Across Five Aprils Summary
On a bright April morning in 1861, nine-year-old Jethro Creighton is planting potatoes with his mother Ellen on their farm in southern Illinois. The thin, blond-haired boy is the youngest of twelve, although four of his siblings are dead, and the oldest left for California twelve years previously and has not been heard from since. Jethro was born in 1852, that terrible year when three of the Creighton children succumbed to the disease known as "child paralysis," or polio. Because of this, Ellen favors the boy, watching over him with "special tenderness."
Around seven o'clock, young Shadrach Yale passes by, driving a wagon. Shadrach, a serious, "powerfully built youth of twenty," comes from Philadelphia, and is the schoolmaster at the country school. Shad works for Jethro's father Matt during the summer, and Ellen considers him to be part of the family. The young man is smitten by Jethro's fourteen-year-old sister Jenny, and has a great appreciation for Jethro's "quick mind and delight in learning."
Ostensibly, Shad is going into town to fetch some supplies, but in reality, the objective of his trip is to get information from the outside world. Times are turbulent, and there is talk about war. Shad stops to reassure Ellen, who is anxious about the news he might bring. Jethro, however, like the eighteen-year-olds Tom and Eb, is excited at the prospect of war, and is impatient for it to begin.
Like so many of the young men of his time, Jethro has a romantic notion about war. He thinks war means:
...loud brass music and shining horses ridden by men wearing [fine] uniforms...some men were killed, of course, [but he] never doubted that if Tom and Eb got their chance to go to war, they'd be back home when it was over, and that it would be shadowy men from distant parts who would die for the pages of future history books.
It is not that Jethro is unfamiliar with death: he...
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Everyone sits down to a special "comp'ny supper" prepared by Jenny and Nancy when the long day's work is finally done. At first, the talk at the table centers around family affairs but before long, the focus of conversation turns to the nation's troubles. With deep concern, Matthew Creighton asks, "Will Kaintuck go secesh, Wilse?" and the visitor answers straightforwardly, "Maybe, Uncle Matt, maybe it will."
Wilse Graham then inquires how southern Illinois will feel about it if Kentucky does side with the South. He points out that the people of that area are "closer by a lot to the folks in Missouri and Kaintuck than [they] are to the bigwigs up in Chicago and northern Illinois." Matt agrees that as much as eighty percent of the people thereabouts "count Missouri or Kaintuck or Tennessee as somehow bein' their own," but he also laments the division in the country, insisting, "We're a union." Wilse gets angry then, railing about the affluent North's arrogance as it starves its less prosperous neighbor's industry with high tariffs because of jealousy that the South has finally found a way of life that benefits it. He asserts that the South only wants "the right to live as it sees fit to live without interference," and is prepared to fight "fer years if need be" to preserve this right. He goes on to predict that England will surely come to the aid of the Confederacy as well, if only to protect her much-needed source of cotton.
Ellen timidly interjects to bring up the question of slavery, and the plight of the "downtrodden people" in the South. Wilse at first tries to evade the question, but when John presses him to answer, he concedes that while he cannot justify the ownership of one man of another, slavery has been a fact of life "from the beginnin' of history." He notes that even the men who wrote the Constitution recognized the "peculiar institution," and pointedly demands to know what sort of welcome and assistance black men from...
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War fever is promoted shamelessly among the little towns in southern Illinois that summer. Every weekend, farming families pack children and picnic baskets into wagons to attend holiday-like gatherings, where speakers regale them with inflamed oratory about war. In late July, the first actual battle of the war takes place at Bull Run, in Virginia. Carriages filled with finely-dressed onlookers descend upon the scene, "all apparently eager to see the spectacle of young men butchering one another." The Union troops are soundly defeated and forced to make a hasty retreat. The battalion travels back along chaotic roads choked with the vehicles of witnesses who have come to celebrate what they had believed would be a quick and easy victory. News of a second resounding loss for the Union at a field called Ball's Bluff, also in Virginia, comes shortly thereafter. Reality sets in as the nation finally begins to understand that a long, bloody ordeal lies ahead.
Shadrach Yale decides to fulfill his contract and finish up the school year and John opts to wait until the harvest is in before they leave. Tom and Eb however set out at the end of summer to fight for the North. A short time later, the Union suffers another defeat, now at Wilson's Creek in Missouri. This development holds special significance for the people of southern Illinois because it is so close to home. Turmoil in the border states intensifies and Jethro, listening to the the men who gather frequently in the Creightons' yard to talk of war, becomes acquainted with a fascinating array of new names and places. These terms only later will begin to form a meaningful picture in his mind as the "great drama" unfolds.
Bill remains alone among the men, keeping silent throughout the upheaval of those days. He tells Jethro, who has taken to sleeping with him in the loft since the departure of Tom and Eb, that he has been "roamin' the fields" at night; the stillness and space help him unravel his thinking, which "is all of a tangle" of late. Bill is tormented by the terrible events...
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The first real victory for the North comes in February of 1862, when forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant capture Fort Henry, in Tennessee. Two weeks later, Fort Donelson, another Confederate stronghold, falls to the Union. People are "wild with joy," and the general feeling is that the war will be over "in a matter of weeks." Matt Creighton, however, sees no end in sight to the hostilities, and is disappointed with the much-touted General McClellan, who has so far made no move with the famed Army of the Potomac. Matt is intrigued, however, with the fact that two opposing generals, Grant and his Confederate counterpart S.B. Buckner, had been comrades at West Point. Ellen notes that their sons Bill and Tom, fighting on opposite...
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Coffee is in short supply by late March, 1862. To her shame, Ellen depends upon the strong drink and is subject to debilitating headaches if she does not have it. Determined to "suffer it out," she gamely attempts to abstain, but her malaise is so great that Matt cannot stand to witness it; he sends Jethro down to Newton to get some coffee for his mother, as well as other much-needed supplies. It is fifteen miles to the town, and Jethro, who is ten-years-old now, is proud that his father trusts him to take on such a "sizable job."
Jethro sets out in the early dawn. His spirits are high, and people getting about their morning chores wave to him in greeting. An old man, Jake Roscoe, stops him on the way, and, in answer to...
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The morning after Jethro returns from his trip to Newton, his father suffers a heart attack. Although the stricken man survives, he is never the same: "the vigorous, erect Matt Creighton [is] gone, [and] a man who look[s] twenty years older [has] taken his place." Jethro will always remember that day in late March of 1862 as the day he left childhood behind. As an eighty-pound stripling of only ten years old, he becomes the man of the house; now, he will labor from dawn to dusk to ensure the family's livelihood, and he will make decisions about the well-being of the farm on his own.
By the second week of April, the fields are ready for plowing. Jethro and Jenny do their best to get land ready for planting, while Ellen...
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Friends and neighbors from all over the county come to the Creightons' aid in the wake of the vigilantes' destruction. Ross Milton and Sam Gardiner collect money to replace some of the lost farm implements, and others come by to clean up the well and work in the fields. Close neighbors promise to help rebuild the barn, and one of Ed Turner's sons brings a dog to provide a modicum of protection. All of these kind actions bring comfort to the family, but their fears are never completely allayed.
During the months of May and June of 1862, more stories of horror filter through from Shiloh, as local boys injured in the battle come home. One of these young soldiers, Dan Lawrence, brings dreaded news about Tom Creighton. Tom...
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In looking back to the spring and early summer of 1862, Jethro sees that things had been going relatively well for the North. There had been victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, and only a small strip of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Vicksburg, in the state of Mississippi, had been under Southern control. As Shad had explained, the Union had only to seize that area, and the Confederacy would essentially have been cut in two. Jethro remembers also, however, his teacher's intimation that the fighting to secure this end would be horrific beyond belief. Indeed, the boy cannot but perceive the recent battle at Shiloh as an empty victory for the North, because of the deaths of Tom and so many...
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The deserters who descend upon southern Illinois are a fearsome bunch, intent on keeping themselves hidden from authorities and subsisting on whatever they can forage in the woods or pilfer from local farms. They are armed, and, in their desperate struggle to survive, create an atmosphere of terror for the Creightons and others who live in the area. It is not long before a murder occurs. A ne'er do well named Hig Phillips, who had avoided the draft by hiring someone to go to war for him, is killed in the dead of night by a band of runaway soldiers. They are furious that he has sat around at home for no reason other than sheer laziness for the past two years, while they have borne the unspeakable burden of war.
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Grisly battles of epic proportions continue during the spring and summer of 1863. At Chancellorsville, a Union Army with "greatly superior numbers" is defeated by a much smaller Confederate force led by Robert E. Lee. Seventeen thousand Union soldiers are either killed or imprisoned, and the Creightons, knowing that Shadrach Yale has likely been involved in the fighting there, anxiously wonder if he has been numbered among the casualties. Finally a letter arrives: Shad is all right, but he is weary and angry at the inept leadership his general, Joseph Hooker, had exhibited at Chancellorsville. He is also maddened at the "massive waste of life" he witnessed in this latest battle, as well as at Antietam and Fredricksburg. Reflecting...
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Stories of chaos and confusion dominate the news during the late summer and fall of 1863. After their hard-won victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in early July, the North is dealt a "dreadful reversal" at Chickamauga, in northern Georgia. Outnumbered by as many as twenty thousand, Union troops under General Rosecrans suffer a crushing defeat. The rout is not complete, however, as the left wing of the Army of the Cumberland, led by General Thomas, holds firm in the face of the Confederate assault.
Nancy receives a letter from John, who is serving in Rosecrans' forces. He writes about the disaster at Chickamauga, the difficult days spent afterwards in the mountains near Chattanooga, and how reinforcements had arrived,...
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In December of 1864, the nation learns that General Sherman has won Savannah for the North while advancing through Georgia from Atlanta to the sea. The Union at first rejoices, but then stories of the nature of that infamous march begin to filter in. In Georgia, Sherman had allowed his men to run wild, pillaging, burning, and leaving utter destruction in his wake. After taking Savannah, he had turned north into South Carolina, where his army continued its lawless plundering, hungry for revenge and "enraged at the stubborn tenacity of the South in holding onto a cause that was already lost."
Jethro turns thirteen in the first part of 1865. Over the course of the past four war-torn years, he has remained slender, but has...
(The entire section is 848 words.)