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'Black Cloud Rising' is the story of an all-Black brigade in the U.S. Civil War


"Black Cloud Rising" has been taking shape for a long time in the mind of the novelist David Wright Falade. He was a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University in the early 1990s when he began to hear about the life of Richard Etheridge, who was born into slavery on Roanoke Island, the biological son of the man who enslaved him and taught how to read and write by his white half-sister. Richard Etheridge would become a leader of the African Brigade during the U.S. Civil War, a unit that hunted down Confederate guerillas in North Carolina in the fall of 1863. David Wright Falade now teaches English at the University of Illinois and is a fellow at the New York Public Library - joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID WRIGHT FALADE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What should we know about him when we meet him at, I guess, about the age of 21?

FALADE: Richard Etheridge - he just always stood out from a very young age. He was a leader in the slave community in that - on Roanoke Island. And then when the war breaks out, yeah, he's made a sergeant almost right away, and that continues through his life. And even though "Black Cloud Rising" is a Civil War novel, tells the tale of their trip into North Carolina to free slaves and fight guerrillas, the backstory is the thing that kept me going. For me, it was the motor - Richard Etheridge understanding dealing with the fact of his paternity, and, as a soldier, returning to that place and possibly confronting his former masters, who are also his white family.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, tell us about Sarah. There's a relationship.

FALADE: Yeah. The Etheridge women - they were prominent in the community and just active, too. So I imagine Sarah, the white half-sister, as this person who - intelligent, strong-minded, understands herself in that way, and yet, as a woman in 19th century America, is sort of limited, too. So she sees a connection with Richard, not fully recognizing her own privilege above him.

SIMON: What did it mean for the soldiers of the African Brigade to go from being enslaved to holding the power of life and death over white people?

FALADE: It seems so clear that it was complicated and difficult. The real-life African Brigade - they were redesignated the 36th United States Colored Troop - and they end up serving as guards at the prisoner of war camp in Point Lookout, Md. There was this trouble because some of the soldiers - the Black soldiers who are guarding these Confederate prisoners of war - they would sometimes call them Master, right?

FALADE: They were conflicted in...

SIMON: Have mercy. Yeah.

FALADE: Yeah. In the book, I have Richard Etheridge's friend say a thing one time when he witnesses an event that happens early in the book, you know, where the power is clearly reversed, right? The Black men are in charge. And they've captured a Confederate guerilla. And his friend comes up to him and says, the bottom rail is on top. And I took that quote directly from men of the 36th when they were guarding these prisoners at this, you know, prisoner of war camp in Maryland. So I think they were conflicted. The world suddenly looks radically different.

SIMON: Tell us about the brigade's commanding officer, general Edward Augustus Wild - one-armed, red-bearded abolitionist. And it was hard not to think of John Brown.

FALADE: Yeah. Yeah. I found him - going all the way back to "Fire On The Beach," I just found him completely fascinating.

SIMON: "Fire On The Beach" is your 2002 nonfiction book about Richard Etheridge and his career on Pea Island, N.C., establishing what became a Coast Guard station.

FALADE: That's right. At the point of "Fire On The Beach," I knew very little. I do more research later. But he's from Brookline, Mass., born into a, you know, sort of an older - a distinguished, older family of doctors, in particular. He trains as a doctor. But when the Civil War breaks out, he doesn't join as a doctor. He joins as a soldier, right? He's commanding a white unit first. And he has a severe wound to one arm at the battle of Bull Run - recuperates. He rejoins his unit. And at the Battle of South Mountain, he loses the other arm. As though that is not enough, he stays active, and he then goes south to raise a unit of former slaves there in the South. So he's a radical abolitionist. And I envisioned him as - you said John Brown - as a zealot. Yeah. He is a zealot.

For him, it was scorched earth. His approach was scorched earth. The scene that opens the novel, which is fairly dramatic, where he has slaves whipping their former master - he is that guy. One of the things I thought that was important, though, in talking about the Black soldiers - so at first, he is exactly what they want in a leader. As they're serving with him over the course of this scorched-earth raid through North Carolina, they start to question also. You know, they're back home. And while surely some of them want revenge, some of them are also like, I know these people. I know this place. And so their view of Wild shifts too.

SIMON: Yeah. Where does the novelist take flight from the historian when you write a novel like this?

FALADE: For me, it was really in trying to get into Richard Etheridge's - not just his head, but the human behind that, hence the importance of Fanny, who would be his wife, hence, the importance of Rachel and then his relationship to the white Etheridges. It must have been complicated for him in his life. Richard Etheridge survives the war. When he leaves the service in 1866 - he's stationed in Texas at this point - he leaves with Fields Midgett, the same friend. They joined together. They've clearly been lifelong friends. They go back to the Outer Banks. The Outer Banks is now free. It's a refugee camp, Roanoke Island is. There are more African Americans on Roanoke Island at this moment than there are whites. He doesn't go to the refugee camp and establish a home. He doesn't move in with his mother. He doesn't move in with Fields. He moves in with his white half-brother.

SIMON: Oh, mercy.

FALADE: Yeah. He's clearly in this interesting, complicated place where he's trying to understand the world and his place in it as an American.

SIMON: You have fun with The New York Times reporter...

FALADE: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Who often narrates his own - let me try one of the lines. Ready?


SIMON: (Imitating a deep voice) A Sabbath silence brooded over the mire.

FALADE: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: Hard to keep a straight face.

FALADE: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: Is that just comic relief? And look, we journalists deserve it. Or are you trying to suggest something about journalism is the first draft of history and all that stuff?

FALADE: It turns out that if you Googled him right now - Tewksbury - that article would come up. There was a journalist named - I don't know what his first name was - but it was Tewksbury, and he accompanied them. And it was the first draft of history, right? As soon as the raid happens...

SIMON: Yeah.

FALADE: ...He prints this in The New York Times, which is wonderful, but also just that 19th century style of prose - it offered a little comic relief every now and then. But when I'm quoting him, I'm actually quoting from him. I'm not - yeah, I'm not...


FALADE: ...Making it up (laughter).

SIMON: Even more damning than I thought then - are you done with Richard Etheridge?

FALADE: I don't know.

SIMON: Or wait, let me put it this way. Mr. Novelist, is he done with you?

FALADE: That's an even better question. For me to say that, yeah, I'm done with him, would maybe be - yeah, that would maybe be wrong. There's - his life during the Reconstruction, when he moves back in with his brother - when the Reconstruction comes to an end, the station is burned down. His Coast Guard crew performs this really heroic rescue, for which they're only recognized a hundred years later in 1896. Two years later, the Wilmington Race Riot - the Wilmington Racial Massacre - happens just down the coast. I think there's a rich story there about Richard in the Reconstruction. We'll see if he's done with me or not.

SIMON: David Wright Falade's novel, "Black Cloud Rising" - thank you so much for being with us.

FALADE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALF'S "BREAKFAST FOR HER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.