Rifles for Watie, by Harold Keith, was published in 1957 by Harper.
Jefferson Davis Bussey is sixteen when the Civil War breaks out. He can’t wait to leave his Kansas farm and defend the Union against Colonel Watie, leader of the dreaded Cherokee Indian rebels. But Jeff soon learns that there’s more to war than honor and glory. As an infantry soldier, he must march for miles, exhausted and near starvation. He sees friends die in battle. He knows that each move he makes could be his last. Then Jeff is sent to infiltrate the enemy camp as a spy. And it is there that he makes his most important discovery: The rebels are just men—and boys—like him. The only difference between them is their cause. Passing himself off as a rebel Jeff waits for the information he needs to help the Union conquer the enemy forces. But when the time comes, Jeff finds himself up against a very difficult decision .Should he betray the enemy? Or join them?
Rifles for Watie starts out with an author’s note that explains the historical research and interviews that Harold Keith conducted in order to make the book as realistic as possible. And that research shows in every area of this book, from the attitudes of the various people to the details of battles to the geographical locations.
It’s fascinating to read a book about the Civil War that is remarkably respectful to both sides (mostly the Confederate side). Nowadays, all you tend to get is “Confederates bad!” and other, more extreme iterations. Rifles for Watie, however, delves into some of the psychology of, at least, the Native American side of the war (many of whom fought for the Confederates) and has an empathetic, wonderful protagonist in Jeff, who realizes that people are people, not nameless pigs to be slaughtered, and that things are confusing in war when it seems that the side you were fighting against might, actually, have a legitimate reason for fighting you. In this case, keeping one’s property. And no, I’m not talking about slaves.
Land and the idea of owning your own property is really the driving force presented in the novel. Jeff is fighting to drive the bushwhackers out and to help his family keep their land without fear of being killed. The Native Americans on both sides are fighting to keep or reobtain their land. While there are slaves, there’s very little mention of slavery as a reason to fight, except when it came to the slave who runs away to join the Union’s all-black regiment. There is, maybe, just a tad too much of the “happy slave” idea, but Keith still treats the subject with respect (and, after all, this was a book for children in the 1950s).
Keith also depicts both good and bad sides of both forces. There’s looting from both armies; there’s corrupt Clardy on the Union side juxtaposed with charismatic Watie on the Confederate side; there’s the friendly Confederate cook; there’s the loyal Union friends Jeff makes; and, of course, Lucy, who is on the Confederate side but has respect (and deeper feelings) for Jeff, a Union soldier.
Overall, Rifles for Watie is a fabulously even-handed book on a war that pitted two ideologies against each other. There’s respect for the great leaders on the Confederate side, even when Jeff (and through him, the reader) disagrees with their ideas. Both the good and the bad of both the Union and the Confederate armies are shown or hinted at (let’s be real here; the Union army most likely did some terrible things to the people living in the Confederate south, looting their houses and taking their livestock being some of the more mild). Jeff is empathetic, does not simply dismiss the Confederates as “bad” or “racist” but recognizes similarities and respects them even as he seeks to combat them. Rifles for Watie can teach people today a thing or two about what it’s like to really put yourself in another person’s shoes and respect them even as you disagree with them.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Violence, death.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“I’m lonesome,” David blurted, miserably. “I want to go home and see Ma. Goshallmighty, Jeff, I ain’t cut out to be no soldier. I was a fool to ever leave the farm.”
“Corn, Dave,” Jeff said, in alarm, “you can’t just walk off from the army once you’ve joined it. That’s desertion. You know the penalty for desertion. They’ll stand you up against a wall and shoot you.”