by Frances Edstrom
My friend Betty Datta brought me a book written by her son, Christopher Datta, on one of my favorite subjects: slavery and the Civil War.
The book is a work of fiction based loosely on the true story of a woman, Ellen Craft, who escaped her owner and fled to the North. The premise sounds simple, but neither Ellen Craft nor Datta’s story about her are simple at all.
Ellen Craft was what was referred to as a “quadroon,” that is, a person who is one-quarter black and three-quarters white. Her mother and grandmother, both slaves, had been raped by their white owners. As a consequence, Ellen looked very white. Ellen was moved into her white plantation owner/father’s household, where she was allowed to play with her half-siblings when they were children, was given their hand-me-down clothing, and as she matured, became a house slave. Although her father and half-siblings professed to love her, at the same time, they made it clear they owned her. Her father “gave” her to her half-sister as a wedding gift.
Ellen was determined to avoid her mother’s fate, and also vowed never to marry, as she couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from her children when they would inevitably be sold. However, she fell in love with a fellow slave, William, who was willing to marry her even though other slaves ostracized her because of her white skin and her white-sounding language.
Ellen and William were allowed to live in the house of her owner, her half-sister, but their lives were miserable and their marital happiness tenuous, as often married slave couples were separated when one or the other was sold. They came up with a plan to escape to the north from their home in Macon, Georgia.
William had been able to save some money from his job working for an independent cabinet maker, and they plotted their escape. Ellen stole some old clothes that had belonged to a young master, cut her long hair, and, dressed as a man, fled in the middle of the night with William. Their plan was to pass themselves off as an ailing young plantation owner and his slave going north to Philadelphia to seek medical help. Since neither of them could read or write, Ellen (now Eli) had a sling on her right arm so that writing would be impossible if she were called upon to do so.
They got as far as Richmond, Virginia, but were stopped by a stationmaster. William was sent back to Georgia, but Ellen’s disguise held, and she, vowing to return for William, was allowed to go north.
Ellen remained in disguise, got a job, and eventually, thinking it might be her only chance to get back down south and save William, joined the Union Army in the Civil War. I will not spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say it is quite satisfying.
Datta, who is a career U.S. Foreign Service officer, has specialized in countries going through civil conflict. Not surprisingly, he is a student of our own Civil War, and brings Ellen/Eli safely through some of the more interesting battles of the war. Datta explains in the epilogue that, in fact, Ellen and William escaped safely to England. William eventually wrote about their escape in a book called “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.” When Ellen and William returned to the U.S. after the war, they went back to the south and opened a school for freed slaves. Datta’s version of their story, however, makes for great reading for both general readers and Civil War buffs alike. Watch for news of a local author reading soon of “Touched with Fire.” Christopher Datta is the son of Hal and Betty Datta of Winona.