Rifles for Watie Summary

Harold Keith

Rifles for Watie

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Rifles for Watie Summary

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Rifles for Watie is a 1957 historical fiction children’s novel centering around the civil war. Focusing on a sixteen-year-old boy named Jefferson Davis Bussey who volunteers for the Union forces, it tackles the events of the Civil War from the perspective of an ordinary soldier. Keith researched the book by interviewing actual Civil War veterans and visiting the battle sites dealt with in the book. It deals with a side of the Civil War rarely seen in books, the fighting west of the Mississippi river, and is considered one of the most in-depth and authentic books about the Civil War ever written for a young audience. It explores themes of faith, pride, and perseverance through difficult times as it follows its young protagonist through the critical time period and brings him face to face with pivotal figures from the war including the titular Brigadier General Stand Watie.

The story begins with young Jefferson “Jeff” Davis Bussey as a sixteen-year-old living with his family in Kansas. He and his whole family are strong Union supporters. One day, the family farm is attacked by Bushwhackers, militant Missouri residents fighting the Union army, that nearly kill his father. Although Jeff is able to fend them off and protect his family, he feels like he can no longer sit by as the war rages around him. He decides to join the Union volunteers, and although the family is worried about him, his father sees his son’s determination and lets him go. Jeff heads off to join the Kansas volunteers, along with his friends John Chadwick and David Gardner.

When they arrive at the local army base, they find themselves under the command of a strict Captain named Asa Clardy. He quickly tests their motivation to join the Army, giving them impossible tasks such as fixing unbroken bayonets, and even orders Jeff to change his name because it reminds him of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. When Jeff refuses, Clardy takes a dislike to him. They are trained to cross the Missouri river and head into battle, but David is soon caught for deserting the army and dismissed from the Volunteer corps. Jeff briefly returns home to see his family, and David’s mother orders him to go back and rejoin the army. The two friends head out to Springfield, Missouri, where they join up with General Nathaniel Lyon. Hunger and thirst begin to take their toll on the group. Along the way, they join up with another volunteer battalion, and Jeff meets up with a boy named Jimmy Leer, who is even younger than him. Jimmy is soon caught and removed from the army for lying about his age.

A mishap with his gun leads to Jeff being punished by Clardy and sentenced to all-night sentry duty. While trying to stay awake, Jeff encounters Sparrow, the camp chef, who knew Clardy longer than most. He reveals to Jeff that Clardy is a murderer, having beaten a woman to death in the past. Jeff keeps this to himself for now, and later finds out that Jimmy has been allowed to stay with the company as a drummer until he turns sixteen and can join as a soldier. Their first battle soon ensues. When Jeff is pulled from the front by Clardy, he snaps at the Captain and references the murder he committed. This turns out to be a serious mistake, as at the conclusion of the battle, Sparrow is found dead, and Jeff instantly knows he was silenced by Clardy.

The unit’s march across the Midwest continues, as Clardy continues to single Jeff out for punishment and scorn. Jeff meets many people along the way, and earns a Medal of Honor for his bravery in assisting the artillery. He loses friends along the way, including young Jimmy Leer who is killed in an accident and wills his drum to Jeff. Perhaps the most significant person Jeff meets along the way is a girl named Lucy Washbourne, who he comes to care deeply for. However, her family are strong Confederate supporters, and her brother Lee works as a Confederate spy. This leads to a tragedy when Lee is captured and executed by a firing squad that Jeff takes part in, despite not knowing it’s Lucy’s brother. Although this tragedy tears Jeff and Lucy apart, they eventually reconcile. Jeff rises through the ranks, eventually coming under the mentorship of several of the war’s most renowned military thinkers and becoming a scout himself who is tasked with unraveling the mystery of who is selling Union rifles to the rebels. He is finally able to expose Clardy as a double agent selling arms to the rebels, and the cruel Captain who was a thorn in his side the whole time winds up on the run like a common criminal.

By the end of the war, Jeff has been promoted to Sergeant, and is able to return home decorated although changed forever by his experiences in the war. He is shocked by the changes in his family, as one sister has married and moved away, and another is now a woman. He receives a letter from Lucy, and learns that Clardy has been found dead. After years in the war that took him from boy to man, Jeff is finally home.

Rifles for Watie won the prestigious Newberry Medal the year after it was released, and is considered one of the best children’s novels involving the Civil War ever written. Harold Keith wrote fifteen published works between 1937 and his death in 1998, including sports histories, readers, guidebooks to sports and games, and novels. Rifles for Watie remains his most popular and best regarded work. In addition to his published work, he is a member of the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame for his work as a sports publicist for the University of Oklahoma.