Author Tonya Bolden’s fictional account of this true event deals with harsh realities, but also highlights the love of God, family and community which characterized the former slaves.
In this fictional historical novel for young people based on a little-known event that happened during the American Civil War, Captain Abel Galloway arrives at the Georgia plantation where Mariah and her young brother Zeke are enslaved. He asks the young woman if she is being held in slavery. When she answers in the affirmative, he declares, “No more! No more slavery for you. You now own yourselves.” He tells her that “by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, on the first of January in the year of our Lord 1863, you are free! And as a member of the United States Army I am obliged to maintain your freedom.”
Mariah can hardly believe her ears. After praying to God for years that the Yankees would come her way and free her, she is unprepared for “the rush-and-roll of emotions, for the trembling” that she experiences.
With many other freed slaves, as well as with the help of Caleb, a young black man who is assisting Captain Galloway, she sets off with the Yankees on what is known as General Sherman’s March to the Sea.
As Mariah tastes freedom for the first time in her life, “all creation seemed a new sight.” When she spots a golden eagle soaring overhead, she recalls her mother’s words, a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “Shall renew their strength. . . . Shall mount up with wings as eagles.” Mariah’s new found hope fills her with dreams for the future – “Still waters, green pastures, peaceful, merciful place.” Steeped since birth in the Scripture and in the knowledge of a loving God, Mariah finds the courage to carry on.
Still, despite the fact that “hosannas honeyed the air. Hallelujahs to God, hallelujahs to Yankees,” Mariah feels sad – “she couldn’t help but liken this exodus to one great moving wound. Like her, they all had scars.”
As the hardships of the march – Rebel soldiers terrorize the people and not all Union soldiers act justly – take their toll on the growing number of freed slaves, Mariah begins to worry. Where are they marching to? When Caleb, whom she is growing to trust and love, tells her that they are heading south, she feels trapped and perplexed. Why aren’t they heading north to freedom?
Caleb explains to Mariah that the goal of General Sherman’s march is not to capture Rebel soldiers, but to terrify civilians living in Georgia so that they will want to leave the Confederacy and surrender to Yankee troops. Though Mariah is concerned that Sherman might not be successful, Caleb assures her that “Confederacy is on its last legs.”
One day Caleb brings a wounded man to Mariah and her friends to get medical help for him. Mariah is faced with a moral dilemma when she realizes the man’s identity. Having experienced mercy from good-hearted Yankees, Mariah must decide whether she will show mercy to the wounded man or succumb to hatred and become like her former oppressors. As Mariah faces her decision, she comes to grip with the terrain of her own heart, as well as deep spiritual questions.
Disturbing reports of Rebel atrocities and Yankee animosity frighten the former slaves. One report especially terrifies them – the story of Yankee soldiers prematurely pulling up a pontoon bridge before all the freed slaves could cross a river, leaving some to drown.
When the travellers approach Ebenezer Creek, they face a similar betrayal, one that they could never have imagined after their dreams for freedom were fanned into flame. A betrayal that sealed their destiny.
Author Tonya Bolden’s fictional account of this true event deals with harsh realities, but also highlights the love of God, family and community which characterized the former slaves. She celebrates the lives of those who for their “own soul’s sake” chose to do what is right. Bolden’s narrative is filled with biblical allusions. She shows the power of prayer and forgiveness, and points to hope for the future rooted in God’s goodness, not in humanity’s schemes.