany as young as seventeen or eighteen.
All of the soldiers wore soft forage caps, which a few of the younger men, including Obi, had turned a little to the sides of their heads.
Obi was nineteen or twenty. He didn't know his exact age, but he remembered that he was about ten years old when he became the property of the Jennings family. Even now, he'd still get a slight throbbing in his temple when he recalled his mother's screams as he was taken from her.
“Severe punishment to any man sleepin' or even looking in the wrong direction when you on duty. This a war, not a rabbit hunt. You boys smell somethin' funny, start shootin'.”
“Better hope it ain't him we smell,” the soldier behind Obi mumbled. His name was Joseph Chaney, and he had joined the army at the same time Obi had.
Obi's smooth, black face creased into a slight smile at the man's joke. The soldiers of Company B had nicknamed Sergeant Johnson “the Driver,” saying that he was like those slaves on the plantation whose job it was to make sure the other slaves did their work.
“Save the Union!” Johnson said as he finished, holding up his fist. Some of the men moaned, some laughed at his customary dismissal. Obi ran out of the fort with the other troops who had guard duty. Private Thomas West caught up to him, and they walked down the slope of the steep hillside to their guard post. This was the river side of the hill. The Mississippi River was hidden below them by the predawn darkness and by the trees, bushes, and fallen timber along the side of the hill.
“The Driver is trying to scare us into being soldiers,” Thomas said. “The only things we've been fighting since we've been here is river rats.”
Obi adjusted his rifle so that it fit comfortably on his arm. “Some of them rats may be havin' grey coats yet,” he said dryly.
As they continued walking down the bluff, they crossed a level portion of ground situated below the fort. Here were the shacks and log huts where the white soldiers of the Thirteenth Tennessee Battalion were quartered. The black troops were quartered up the hill inside the fort in tents.
The weary voices of men coming off night guard duty reached them as they continued their walk down the hill. The croaks and clicks of frogs and insects blended with the voices of the soldiers.
When they reached the bottom of the hill, they turned left and walked toward their post. Their job was to watch several buildings near the riverbank where supplies of food, arms, ammunition, clothing, and medicines were stored.
A blacksmith's shop and a general store stood a few yards behind the building. Log cabins and broken-down shacks were sprawled near the stores. The soldiers called this cluster of homes and shops “the town.”
Instead of going directly to their post, they continued to the river's edge. Side by side, leaning against a tree, they faced the river in front of them.
“I don't think the Rebels are coming here,” Thomas said. “The Driver is just making himself feel important, Obi. That's why he keeps telling us the enemy is just around the bend.”
Obi still hadn't gotten used to seeing Thomas's rich, brown face and hearing the nasal Yankee accent coming out of his full African mouth. Thomas, with his large head and wide, dark eyes, was born in the North and was the first black that Obi had met who had not been a slave at some point in his life. About the same age as Obi, he had
become a brother and a friend in spite of his Yankee accent.
“Why you think they not go try an' take this fort back?” Obi asked.
Thomas turned away from the river and gazed in the direction of the fort. “If they charge that hill, we can swat 'em down like flies,” he said, moving his hand swiftly back and forth. Thomas was shorter than Obi, and he had quick, nervous movements.
“Them was some awful stories we hear about what happen in that Union City,” Obi said. “And Major Booth been lookin' terrible worried lately.”
“Stories grow with the telling.” Thomas faced the river again. “He's just listening to the same old tales we hear about how cruel General Forrest is.”
Thomas don't know these Rebsâthey comin' back for their fort,
Obi said to himself.
Two young black boys came toward them from the direction of the log cabins. The boys lived with their parents and another brother and sister in the last cabin closest to the woods. They stopped in front of Obi and Thomas and grinned as they saluted. “Right face!” they shouted together.
Obi and Thomas returned their salute. “Good morning, little generals,” Thomas laughed. The children ran up the hill to the officers' quarters, where they worked as servants. The whole family had run away from a Mississippi plantation when the war started, and the father was one of the cooks at the fort. “This war the best thing happen to me. First time in my life I earn a wage,” he'd told Obi.
Obi picked up his rifle. “Now we can go,” he said.
“Yes,” Thomas said, nodding. “Can't leave until we salute the generals.” He chuckled. For the past month, greeting the boys had become a part of Obi and Thomas's morning ritual. They turned away from the river and walked back toward their post, but instead of stopping at the buildings, Obi kept walking toward the woods that lay behind the cabins and shacks.
“Where are you going?” Thomas asked, walking quickly to catch up to Obi's long strides. They passed the general store and the log cabin from which the young boys had just come.
“Want to check on somethin',” Obi said. Aside from the two children, no one else had stirred yet. Only Obi and Thomas walked along the dusty, streetless town.
Obi stopped walking as they entered the woods. “You can't see your hand before your face,” Thomas complained. “We don't have to patrol these woods. Our pickets are already out there. What're you looking for, anyway?”
“A sign. Can't see nothin', though. Don't know who hidin' here.”
Thomas shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “You don't believe in magic, do you?”
“You can figure words and letters, Thomas, but you don't read other signs.” Thomas had been teaching Obi how to read, and Obi marvelled at how Thomas could understand what a squiggly line meant. It seemed strange to him that his friend could read but couldn't figure out obvious things.
“I want to see if someone been in here. Maybe they diggin' or clearin' pathâchangin' the woods,” Obi said. “I readin' the woods.”
“Changing the woods? Woods are always changing and everything looks the same all at once.”
“That's why you got lost in here,” Obi said. He turned around and they strolled back to their post.
“I wasn't lost that time. Just a little confused is all.” Thomas smiled good-naturedly.
Obi rarely smiled, but when he did it was a surprise to see how straight and white his teeth were and how handsome his long face actually was. He grinned now. “You lucky I find you before the Driver. I know woods. Been in woods all my life.”
“I've been in New York all of mine and wish I was there now. Well, Obi, did you smell something funny, like the Driver said?”
“No,” Obi laughed. “I go back when it lighter.”
They passed the cabins again, and Obi pointed toward the fort and the ravine above it. “That's what needs checkin'âthat ravine.”
Thomas sighed. “The pickets are out there. We'll hear firing soon enough if any Rebels show.” He stopped walking and shook his large head. “They're not coming back, Obi. They have better things to do.”
Obi realized that Thomas was trying to convince himself. He knew as well as Obi that the fort was important because of the river. When they reached their post, the two young men sat beside each other on the steps of one of the buildings and waited for the town to wake. As the calls of the birds became louder, Obi saw the elder sister of the two “generals” come out of her cabin, holding her baby brother's hand. She carried a pail and was headed toward the we behind her house.
Thomas saw her too and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. His wide eyes seemed to get wider. “That's a pretty girl, Obi. I'm going to sit here for ten minutes and think about her.”
Obi wanted to reflect also. Each time he saw the girl in her long, homespun dress with her little brother, he thought about Easter and Jason. He thought about the journey that had taken him from slavery and the Jennings farm in South Carolina. So much had happened to bring him to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River.
Slavery days was hell
could tell you about it all day,
but even den you couldn't guess de awfulness of it.
Delia Garlic, ex-slave From
Voices from Slavery
Obi rose from his crouching position. The mule stood next to him, swishing its tail. The two sacks tied behind the animal were filled with tobacco leaves. Guessing by the position of the sun, Obi figured it was about three o'clock. They'd already been working for eight hours. He caught a glimpse of Easter in the next field. All he actually saw was part of her homespun dress, which looked like a dab of white paint on a sea of green leaves. Little Jason was stumbling over to her, carrying a bucket of water.
Master John Jennings and his wife, Martha, were hidden by the tall stalks of tobacco. They were in a field that was in front of the field where Obi worked. He turned around, looking in the direction of the farmhouse and the barn. Wilson, Master John's brother, was by the barn bundling tobacco leaves. His black slouch hat hid his face. Two brown-and-white hounds lay in the shade of a magnolia tree nearby.
Hope Wilson keep he evil self there,
Obi said to himself.
Pushing back his wide straw hat, he wiped his forehead and watched Jason walk toward Master John and Martha with the water.
Obi, Easter, and Jason were slaves. They worked on the Jennings farm in South Carolina, nearly thirty miles from Charleston. Easter was about thirteen and Obi, sixteen or seventeen. Jason was seven years old and the only one who knew his correct age because he was born on the farm.