Obi had never forgotten the sounds of his mother's screams on the day he was sold away from her. Making plans to run away to find her was a secret game he played with friend Buka, an old African who lived at the edge of the farm.
When the Civil War began, Obi knew it was time to run -- or be sold again. If he was caught, he'd be killed...or worse. But if he stayed, he might never know freedom.
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Question: Have you been a slave?
Answer: Yes, sit.
Question: How long have you been in the army?
Answer: About two months.
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 JohnJennings. 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 that-just 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 younger-many as young as seventeen or eighteen.
All of the soldiers wore soft foragecaps, 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 lookin' 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."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I did not understand the beginning of the book but the end really hooked me in
In July of 1861 Obi is a sixteen or seventeen-year-old slave on the South Carolina farm of John and Martha Jennings. It's a small farm, and there are only two other slaves, a thirteen-or-so-year-old girl named Easter and a seven-year-old boy named Jason. However, the overseer, Jennings's brother Wilson, is a hard taskmaster. Obi has never forgotten the sounds of his mother's screams on the day he was sold away from her. Making plans to run away to find her back on one of Carolina islands where she lived was a secret game he played with his friend Buka, an old free black who lives at the edge of the farm. Yet, after the Civil War begins, the Jenningses plan to sell their slaves and return to their home state so Obi knows that it is time to run, planning to take Easter and Jason with him. However, things don't go according to plan, and due to extenuating circumstances Obi and Easter escape with Buka, but they have to leave Jason behind. They make it to a Confederate camp near the shore where they are captured. Buka dies there. Then when Obi and another slave named Daniel make plans to cross over to the Union camp on the island, Easter is determined to stay behind so that she can return for Jason. After reaching the Union camp, Daniel begins to spy for the Federal Army but is killed, so Obi joins up and in 1864 is transferred with his new friend Thomas West, a free Northern Black, to Fort Pillow, TN. If you remember your history, Ft. Pillow is where Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest allowed his troops to massacre everyone they could because the fort was being held primarily by African-American troops. I'll tell you that Obi survives, but will Thomas make it? We did this book as a family read aloud, and everyone thought that it was a really good story. I found it at some museum or historical site gift shop. Based on real events, it reveals little known details about the lives of runaway slaves and their part in the Civil War. The author wrote, "All of the characters in Which Way Freedom? are fictional. However, the massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, was an actual event." We felt that the ending left us hanging but later learned that Which Way Freedom?, one of four books by Hansen that have received Coretta Scott King Honors, is the first book in the Obi and Easter trilogy. So far as language is concerned, the euphemistic "Lawd" is used as an interjection. Joyce Hansen, who is said to be the "Newbery Honor author of I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly," is a distinguished author of many books for children, both fiction and nonfiction, who specializes in African American History. The next book in the saga of Obi and Easter is Out from This Place.