1958: Rifles for Watie (Civil War in the West)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2/5

The 1958 Newbery Medal Winner, Rifles for Watie, is a historical fiction story set during the Civil War. The protagonist, Jefferson Davies Bussey, is a 16-year-old Kansas farmboy when war breaks out. After his father is nearly killed by “bushwackers” – raiders in sympathy with the rebels – Jeff joins the Union army as part of an infantry regiment. He eventually advances to cavalry and then to scout. When on a mission behind enemy lines, Jeff is forced to join Watie’s Cavalry, a regiment of Cherokee Indians who raid the countryside extensively. While there, Jeff comes to realize that the men serving Watie are extremely decent; his conversations with them also reveal that the Cherokees split along internal political lines and their motives bear little resemblance to those of the greater Confederate cause.When his former Union commander appears to sell guns to Watie, Jeff realizes he must escape back to the Union with the intelligence. Although he almost starves to death, and escapes the bloodhound only by wooing it and carrying it with him, he safely returns to Fort Gibson and passes his news on to the new commander. Along with the three friends who joined up at the same time, Jeff musters out safely at the end of the war and returns home.

Jeff begins the book firm in his belief that all the rebels are evil and the union is good. However, his first encounters with Clardy, the officer to whose unit he is assigned, put that notion to the test. Clardy goes so far as to kill a rebel prisoner he’s supposed to be watching; Jeff later finds Clardy was also selling superior guns to the rebels. On the flip side, Jeff also has many positive interactions with rebel families, and, eventually, soldiers. He falls for Lucy Washbourne, whose brother and father serve under Watie, and is nursed back to health from a bout of malaria by a kind rebel family.

While the history is well researched and somewhat interesting, the storytelling is lacking. The book is 332 pages, but seemed much longer owing to the painstaking/painful description employed by the author. The “lessons” learned by Jeff are also belabored. By the end, you should have learned that war is bad, good people exist on every side of a conflict, and that politics is by definition complicated. However, there are far better illustrations of these lessons, as well as far more engaging Civil War historical fictions. Although I haven’t reread it in many years, I loved Mr. Lincoln’s Drummer when I was in late grade school. Overall, though there are a number of funny and touching episodes in the book, I recommend you skip this one unless you have a very strong interest in the Civil War as it was fought in the western states.

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