Rifles for Watie

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1958

Rifles for Watie

by Harold Keith

Age: 11+

Interests: history, American history, American Civil War, war, moral questions, friendship, romance

HarperCollins, 1957

332 pages

Sixteen-year-old Jeff Bussey joins the Union army at the start of the Civil War, eager to see battle action and fight against Colonel Watie, leader of the Cherokee Indian rebels. Over the next four years Jeff gets his chance to fight, and finds it’s not as glorious and thrilling as he had expected. He suffers from exhaustion, starvation, disease and injury… all the typical hardships of army life. He is ill-treated by a cruel officer, but does his best to remain a good, moral individual. Particularly sensitive to the hard lives of the civilians he comes across, Jeff will help anyone in need, even those with rebel sympathies. It was a peculiar feature of this war that the two sides were so closely intertwined that neighbours or even brothers found themselves fighting each other. Jeff recognizes the good in anyone, whether in blue uniforms or grey. Sent out to spy on the rebels, Jeff serves for a time in the their ranks, and meets many fine soldiers there, including the famous Colonel Watie. He sees firsthand that they are not the cruel savages he’d always imagined, in fact many are simple farmboys like himself. Overhearing vital information about a Union traitor, Jeff is torn between two loyalties – should he side with his current brothers-in-arms and the rebel Cherokee girl he has fallen for, or return to his Union commanders with intelligence that could alter the outcome of the war? Either way he betrays the trust of close friends.

The best war novels describe the numbing confusion of battle and the moral dilemmas that spin out of conflict. This novel is no exception, revealing the complexity of motives among the many factions involved. Jeff’s anti-slavery family is harassed by rebel carpetbaggers, but as he travels from state to state, Jeff discovers profiteers and scoundrels on both sides. He also learns that the Cherokees who joined the rebels had their own good reason to do so, choosing to fight against the government that robbed them of their homes. Jeff is thoughtful and sympathetic throughout, able to see all sides of the argument. In the end he chooses to remain loyal to the Union cause, even though this choice may possibly drive away the girl he loves. (It doesn’t.)

This is a lengthy and dense read, rolling out many colourful characters who bring this historical period to life. The author was a historian who researched the era and interviewed several Civil War veterans for his master’s degree. He fills this story with authentic period detail but doesn’t get bogged down in it, managing to keep the plot moving along at a lively pace. The battle scenes are dramatic, Jeff’s various exploits are thrilling and his final escape is positively hair-raising. It’s surprising that this book has never been made into a movie, because it’s a rip-roaring good yarn.

Considering the immense suffering and devastation of the American Civil War, it is uplifting to find a book about this conflict that remains convinced of the basic decency of people and their ability to help each other through hard times and build a better future.

A welcome lesson indeed for this (or any) time.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.