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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546

First published: 1927

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: Civil War period

Locale: North Carolina

Principal Characters:

James Fraser, a farm boy

Stewart Prevost, a rich planter's daughter

Colonel Prevost, her father

Charles Prevost, her brother

The Story

When James Fraser fell in love with Stewart Prevost, he loved her in a hopeless way. He was the son of a poor farmer who lived in the swamps of North Carolina, and Stewart was the daughter of Colonel Prevost, a gentleman planter. Although Colonel Prevost was always courteous and friendly with the Frasers, his friendliness was reserved; James knew that he must keep his place.

James loved his father and mother, both hard-working, God-fearing people who toiled endlessly with meager reward. He felt, however, that he must somehow rise above their station in life, that he must gain an equal footing with the planters and other gentlemen toward whom he was forced to show a servile attitude. On nights when he was filled with despair and confusion, he slipped out of the house and played his fiddle. Into his music, he could pour his dreams without fear of ridicule.

James first saw Stewart when he delivered a load of wood to her father. She said only a few words in greeting, but to James the words were as beautiful as the ringing of bells. During the next weeks, he saw her often; it seemed to him that she was always on the road leading to the plantation as he passed with a load of wood. When he was alone, he cursed himself for a fool; no girl in Stewart's position would purposely seek out an awkward, uncouth farm boy. He swore to himself that he would avoid her. At last, Stewart began to talk with him about life. When he told her that he would like to go away and work on the railroad, she offered to give him money to start him on his way. He bitterly decided that she only wanted to get rid of him.

For a few days, James avoided the plantation. Then his pride forced him to call at Stewart's home and ask to see her. Colonel Prevost answered the door and went to call Stewart. He returned to tell James that Stewart was busy—and would be busy in the future. Trying to save his dignity, the boy stumbled blindly down the steps. The next morning, he told his father and mother that he was going away.

James went to Wilmington and took a job on the railroad. His interest in machines and his determination to succeed made him an excellent worker. He lived well and sent money home each week. He made friends, but the vision of Stewart would not leave him, and he was lonely. The men with whom he associated were all concerned over the coming election, for they believed that there would be trouble if Abraham Lincoln were elected. Everywhere he went, abolition and war were the main topics of conversation. Not long after Lincoln had been elected, the Secession began.

In April, after Fort Sumter had been attacked, James went home to join the company being formed by Colonel Prevost. Stewart's brother Charles was to be the captain, for he had attended Virginia Military Institute. On the night before the company was to leave the plantation, James wrote Stewart a note and asked her to meet him. His love was greater than his pride, and for that, he would always be grateful; Stewart swore to him that her father had never told her that James had come to see her once before, and she said regretfully that her offer of money had been thoughtlessly given. She promised to write to him, and she asked him to look after her brother Charles, for she had a premonition that he would be killed.

The next three years were later to seem to James like one continuous nightmare. Their company engaged in battle with the Yankees only three or four times, but the men marched and marched until they slept as they walked. Most of the time, they were starving. When their shoes wore out, they wrapped their swollen feet in rags. Still they went on. Charles was killed. Although James killed the men who had attacked Charles, he feared that Stewart would not forgive him for failing in his promise. He wrote her, but it was two years before her answer reached him. By that time, he was a prisoner. Her letter was the only thing that kept him sane during his years in prison. All the prisoners were gaunt and sick, unbelievably thin and emaciated. The Yankees were fairly kind, but there was not enough food and clothing for anyone in those terrible years. James tried to keep a record of the number of days he had been a prisoner, but the problem was too great for his fuzzy mind. To him, only Stewart's letter was real.

Released at last in an exchange of prisoners, James went immediately to the Prevost plantation. He was dirty and in rags and too weak to walk without help, but Stewart drew him like a magnet. When he climbed the long steps to her house, she was waiting for him at the top.

James stayed at the plantation until he was stronger. Stewart told him she loved him and would marry him. Although Colonel Prevost was courteous and gracious, James knew that the old gentleman still considered him little better than a poor white cracker and would be glad when he went to his own home. At last, James went back to his father and mother.

James had been home only a short time before he learned that the Union army was attacking a town close to the plantation. Because the Fraser farm was off the main path of the soldiers, he went to the plantation to bring Stewart and her father home with him. The Colonel could not believe that Southern troops would be defeated again, and he did not want to leave his house. While James was there, the old man apologized for his attitude and told the boy that he was pleased that Stewart was going to marry him. He honored James by showing him a picture of Stewart's dead mother, his most prized treasure.

The town fell. James and Stewart went to his home, with the Colonel's promise that he would follow them as soon as he had arranged for the protection of his slaves and overseers; but he never came. James returned to the plantation after he had taken Stewart to safety. There he found that Yankees had ransacked the house and killed the Colonel as he tried to save his wife's picture. Filled with a desire to avenge the Colonel's death, James started down the road after the troops. He wanted to kill any Yankee he saw. He had an opportunity to kill three of them, but he suddenly changed his mind when he saw that the men were released prisoners. They had fought for what they thought was right, just as he had. He could think of them only as brothers who had suffered in the same war. He put his gun away and gave them the little food he had. Then he started back to Stewart. He was going home.

Critical Evaluation:

Published two years after DRUMS, James Boyd's first novel, MARCHING ON continues to explore the emerging identity of America's common man. The heroes of both works have the same last name, Fraser, although Boyd never suggests a family connection. Whereas the hero of his first novel, John, comes from a simpler background than the aristocratic types with whom he consorts, the social gap between James in MARCHING ON and the Prevost family is much wider. The second novel, despite the fact that its plot reads like a conventional romance (poor boy yearns for rich girl, then goes off to battle and wins her love), is actually sharper in its social criticism than the first.

DRUMS pulls social classes together to face a common enemy, the British, during the American Revolution. MARCHING ON underscores the social injustice of the plantation system during the Civil War period. As a result, James Fraser's dedicated support of the Confederate cause is tragic and ironic in contrast to John Fraser's personal fulfillment in the cause of the Revolution some eighty-five years earlier. James suffers imprisonment and endless agonies as a foot soldier in defense of a social system that cuts him off from Stewart, the woman he loves. To compare the naturalistic description of James and his fellow soldiers caught up in their endless marching with the heroic description of the marching men of the Revolutionary army at the close of DRUMS is to focus very clearly on the major difference between the two works.

The romance between James and Stewart has been dismissed as socially impossible during Civil War days. In fairness to Boyd, it must be acknowledged that, in this instance, he attempted a form of historical symbolism rather than historical realism. The Civil War did result in a social leveling of the South that freed both landowners and white yeomen from the dehumanizing effect of insurmountable social barriers.

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