This great American is told with deep love & spellbinding fearlessness, Die Free stretches from Haywood County, Tennessee, in the 1860s to New York City in the 20th century.
When award-winning television NY1 news anchor and reporter Cheryl Wills discovers the storied treasure of her great-great-great-grandfather who fled his slave master to fight in the Civil War and whose courage was mirrored in her father, a courageous NYC firefighter, she shares the unvarnished truth about the Wills’ family roots, ever entwined in passion, music, and faith.
As told by Cheryl Wills
While goofing around on the Internet one day in 2009, I discovered Sandy Wills. He is my great-great-great grandfather and, at the height of the Civil War, he escaped from his slavemaster, Edmund Wills, and joined the United States Colored Troops and fought valiantly until the war’s end in 1865. Had my father, a New York City firefighter, lived longer he would have learned that he most likely inherited his bravery from Sandy—a lowly slave turned courageous soldier who risked his life for the freedom of his future children and grandchildren.
My “two fathers”—Sandy and Clarence—have much to say from the other side of the veil, and it is my honor to present their legacy to the world.
Excerpt from Chapter 3 – Ancestry of Adversity
Finally August 3, 1863 the slaves became soldiers. They stood in line at Fort Halleck, home to the 4th Field Heavy Artillery, Company F and observed the activity of the Union’s busy federal camp. They were not the first slaves to make it there nor would they be the last. Their first order of business was to answer the questions from the enlistment officer. Lieutenant G.W. Fettermann filled out the rectangular form for each of the Wills men in what was called a Company Descriptive Book. The weary men answered the questions as best they could.
“My name is Mack Wills,” he said.
When asked his age, Mack said eighteen. Of course, he didn’t really know his exact age or birthday, but he probably knew that he had to be at least eighteen years old to fight in the Great War between the states. In fact, they all said they were eighteen except Andy, who declared he was nineteen. An assistant may have used a measuring tape to determine Mack’s height, which was listed at five feet, six inches. Lt. Fettermann probably didn’t bother to look deep into Mack’s eyes and flippantly wrote that he had black eyes, black hair, and a black complexion. In actuality, Mack was probably a deep brown, but what would a white officer see? Everything in his world was either black or white; that was part of the reason this terrible war had to go forth.
When asked where Mack was born, he said, “Nashville, Tennessee.” But the most startling and downright repulsive part of the form is where it says occupation. As he did with his other entries on the enlistment form, Lt. Fittermann wrote, in his most beautiful cursive penmanship, “slave.”
Upon first seeing this, it literally took my breath away. Occupation: slave.
I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the reprinted original scanned records from the National Archives. Occupation: slave. Really? Was slavery really a means of earning a living? Honestly?! Slavery is not an activity in which a person is engaged; that would be an occupation. Slavery is not a profession, a livelihood, or a vocation. Slavery is many things, but one thing it is not is an occupation. To add insult to injury, in the “remarks” section of the form, Lt. Fittermann added, “Owned by Edmund Wills Haywood Co. Tenn.” As if to say, if the war is lost and the Confederacy wins, these slaves should be legally returned to Edmund Wills.
One careful and analytical look at this enlistment form and it’s clear: slavery was not only disastrous for blacks, but for slaveholders as well. They had become amoral and demoralized toward blacks and they lost all sense of decency and compassion for people whose skin tones were different than their own. The fact that a distinguished officer in uniform could write, presumably without missing a beat, that a human being in America was a slave, a condition he most certainly would not have accepted for himself or his own children, is appalling. It would have been preferable to write something like “not applicable.” Occupation: Slave, yet another disturbing footnote in the annals of Civil War history.
“James Wills, sir,” he stated to Mister Fettermann. It was the same drill. The enlistment officer noted that James stood five-feet-eight-and-a-half inches and it turns out he may have been just a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday. Documents show that James Wills, who later changed his name back to his father’s surname of Parker, declared his birthday as November 30, 1845. He more than likely just made up that date in later years for legal reasons. James was the younger biological brother of Dick and, unlike the rest, he and his brother documented that his father was named Dick Parker and his mother was named Caroline Parker, both of whom were presumably born sometime in the 1820s. The couple probably married in a sham of a ceremony where the bride and groom were told to hop over a broom, and the officiating minister, overseer, or master declared, “Till death or distance do you part.”
Slave marriages were not recognized in the State of Tennessee. Both James and Dick were born on Edmund Wills’ plantation, which means their parents may or may not have remained on the plantation after their escape. James hair, eyes, and complexion were duly noted as black. The disheartening classification of “slave, owned by Edmund Wills, Haywood Co Tenn” was also jotted down.
“Haywood County, sir.” That’s where Richard Wills said he was born. Lt. Fittermann documented that Richard was eighteen years old and stood five-feet-six-and-a-half inches. He jotted the word “black” for Richard’s complexion, eyes, and hair.
“I don’t know, sir,” was Andy’s reply when asked where he was born. He was the only Wills man among the group who didn’t know when or where he came into the world. It was a brief response that probably passed without notice, but his unsettling response was devastating in its form, and lasting in its impact. Andy stood at five-feet –five-inches tall, and he had no idea how he got to Edmund Wills’ plantation. For all he knew, he sprung up out of the ground just like a turnip seed and just happened to be a living, breathing thing. He was very close to my Great-great-great grandfather Sandy, and in a general affidavit filed after the war, he testified that he had even slept in the same shack as Sandy when they were slave children, testifying that he had met Sandy when he was nine years old. Andy had eyes, but no visual comprehension; he could not conceptualize his earliest years but this was the first time he could actually envisage a future. Andy’s enlistment into the United States Colored Troops gave his life new meaning. Going forward from this point in his life, he could account for his whereabouts and his mission on earth. After the war, he would call himself Andrew, rather than the nickname Andy; it was a spirited move that helped him to define himself, at last.
August 27, 1863, was Independence Day for all four of these men. It was that great getting-up morning where they found the steel in their spines and the fire in their eyes. This was the day that they commenced a bridge between that great gulf separating slavery and freedom. Pro-slavery mutants had hoped the brains of black slaves had atrophied with the absence of education, but they gambled and lost. The minds of these gutsy and bewitching African men were as sharp as the bullwhip that scarred their broad backs. The time had come for these soldiers to lash back at those who would die to keep their lives obscured in that awful netherworld of bondage. James, Andy, Richard, and Mack likely didn’t realize they were making history. They could not identity a single letter of the alphabet except for an X, nor could they add or subtract. But, they could point and shoot; it was time to give the devil his due.
In a stunning turn of events, Sandy and Dick, the oldest among the men, had not made the trip to Fort Halleck in Columbus, Kentucky, on August 27, 1863, with the other Wills men. The reason is anyone’s guess. It’s highly doubtful that they had cold feet; perhaps, they covered for the younger men and stayed behind to make sure Edmund Wills did not hire slave catchers with dogs to sniff them out in the middle of the night. There’s also a strong possibility that Sandy and Dick wanted to take the whippings for their escape, rather than allowing a slave stool-pigeon to rat them out while under duress during a barbaric beating at the whipping post. Maybe Sandy lied to his so-called master, and assured him that Richard, Andy, James, and Mack would soon return or, if he was really slick, maybe he said they went to fight for the Confederate army to protect Edmund’s property. There are dozens of possible scenarios, none of which have been recorded in the National Archives. But here’s a safe bet: Sandy and Dick were probably savagely beaten within an inch of their lives for staying behind. It was no secret that they were close to the four runaways, especially Andy, whom he lived with. There was no way, Edmund Wills probably reasoned, that Sandy and Dick could not know where they went and why. Their sudden departures meant thousands in lost fortunes for Edmund Wills. They were “prized” slaves, if you will; they were young, strong, and able to produce more slaves for the plantation.
If Sandy and Dick were punished, there’s a possibility Sandy was staked out, a common method of torture for rebellious slaves. Four stakes were driven into the ground and each arm and leg was tied to each stake. The overseer, or perhaps Edmund Wills himself, may have wielded a paddle and thrashed the soles of Sandy’s feet until they were raw and bleeding. And in a final blow, the assailant whipped out a knife and slashed the bloodied blisters to prevent the slave from running away.
Maybe these barbarians stripped my great-great-great grandfather naked and tied him to a tree and whipped him mercilessly with anything and everything they could put their hands on, from limber switches to rawhide. There’s also a chance they “bucked” Dick. That is, they fastened his feet together pushed his knees up to his chin, tied his hands together over his knees and put sticks both under his legs and over his arms. These vicious slaveholding men were diabolical in their deeds to torture and humiliate souls that yearned for the same freedom that slaveholders took for granted. They hatched repulsive schemes that vividly illustrated that the evils of slavery had rendered them inhumane and uncivilized. They may have had control of the shackles around my grandparents’ necks, but in the process they became unrepentant sociopaths who lost hold of the better angles of their nature.
Whatever happened to Sandy and Dick at the plantation in the days following their brother’s escape didn’t change their minds one bit. Forty-five days later, on or about October 11, 1863, Sandy and Dick walked, or perhaps ran, in the footsteps of Andy, Mack, Richard, and James, and made a beeline for freedom. Dick walked the same 105 miles to Columbus, Kentucky, and enlisted with the same 4th Heavy Field Artillery Company F on October 12, 1863.
“Dick Parker, sir,” he said with a mark of defiance. Dick’s legal last name was Wills, because he, like Sandy, was the property of Edmund Willis Wills, but Dick never forgot that he was named for his father, Dick Parker, and even in the pit of slavery, he had always embraced his biological father’s identity.
More than thirty years later, in an affidavit for his pension, he stated, “When a slave before the war I belong Willis Wills who raised me, therefore was known as Dick Wills, but after the War I took the name of my father Dick Parker. I was named for him and have always been named Dick Parker, though called by the name of my old master Wills.”
Lieutenant G.W. Fittermann wrote that his name was Dick Parker, unaware of the courageous act from a man whose emancipation began with the reclaiming of his namesake. It was the first warning shot from Dick Parker that the war over slavery had already been won.
The lieutenant also noted that Dick was twenty-two years old and stood five-feet-four-and-a-half inches. His complexion, eyes, and hair color were deemed “black.” But in another pension affidavit in 1902, Dick described his skin color as “dark ginger cake,” which was a popular dessert at the time that could easily be mistaken for chocolate cake, until you tasted the finely chopped fresh ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon. His characterization of his bronze skin was certainly more creative than the enlistment officer, who would have never associated a delicious confection with a person of African descent. It was all in the eyes of the beholder, and Dick Parker apparently viewed himself one of the sweeter things God made.
Dick went on to tell the lieutenant that he was born in Haywood County, Tennessee, and belonged to Edmund Wills. Like all of the other Wills men, he was signing up to serve a five-year term, assuming the bloody war would last that long. To my delight, “occupation” was left blank. Lieutenant Fettermann did not put “slave,” as he did for the other Wills men. It’s not clear why this happened. Could it be that Dick told him outright to leave it blank? Or perhaps the lieutenant finally realized in the weeks that followed that it was absurd to certify a slave’s bondage as an occupation? Whatever the case, Dick Parker’s occupation was left blank for the ages.
In another remarkable move, my Great-great-great grandfather Sandy was the only one that did not enlist at Fort Halleck in Columbus, Kentucky. One day after Dick signed up for basic training; Sandy enlisted at a federal installation in Union City, Tennessee, on October 13, 1863. Union City, just twenty miles from Columbus, was the other home for the 4th Field Heavy Artillery, and was about seventy miles from Haywood County. It’s not clear why Sandy chose to enlist at this location, though he was still a part of the 4th Field Heavy Artillery, but he was with company G, while his brothers were with company F. Union City was located on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, which war strategists knew was a major North-South thoroughfare. The Confederates needed to regain control of the critical city because they couldn’t move supplies without control of it.
Sandy stood before the officer, without his brothers, and faced enlistment alone in front of Lieutenant J.S. Mauggy. “My name is Sandy Willis Wills.” Lt. Mauggy, apparently thinking the young illiterate man with a Southern drawl misspoke, wrote: “Sandy Willis.”
This simple clerical error led to great frustration in the years following the war. When Sandy’s wife Emma applied for a widow’s pension shortly after his death, she had to hire a lawyer to cut through miles of bureaucratic red tape to confirm that her husband’s name was actually Sandy Wills. Numerous depositions were filed by soldiers who fought alongside Sandy and knew him during slavery to attest that his last name was not Willis but, in fact, Wills.
In a sworn affidavit dated January 20, 1896, Andy Wills hired a lawyer to dictate his testimony. Andy said, “He was known in the army as Sandy Willis. His full name was Sandy Willis Wills and in getting it on the books Wills was left off and they called him Sandy Willis.” Had Sandy been able to read, he could’ve corrected it on the spot, but the enlistment officer was writing scribble for all my great-great-great grandfather knew. Sandy did not know even the fundamentals of reading and writing. Neither did Andy. Even after all those years after the Civil War, Andy signed his 1896 affidavit with an “X.”
As Sandy faced his enlistment officer, he stated his age as twenty-three and said he was born in Tipton County which was about thirty-seven miles South of Haywood County in Tennessee. Assumedly, without even raising his head to look at Sandy, Lt. Mauggy wrote “blk” for complexion, eyes, and hair color. When it came to occupation, the officer wrote “farmer.”
Farmer?! There are two schools of thought here. Either Sandy told Lt. Mauggy that he was a slave and the officer wrote “farmer,” which is unlikely; or Sandy himself described his occupation as a farmer. If the latter is true, then Sandy was far more liberated and more of a revolutionary than I could have possibly imagined. If Sandy uttered, “farmer,” that means he did not allow the forces of slavery, mighty as they were, to define him. If Sandy declared himself essentially a free man living as a farmer, then that proves that he, too, had fought and won the Civil War long before he actually engaged in any skirmish or battle. This means, Sandy was a free man even when he was shackled to an uncivilized plantation. Unlike his brothers, no one wrote on Sandy’s enlistment form that he was “owned by Edmund Wills of Haywood County,” and that’s probably because Sandy instinctively knew that, despite evidence to the contrary, he could not be bought. His soul was not for sale, no matter how many unscrupulous slave owners claimed to have a receipt for his precious life. It’s little wonder that Sandy stood tallest among the enlisted Wills men at five-feet-nine-and-a-half inches. Apparently, he believed in his freedom before he was legally free. The world looked upon him as a lowly slave, but that’s not what Sandy saw in himself. He had endured the primitive social structure for all of his twenty-three years, but my great-great-great grandfather did not let it infect his soul. Whether the Union won or lost the war, Sandy was convinced that he would not return to Edmund Wills’ plantation as a slave. He was a farmer in his imagination and, as unlearned as he was, he didn’t need a textbook to teach him that his imagination was the most powerful force on earth. Sandy’s mindset contained enough energy to break every shackle and pop every chain. As the Good Book he couldn’t read said, “If the Son sets you free, ye shall be free, indeed.” Sandy found freedom before the Civil War even ended and he escaped the jails that ignorance had built.
Join Cheryl Wills for a Die Free Reading, Performance, Book signing and Book Pre-Launch Party on October 16, 6-8pm at the Faison Firehouse Theater. 6 Hancock Place in Harlem. (124th st & St. Nicholas)
Hardcover Books will be for sale – $24.95 credit cards accepted.