Ellen Craft is property; in this case, of her half-sister Debra, to whom she was given as a wedding gift. The illegitimate daughter of a Georgia plantation owner and a house slave, she learned to hate her own image, which so closely resembled that of her “father:” the same wiry build, the same blue eyes, and the same pale—indeed, lily-white—skin.
Ellen lives a solitary life until she falls, unexpectedly, in love with a dark-skinned slave named William Craft, and together they devise a plan to run North. Ellie will pose as a gentleman planter bound for Philadelphia accompanied by his “boy” Will. They make it as far as Baltimore when Will is turned back, and Ellie has no choice but continue. With no way of knowing if he is dead or alive, she resolves to make a second journey—South again. And so Elijah Craft enlists with the 125th Ohio Volunteers of the Union Army: she will literally fight her way back to her husband.
Eli/Ellie’s journey is the story of an extraordinary individual and an abiding love, but also of the corrosive effects of slavery, and of a nation at a watershed moment.
“The story tells of how a brave and resilient black woman went to great lengths to gain not only her freedom, but that of the man she loved.” – Amazon Reviewer Kelley McCormick
“[A] deliberate and sincere historical fiction wends its way through this abject time in our nation’s youth…Touched with Fire is a welcome addition to the ever-increasing canon of Civil War fiction.” – E. Warren Perry, Jr., author, Swift to My Wounded: Walt Whitman and the Civil War
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Read an excerpt:
Late Evening of September 20, 1862
Ellie rolled up tight in her blankets, as usual sleeping in the upper hayloft of the stable on a bed of straw. She stared out the open hayloft door at the stars glittering in the moonless night sky, her breath condensing into white mist in the cold September air. Only at this time of the evening did she allow herself the luxury of becoming a woman again. She thought about William, as she always did before sleeping. Was he still alive? If he was, was he right this moment gazing up on the same stars? She missed him every minute of every day, but she missed him the most as she lay waiting for sleep to take her to him in dreams. Her cousin Ann had tried to help after William was left behind at Baltimore, yet there had been a barrier that Ellie could never quite overcome, that never let her feel comfortable around Ann. She was white, and Ellie was black. It was simply not in her to trust a white. She could not help it, her fear and loathing of that race rooted in a lifetime of hard experience with its cruelty, starting with and most particularly including her very own father, the man who should have cared the most for her happiness and welfare and who instead kept her as property.
Ann offered to buy William, and Ellie appreciated that. But out of sheer spite Miss Deb bought William herself to stop the sale. Even worse, she sent slave hunters north to find Ellie and bring her back.
Foolishly not expecting Debra Collins to stoop so low, Ellie was caught off guard and nearly taken. The fugitive slave act required Mrs. Henderson to turn Ellie over to the authorities, and the slave hunters brought local police with them to Mrs. Henderson’s home, demanding she surrender Ellie, who was no more than stolen property in the eyes of the law.
It was a narrow escape. Dressed as a man again, Ann sent Ellie through a hatch in the roof. From there, she stole across the tops of several adjacent row houses until she found a balcony she could safely drop down to. She nearly broke her ankle doing it, but from there used a fire escape to climb down to the street and disappear. She walked right past a policeman posted at the end of the block, but he was on the lookout for a woman. Once again, becoming a man saved her.
After that, Ellie determined to stay disguised as a man. The slave hunters searched for a woman. As a white man, Ellie could go where she pleased and do what she wanted without arousing suspicion. Even a white woman did not have the freedom she now had. She blended in and covered her tracks so well it made her impossible to find. At least, she hoped so.
With money Mrs. Henderson had thrust into her unwilling hand as she fled through the roof, she caught a train west, eventually stopping in Warren, Ohio, nearly broke. She started working for Mr. Craig as a stable hand, tending horses and fixing wagons. She slept in the stable except on the coldest of nights, and spent little of the money she earned. She had no desire to socialize and kept to herself, which suited Mr. Craig fine since he also had little use for mixing with folk
outside of his business dealings.
But every day she thought of William and the bitterness grew and burned inside her until she felt consumed by it. What she feared most, her separation from William by the white masters, had come to pass, and she hated them for what they did to her in the name of preserving “their way of life.” Most especially she grew bitter toward her white “family,” her father and her half sister Debra. She wanted so much to make them pay for their plain low-down meanness.
She spent every night thinking on how to free William. She saved what she could against the time when an opportunity might present itself, and had accumulated five hundred dollars, but rack her brains as she might, nothing realistic ever came to her.
But today what this Wilkins fellow said kept running through her mind. The only real hope she had of rescuing William was in the defeat of the South. At the opening of the war, from all she heard, Lincoln was perfectly content to let the South keep its slaves if it would preserve the Union, and she had set no hopes on the war bringing William back to her. But perhaps that was changing. If it was true Lincoln would soon make this a fight to end slavery, then maybe there was hope after all.
But she doubted it. She found little support for the abolitionist movement here in Warren. Northern whites, on the whole, did not care one way or another about the welfare of Negros; they just wanted them gone. Even if Lincoln declared this a war against slavery, the North, she believed, would go back on its word in a heartbeat if keeping slavery reunited the nation.
And then a thought suggested itself. Maybe the North would not, in the end, free the slaves, but the one thing the North had to do was to conquer the South. From one end of that infernal pest hole to the other, Union troops would have to strike down and occupy every inch of Southern territory. Ellie pursed her lips in the dark, thinking hard on that fact. She could join the army and fight her way into Georgia. At the head of an army, there was nothing any planter could do to stop her. And once she found William, they could easily escape to Canada where the slave hunters could never reach them no matter how the war ended.
She jumped up, clutching the blankets close around her shoulders and pacing before the open hayloft door. Wilkins said the 125th Ohio was recruiting volunteers. She could join. What was to stop her? Her fevered mind thrilled at the excitement of finally having a plan, until all the reasons why it could not be done rained down on her like a thunderstorm on an open camp fire.
It was one thing to play a man while escaping North, which had been for just three days and with the help of William to guide her, and quite another to be a man in the army. Of course, even now she managed it well enough, but she lived a solitary life. She had plenty of time by herself in the evenings to let her guard down and take care of womanly things as required. Even with that, Mr. Craig once found a bloody rag she discarded during one of her flows, and demanded to know where it came from. Had she injured one of the horses? She made up a
story about losing a wisdom tooth. Concerned, he asked to look in her mouth to see, but she was able to attend to a customer who fortunately appeared at that moment.
Being in the army would give her little to no privacy. Living in the constant close company of men, she would have to be a man all the time and never let down her guard. How would she bathe? How would she manage her cycles? What if she was wounded? In the army, the odds of being discovered multiplied a hundredfold. She sat down on a bale of hay, holding her face in her hands, despairing.
She had looked at it a thousand different ways. If she slipped back into Macon on her own, even disguised as a man, she would certainly be recognized eventually. Even if she was not, and she found William, how could she free him? No white Southerner would dare take a slave North for any reason now. Everyone she met would demand an explanation she could not give.
Joining the army was her only chance. She could not just wait for the war’s end and hope the North won, and in winning also abolished slavery.
She lifted her face from her hands. She was tired of being alone. She was tired of feeling powerless to change her life and William’s. She was tired of despising her half sister and her father and the entire South without having the means to punish them. A grim determination filled her. She would join the army. She would carry a gun and she would fight. She would find a way to keep her identity secret, and if they found her out, she was no worse off than now. All they could do would be to send her back to Ohio. All she could do was try and trust to God.
She stared up at the night sky, hoping William also looked up at those same stars, and she suddenly was sure of it. She could feel him reaching out to her, and she held out her hand to the lights in the sky, reaching back to him.
“I’m coming for you, William,” she said out loud, her hand clutching into a fist. “I’ll find you, and as God is my witness we will never be slaves again.”