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Slave, Contraband, Soldier, Frontiersman


Several readers of West from Yesterday say they want to know what happens to Titus Herman, but before I address that, I’d like to share a few things about Titus, one of my favorite characters in the book. Let me begin by acknowledging it is literally impossible for a white guy living in the 21st century to fully understand the experience of being a slave. I’m even more sensitive to that reality, since one of my ancestors (Robert “King” Carter) had the dubious distinction of owning more slaves than anyone else in American history.

Born and raised on a (fictional) South Carolina plantation, Titus Herman -- whose last name is that of his owner -- was first and foremost considered property. I learned a while ago some plantation owners generated more income from buying and selling slaves than they did from selling the crops or livestock produced by slave labor. The relevant point is, while slaves could legally be acquired, sold, beaten and hanged at the whim of their owner, the better their individual physical condition, the higher the price their owner could demand.

Titus is born to a woman who works in the plantation kitchen, which means he gets slightly better food than the field hands. Titus is put to work in the stables where his intelligence and strength quickly elevate him to the status of a groom. But “status” is relative. Caring for animals, more valued by his masters than were human slaves, is a perpetual humiliation.

Titus is first and foremost a human being and as a young man, he experiences the same frustrations, fantasies and fears about a young woman (Irene) whom he passionately loves that afflict all adolescent males. The frustration arises from the rules barring even idle conversation between the layers of stratified slave society. At the “top” of which were “house slaves” such as Irene, euphemistically referred to as “servants” by white owners. His fantasies involve his emersion into the world of “what ifs” inhabited by all young males -- as in “what if she and I got away to freedom and lived together the rest of our lives?”

And the “fear”? That the master would sexually assault comely Irene.

That she would be sold and disappear forever or any number of life-changing events over which a slave had no control.

The Civil War changed everything. As we know from our recent history, the total collapse of a way of life -- Soviet Union, Iraq -- creates a vacuum that sucks everyone into the vortex of chaos. Titus escapes the plantation and becomes a conscript laborer for the Union Army (officially referred to as “contraband” by Union officials, a classification that ironically continued to classify free ex-slaves as property).

But Titus’s breakthrough comes with his enlistment in one of the U.S. Army’s most storied units; the 10th Cavalry. Composed entirely of African American troopers commanded by white officers, the 10th Cavalry was one of two regiments composed of ex-slaves both of which were stationed west of the Mississippi.

Unless you’ve seen the excellent John Ford movie “Sergeant Rutledge” you may not be aware of the key role these soldiers played in the pacification of the Native American tribes. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the American Army rapidly shrank from more than two million men to less than 90,000, the majority of whom were garrisoned in the eastern United States. In 1868, the year in which West from Yesterday is set, less than 25,000 soldiers were posted west of the Mississippi and fully one half of the calvary there was composed of African Americans. I recognized this amazing fact as as an opportunity to describe an environment in which an ex-slave could, for the first time in his life, achieve his full potential and experience the pride that comes from being an independent, free man.

As such, Titus Herman comes and go as he pleases after being mustered out of the Army. His experience riding west with ex-slaver Tucker Clairborne, the story’s main character, is the arena which both proud young men reluctantly enter together. In the end, I decided to give readers of West from Yesterday the opportunity to decide for themselves what Titus Herman does with the rest of his life and his pursuit of happiness.

Photo via: Official Fort Leavenworth Site

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