As we wind down our school year and with it, our US History studies for the year, I wanted to do one high-quality read-aloud set in the Civil War time period. From a short list of Civil War novels I considered, Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith stood out for several reasons: It won a Newbery Award in 1957, it was a book I remember my step-Dad telling me was very influential to him, and some how I don’t think I had ever read it before. Despite being exposed to many documentaries about the Civil War growing up, I think the only book I read on the topic was Across Five Aprils.
Rifles for Watie follows the story of Jeff Bussey, a teenager from Kansas who decides to enlist in the Union army. He is sick and tired of the “bushwackers” (pro-slavery men from Missouri) who cross the border and attack Kansans who are anti-slavery, and he figures that joining up to fight in the war is the only way he can really do something about it. Although at first he misses out on actual fighting (and also gets on the bad side of his commander in the process), he eventually is involved in several battles, first in the infantry, then later in the cavalry and even as a scout.
This book is set in the western front of the war. Bussey and his comrades fight in Missouri, Arkansas and what is now Oklahoma. While out on a scouting mission, he finds himself in an unusual situation — a remark by his partner on the scouting mission finds them joining up on the Confederate side with Stand Watie‘s Cherokee Mounted Rifles. For months he plays the part of a rebel, waiting to find out some important information before returning to the union side — and he discovers how surprisingly likeable both soldiers and civilians on the enemy side really are.
Rifles for Watie is quite a long book. At 352 pages of small type (in the edition we checked out from the library), it took us close to three weeks to finish it! But our patience in making it to the end of this book was well worth it. I would say the most exciting part of the story is the final few chapters of the book, when Jeff is embedded as an impromptu spy with the Confederates. Much of the story gives a sense of the reality of war for the soldiers (lots of waiting, travel and boredom with a few battles thrown in), as well as of the horror of war without being too graphic. We also liked how Rifles for Watie gives the reader empathy for both sides, and for people groups often overlooked in other books about the Civil War, like members of various Native American tribes.
A funny side note — as we approached the end of the book and the identity is revealed of a union officer who is selling repeating rifles to Watie to make a personal profit, Miss M said to me, “oh, I totally knew it. The author foreshadowed that for most of the book!” I didn’t even know that she knew the word “foreshadow”! We don’t have a lot of discussions about literary terminology, but apparently she is picking it up from somewhere. 🙂
Overall I would say this is a great choice for mid to upper elementary as a read-aloud set in this time period, and is probably enjoyable as an independent read in middle school and up.
I’m linking up with Read-Aloud Thursday @ Hope is the Word!