The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State. Author Wiley Cash helms the newsletter, which includes older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can sign up for the newsletter here.
This month’s book is Black Cloud Rising by David Wright Faladé.
In the fall of 1863, despite the Union Army’s success in conquering and maintaining control of tidewater Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, roving bands of Confederate sympathizers, bushwhackers, and Home Guard still bedeviled the American army.
Union forces had attempted to neutralize this threat in four previous forays, to no avail. It would take a homeopathic doctor turned general named Edward A. Wild, who’d lost his left arm earlier in the war, to lead a successful fifth attempt.
In the early pages of David Wright Faladé’s new historical novel Black Cloud Rising, Wild makes clear to his men that this attempt will be different: “Sometimes, in order to be right, one must be infernal, and this we will be!”
Black Cloud Rising is a fictionalized portrayal of what was the largest military operation executed by the Union Army’s African Brigade, a force composed entirely of formerly enslaved men. One of those soldiers, Sergeant Richard Etheridge, narrates Faladé’s novel. Etheridge was born and raised on Roanoke Island, the son of an enslaved woman and the white man who owned her.
Faladé, who is from the Texas Panhandle, first learned of Etheridge’s story when he was a graduate student in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He befriended a fellow graduate student named David Zoby, who grew up in Tidewater, Virginia. Zoby introduced Faladé to the history of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, the first station manned by an all-Black crew, which Etheridge led after returning home from the Civil War.
When we first meet Etheridge in Black Cloud Rising, he is only 21; he’d joined the Union Army as soon as word of emancipation found him. Etheridge’s sober, careful narration shows the reader both the aforementioned infernal nature of the Civil War and the dizzying restructuring of society that followed.
After the brigade frees a group of enslaved people from a plantation, a woman Etheridge describes as “an old mammy, head wrapped in a red rag” is handed a whip, which she uses to flog her former owner. As a reader, it is hard not to take some measure of joy in the scene, but as a witness, Etheridge has a more moderate view, wondering if the punishment is justice or revenge.
Etheridge poses similar questions later in the novel, first after the hanging of Daniel Bright, a suspected guerrilla who could not produce enlistment papers to prove his formal standing as enemy combatant, and later when a Confederate sympathizer returns home after helping Etheridge and others locate a bushwhacker camp deep in the swamp, only to find his sons hanging from trees.
Etheridge’s narration made me think of the phenomenon of Germany’s “Zero Hour,” which came at midnight on May 8, 1945, and marked the end of the war in Europe and the beginning of a post-Nazi future. This moment, more psychological than chronological, was a line of demarcation that forced German citizens to see their country, the world, and themselves in a new way.
While reading Black Cloud Rising I kept imagining a particularly 19th century American Zero Hour as it spread across northeastern North Carolina during the three weeks of the African Brigade’s mission, during which over 3,000 enslaved people were freed. Many joined the brigade on their march toward Fort Monroe, on Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay.
For Etheridge, Zero Hour is not a single event. He experiences multiple Zero Hours, each one reframing his relationship to his family, friends, senior command, and the men he is leading. In each situation, Etheridge is forced to reconcile what it means to fight for one’s freedom in an army that is segregated, where less qualified and capable men are given higher rank because of their skin color. Where the white half-sister who taught him to read writes letters to him on the front lines shaming him for his willingness to fight for his own freedom. Where, rifle in hand and boots on the march, Etheridge comes to terms with the fact that being free does not mean being equal, and that there will be a war after this one—a much longer war.
Etheridge went on to live a heroic and exceptional life, fighting until the end of the Civil War as a Buffalo Soldier in Texas before taking command of the historic all-Black lifesaving crew. The crew’s most famous mission was the 1896 rescue of nine passengers caught on the schooner E.S. Newman during a horrible storm.
It was the subject of Faladé first book, Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers, which he co-authored with Zoby in 2001. But Faladé was not done with Etheridge’s story, and readers should be thankful for that.
While reading Black Cloud Rising, one can easily envision the man he will become: heroic soldier. Committed lifesaver. National hero. He died in 1900, the same year the Wright brothers first traveled to the Outer Banks that Etheridge had long called home.
Late in Black Cloud Rising, Etheridge shares a few moments of honest reflection with his commanding officer, Colonel Alonzo Draper. The two men are talking about all the changes that the war has wreaked upon their lives when Draper admits, “I’d never met a Negro before my enlistment in the service.”
“Maybe comes a time when we are all new people,” Etheridge replies, extending the colonel more grace than he might deserve, “unfamiliar even to our own selves.”
But while the world changed around him, Etheridge maintained a core of decency and morality that saw him through the darkest days of the 19th century. Faladé’s Black Cloud Rising is an exceptional chronicling of the early days of an exceptional life.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.