Across Five Aprils appeals to a rather specialized audience. The sophisticated treatment of the Civil War themes requires some familiarity with the great upheaval in American history. This quiet story unfolds in a rural corner of southern Illinois and describes the effects of the war on a human scale, concentrating on the experiences of Jethro Creighton. There are no firsthand accounts of battles from Jethro: everything about the fighting is filtered through letters from older brothers who have gone off to fight.
The novel presents some events not often depicted in stories about the Civil War: troops deserting their regiments, barns burned because the owners are suspected of Confederate sympathies, the bitterness that follows the end of the war, and the unpopularity of Abraham Lincoln. This account does not mythologize or glorify war; instead it offers a realistic view.
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Chapter 1 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 remembers clearly when his sister Mary had been killed two years ago. Mary had been on her way home from a dance in nearby Hidalgo, when the wagon driven by her beau was accosted by a drunken youth named Travis Burdow. Maliciously firing his pistol into the air, Travis had caused the horses to bolt; the wagon then overturned, and Mary was pulled, lifeless, from the wreckage. The Burdow family was looked upon as "a shiftless lot" already, and the community had reacted with outrage. But for the...
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Chapter 2 Summary
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 the South might expect to receive in the North if they were to be emancipated tomorrow. Bill speaks up then, wondering if perhaps those who oppose the South might be using their opposition to slavery as an excuse to cover up what really is an issue of greed. Wilse vehemently agrees, challenging John:
...fer every evil that you kin find fer me in the name of slavery, I'll match you an evil in the name of industrialism. The South asks only to be left alone....
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Chapter 3 Summary
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 that are taking place around the nation. Jethro asks, "The North will fin'ly win, won't it, Bill?" He responds:
I don't know if anybody ever 'wins' a war, Jeth. I think that the beginnin's of this war has been fanned by hate till it's a blaze now; and a blaze kin destroy him that makes it and him that the fire was set to hurt. There oughtn't to be a war, Jeth; this war...
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Chapter 4 Summary
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 sides now, had once been even closer than that.
A letter finally comes from Tom, who assures the family that he and Eb are all right. Tom reports that the two of them had been at both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. While most of the work at Fort Henry had been done by Navy battleships called "ironsides," the foot soldiers had engaged in heavy fighting at Donelson, and Tom and Eb had seen many of their friends "bad hurt" or killed. Tom writes with a sad air of disillusionment:
I am not so proud about Donelson as mebby I ought to be...you tell Jeth that bein a soljer aint so much.
The letter leaves Jethro with "a great loneliness" inside, but later, to his delight, Ellen sends him over to Shadrach Yale's cabin so that the schoolmaster can read the letter too. Jethro makes the arduous trip alone on foot through bitter weather to the teacher's cabin about a mile away. Shad is pleased to see him, and invites him in to share a meal. Even though he is eleven years Jethro's senior, the young teacher has an amiable way of talking with him, man-to-man. Shad asks about Jenny. When Jethro admits that she had been crying when he set out, the schoolmaster expresses his frustration with Matt Creighton, who will not let his daughter marry him because he thinks she is too young.
Shad tells Jethro that if it were not for the war, he and Jenny would be willing to wait for years to be married, but as it is, uncertainty about the future imposes a sense of urgency over all their plans. Jethro tentatively suggests that perhaps the war will be over soon, but Shad points out the ludicrousness of the idea that just because the Union has finally won a couple...
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Chapter 5 Summary
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 his query, Jethro identifies himself as "Matt Creighton's youngest boy." Roscoe asks Jethro to fetch him a paper in town, and gives him a coin; his grandson is fighting for the North at Pea Ridge, and the old man is hoping to find some news about the battle. Roscoe has heard that Jethro's "growed-up brothers" are fighting for the Union too, and that another brother, Bill, has "jined up with the Rebs." With an insinuating smirk, he calls that latter bit of conjecture "a sorry thing."
After leaving Mr. Roscoe, Jethro must pass through a stretch of woods, and a quarter of a mile beyond that is the ramshackle Burdow place. Remembering his sister Mary's death, the boy is seized with a feeling of uneasiness, and is relieved when he finally arrives at Newton. As instructed by his father, Jethro goes first to the mill, then to the general store to complete his errands. A group of men are loitering at the store and when they discover that the young customer is a Creighton, one of them, Guy Wortman, makes disparaging comments about Bill. Jethro defends his brother's integrity, and is backed by Red Milton, the newspaper editor, and Sam Gardiner, the store owner. Dave Burdow, the father of the boy who caused Mary Creighton's death, is present too, but walks out without saying a word.
When Jethro is finished with his chores, Red Milton treats him to lunch at the town's restaurant, to the young boy's delight. Jethro tells Milton that he is reading a book about the American Revolution, and is "beginnin' to git the hang of the newspapers a little better," and the editor, impressed with the boy's hunger for learning, offers him a copy of a book that will teach him to speak "the King's English" correctly. Milton...
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Chapter 6 Summary
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 tends the garden and nurses her ailing husband. Matt Creighton is much respected in the community and surrounding areas, and friendly neighbors do what they can to help. Ed Turner and Israel Thomas in particular offer invaluable support. Ed sends his boys over to lend a hand whenever he can spare them, and there are some men from nearby Hidalgo who willingly chip in a day's work "now and agin."
Ed Turner arrives one day with some particularly bad news about the war. General Grant had "let hisself git su'prised by the Rebs" at a place called Pittsburgh Landing down in Tennessee, and the newspapers report that he had had to be rescued by General Sherman and General Buell. It is estimated that as many as twenty thousand men had been killed, with more than twelve thousand of those being Union soldiers. Knowing that Tom and Eb were likely involved, Jethro and Jenny resolve to keep the news of what becomes known as the battle of Shiloh from their parents, until they hear from one of the boys.
Despite all, Jethro and Jenny manage to find moments of happiness and hopefulness during this time. They are young enough to appreciate "the sunlight and color of a new spring as omens of good fortune;" the two enjoy being together, and the difference in their ages seems to narrow as they engage in deep conversation as they work side by side each day. A letter comes from Shadrach Yale, and Jethro waits in happy anticipation for his turn to peruse its every detail; any contact from the outside world is normally shared and treasured by the entire family in the isolated rural areas of Illinois. To the boy's dismay, however, this missive is different from Shad's other correspondences; it is a love letter, and it is "all...
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Chapter 7 Summary
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 had been with Dan at Pittsburgh Landing, and both had stood up and cheered when they had spied reinforcements led by General Buell approaching from across the Tennessee River. A stray bullet had found Tom. Dan says, "He didn't suffer...he never knowed what happened."
News spreads quickly about this additional trial that has been visited upon the Creightons. Ross Milton prints an open letter in his paper, telling about Tom's death at Shiloh, and comparing the boy's courage to the cowardice of the men who have been terrorizing his family. Jenny cuts the article from the newspaper and places it in the family Bible. At her father's direction, she fills in the date and location of her brother's death next to his name and date of birth.
Jethro studies the long list of names on the page and finds his own at the very bottom: "Jethro Hallan Creighon, born January 13th, 1852." Directly above are the names of three brothers, all of whom had died in the summer of the year of Jethro's birth; none of them had been over the age of four. Jethro and Jenny, whose name is next on the list, muse about the strangeness of the fact that the illness that had killed their young siblings had passed right over them. They then spend a few moments noting the other names written in the Bible: Mary Ellen Creighton, killed in the accident caused by Travis Burdow; Tom, only nineteen when he had died; John and Bill, born a year apart and now fighting on opposite sides in the war; twin girls Lydia and Lucinda, who had long since married and moved away; and Benjamin, who had "left for Californy" before Jethro had even been born.
In an attempt to lighten the mood, Jethro teases his sister, telling her that soon her...
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Chapter 8 Summary
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 thousands of others.
The tide seems to turn in favor of the South in the autumn of that year. Rebel forces make inroads into Kentucky, which had previously been won for the side of the Union at Fort Donelson. In addition, a second confrontation between the opposing armies takes place at Bull Run, in Virginia. This time, the Northern army is defeated by Confederates under the commands of Generals Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet.
Despite the devastating news from the battlefield, work on the farm goes on. In late September, more than twenty men from the surrounding areas gather to build a new barn for Matt Creighton. Though he is crippled with arthritis and unable to work, Ross Milton, the newspaper editor, comes by too, to Jethro's great delight. Milton brings a load of logs for the project, sent by Dave Burdow; the outcast would not come himself, but the editor reports that since word has gotten around about how he saved Jethro from harm on his way home from town, Burdow has gained the respect of many in the community, and has "shaken several hands that have been extended to him" since that fateful day back in March.
Ellen, Jenny, and Nancy prepare a feast for the helpers at noon, and the atmosphere during the meal is jocular and almost celebratory. Later in the afternoon, however, talk returns to the subject of war. Although Israel Thomas still has faith in the Northern generals, and counsels patience, many of the men are harshly critical of the Union leadership, especially the disappointingly ineffective General McClellan, and even President Lincoln himself.
A few days after the barn-raising, another correspondence comes from Shadrach Yale. This time, Jenny shares the...
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Chapter 9 Summary
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.
One night in early 1863, representatives from the Federal Registrars come to the Creighton farm hunting down "deserters from the United States Army." They are looking for Ebenezer Carron, who has gone missing from the 17th Illinois Infantry and is believed to be making his way home. Although Matt Creighton asserts that the family has not heard from Eb for some time, the soldiers search the premises. They find nothing, but before they leave, one of them warns Jethro that if Eb should show up, he is to contact the Office of the Federal Registrars in Chicago immediately, or he and his family "will be up to [their] necks in trouble."
Spring comes early that year, and by the first of March, the fields are ready to be plowed. While Jethro is working over at John's place one morning, he hears the repeated call of a wild turkey emanating from the bordering woods. When the boy goes to investigate, he encounters a filthy, skeletal figure: it is Eb, who is indeed a fugitive from the law.
At first, Jethro remembers only that Eb is family, and extends his hand, but the ragged soldier refuses to take it. Eb fully understands his own grave predicament, and knows that the family will get into "awful trouble" if they harbor him. He is ashamed of what he has done, but explains bitterly:
I come because I couldn't help myself...There be things that air too terr'ble to talk about—and you want to see the fields where you used to be happy...you go crazy fer an hour or so—and then you don't dare go back.
Eb had been at Pittsburg Landing with Tom. He recalls that the day before the fateful battle, he and Tom had been "in good spirits...laughin' and carryin' on...
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Chapter 10 Summary
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 on the gloom hanging over the North at this time, Shad admonishes Jenny that she should prepare herself for the possibility of heartbreak, because her love for him is "no more sacred than the loves for which thousands upon thousands of women are weeping today."
A letter which comes from John is a little more hopeful. He is serving under General Rosecrans, waiting to engage the Confederates in battle in Tennessee. Eb writes to Jethro from Mississippi, near Vicksburg, where he has been reinstated with his regiment. As a punishment for his desertion, he is assigned the harshest of duties; but he accepts his condition with humility, taking full responsibility for his situation.
While the Union struggles with its inexplicably inept military leadership, the Confederates under Lee begin to make inroads into the North, penetrating into the state of Pennsylvania. In July, a battle more terrible than any that has occurred so far takes place at Gettysburg; the Union Army emerges victorious, but imprudently allows the opposing forces to withdraw and prepare to fight again without pursuit. A second Union victory at Vicksburg is also achieved around this time, under General Grant.
Tragically, as he had predicted, Shadrach Yale is grievously wounded at Gettysburg; the Creightons receive a letter from his aunt in Washington, advising them of her nephew's condition and urgently requesting that they allow Jenny to come to him, as the young man "calls for her constantly in his delirium." Ross Milton, who has delivered the letter, tells Matt Creighton that if he will consent to allow his daughter to go, he will personally see her safely to Washington. Although Matt has opposed Jenny's relationship with...
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Chapter 11 Summary
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, led by the illustrious Generals Hooker, Sherman, and Grant himself. John feels that the Army of the Cumberland had been looked down upon by the "hifalutin...Potomac boys," but proudly declares that his scrappy unit had conducted itself admirably in the fighting that was to follow. Led in the charge by "a short littel Irish officer named Sheridan," his men had broken through the center of the Confederate line and forced the divided opposition to retreat, thereby winning Chattanooga for the North.
In November of that year, the president makes a speech at Gettysburg. Newspapers across the country cannot agree on its significance, and though Jethro does not know what to think of the oration, he is deeply drawn to Abraham Lincoln. In December, as it begins to appear that the South will not be able to fight on much longer. Lincoln issues a proclamation of amnesty, promising pardon to those who would swear allegiance to the Constitution and the Union of the states, and providing an avenue for states to return to the Union if ten percent of its voters should vote for it. Some, like Matt Creighton, are moved by the president's attitude of conciliation, but around the country, the decision arouses virulent criticism from both sides. The Confederate Congress cries out that the arrangement will only create a relationship "between the conqueror and the conquered," and a faction in the North demands harsher punishment for the Rebels, even to the point of "wholesale execution."
Talk of the upcoming presidential election begins early in 1864. Though a final Union victory seems tantalizingly within reach, the bloodshed continues as the South fights on. As General Grant, now commander of all the Union forces, fails...
(The entire section is 830 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
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 grown tall. While he works tirelessly and is unfailingly kind to the members of his family, his nature is increasingly characterized by a certain reserve that renders him introspective, and, at times, almost brooding. In temperament, he has become much like Bill, "the gentlest of [the Creighton] sons." Jethro is deeply troubled by both the war, and the prospect of peace when it comes. Ross Milton has told him not to expect peace to be "a perfect pearl," because the nation so ravaged by years of war has been destroyed, both physically and spiritually. The editor says that "the hate that burns in old scars, and the thirst for revenge that has distorted men...may make peace a sorry thing." Milton's only hope lies with Abraham Lincoln, and he says:
...if [the President] can control the bigots, if he can allow the defeated their dignity and a chance to rise out of their despair...then maybe peace will not be a mockery.
Echoing the sentiments of Jethro's cousin Wilse Graham, from that 1861 April which seems so far in the past, Milton says that though slavery has been officially abolished through the passage of the thirteenth amendment, the benefits of freedom for those who "have known nothing but servitude all the days of their lives" will be elusive at best. He wonders what will happen to these "men and women with dark faces," who will be set adrift in a hostile land without experience or education; he fears "they'll be pawns in the hands of exploiters all over the nation."
Spring comes again, and finally, in the fifth April of the war, the guns fall silent. At Appomattox Court House in Virginia, two tired generals sign terms of peace.
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