(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 of her own about women’s education.

Grace turns down the opportunity to leave the plantation to join the Union army as a nurse, unwilling to leave the dying Mr. Clement. March tries to persuade Grace, but she reveals to him that she is Mr. Clement’s daughter by a slave woman and feels morally obliged to stay and care for him until he dies. Though Clement had offers for selling her, he chose not to sell her to a brothel. The scars from the whippings made her undesirable for the brothel owners. Grace and March embrace passionately.

March is given a new destination in charge of organizing the freed slaves who have joined the Union army and are considered contraband goods. March learns that the real reason behind his dismissal is that someone accused him of having an affair with Grace. Though he regrets their embrace, nothing had happened between them. Ashamed and unable to tell his wife the truth, he writes to her...

(The entire section is 981 words.)