Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, John March, chaplain of the Union army, writes a letter from the battlefield to his wife, Margaret “Marmee,” and their daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The family lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Because of the atrocities March has witnessed, he exerts a certain self-censorship on his letters home. The brutality of war, including vultures eating the flesh of corpses and the horrors of the field hospital, are too brutal to be conveyed in letters read aloud to his innocent daughters. March had been in this part of the United States before, and he tells the following story.
It is twenty years earlier, and eighteen-year-old March is visiting Virginia as a peddler. For a while, he is a guest of a plantation owner, Augustus Clement. March meets Grace, an African American slave who nurses senile Mrs. Clement. March feels attracted to Grace, and with her help, he begins teaching a little slave girl to write, even though the law forbids teaching slaves to read and write. Soon, his teaching becomes known, and he is expelled from the plantation, but not before he witnesses Grace being brutally whipped.
After being expelled from the Clement plantation, young March makes a fortune as a peddler. Wealthy, he sells out his business and goes back home. He next becomes a preacher. When the Reverend Day invites him to go to Concord to preach, he meets the reverend’s sister, Margaret, or Marmee, a young woman with ideas...
(The entire section is 981 words.)
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Chapter One: Virginia Is a Hard Road
March opens with lines from a letter written by John March, a forty-year-old company chaplain for the Union army, on October 21, 1861, to his wife, Marmee, and to his daughters, after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia. March is exhausted but has promised to write her everyday. He admits that although he misses her comforting hand, he does not want her there, and he will not write her the truth about the war.
March watches the burial party collect bodies, claiming, “I had no orders, and so placed myself where I believed I could do most good,” praying with the wounded. He recalls that during the battle, he tried to help a young Union soldier cross the river to safety, but the boy was shot in the process and drowned. Some of the men, including March, made it to an island in the river where March now thinks about the day’s events and the rotting bodies that surround him. As he makes his way to the army field hospital, he recognizes that it is Clement’s house.
Chapter Two: A Wooden Nutmeg
When he was eighteen, March peddled trinkets and books throughout Virginia. At one plantation, he met a slave named Grace who impressed him with her regal manner and beauty. She brought him into the kitchen for a meal and later to meet the master, Augustus Clement, who took an immediate liking to March and his passion for learning. Clement invited him to stay as...
(The entire section is 3446 words.)