There is a scene in my book “The Ones They Left Behind” in which JED and HARRIMAN recount an incident on Sherman’s March in which Union troops build a pontoon and rope bridge to cross a river in flood. Following the column is a host of slaves who have fled their plantations in the belief that following the Union Army is their road to freedom. Once the Union troops get across, the slaves start over the raging river, carrying all they have on their backs, including their children. Once they reach midway across, WALTER RIDLEY conveys the division commander’s order to cut the ropes. It is an order HARRIMAN, acting as part of the rear guard, initially refuses to obey until he is threatened with a court martial. Just then, Confederate cavalry emerge from the woods along the opposite bank and start shooting at the slaves and Union soldiers. The Union troops redouble their efforts to cut the ropes. Slaves jump in the river and drown or go back to face bitter recriminations for fleeing their oppression or are shot on the spot. JED’s wife and daughter jump in the river and are presumed drowned.
I wrote about this because it seemed to me that this scene was a powerful metaphor for the black experience in America – people uprooted from their homes, shipped across the ocean to endure unspeakable degradation, cruelty and inhumanity, and finally, to survive in a land where they were welcomed nowhere and belonged nowhere. The truth is, racism knows no boundaries, then or now. Scanning the headlines today must surely reaffirm this sad fact of our national experience.
A brief disclaimer and an irony of history. In the front of the book, I make mention of changing locations of units during certain events. This incident in the book occurs on the Ogeechee River and involved Harriman’s 15th Corps, the southernmost column on the March. In reality, the true incident happened on Ebenezer Creek and involved the northernmost column, that of the 20th Corps. The division commander who gave the order to cut the ropes? Major General Jefferson C. Davis.