Rifles for Watie

by Harold Keith

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Themes and Characters

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The primary theme of Rifles for Watie is Jefferson Davis Bussey's development from a naive sixteen-year-old into a mature gentleman and soldier. From the beginning of the novel, Jeff possesses the courage needed to challenge the bushwhackers who raid his family's farm, the initiative to travel to Fort Leavenworth and enlist in the Union Army, and the self-confidence to make his own decisions about the people he meets and the issues of the time. Jeff knows nothing about the army, however, and thus his experiences in the Civil War are, above all, enlightening. A foot soldier, an artillery man, a cavalryman, a scout, and accidentally a spy, he excels in each role. Through this experience, he learns that issues and people are much more complex than he has previously believed; not all the Union soldiers win his respect, and he is surprised to discover that he can feel loyalty for personal friends, even when they are officially his enemies. Though initially eager to fight the enemy, Jeff is quickly convinced that war is not a worthwhile endeavor, and each personal contact with a Confederate soldier or sympathizer teaches him that he and his supposed enemies are actually very much alike. At the end of the Civil War, Jeff returns to the family farm, having learned several important lessons about human nature and about himself.

The novel also explores the nature of noble behavior. Jeff wants to be a gentleman and is horrified to learn that the Confederate sympathizers think of Union soldiers much as he thinks of the bushwhackers. Consistently courteous, especially to the Confederate civilians he meets, Jeff wins the respect of others with his kindness. When Union soldiers stop to rest and eat at the plush home of a Confederate family, the Washbournes, Jeff learns that both Mr. Washbourne and his son, Lee, are enlisted in a rebel calvary unit commanded by the infamous General Stand Watie, who leads attacks on the homes of Union sympathizers. Despite this knowledge, Jeff uses his farm experience to help the Washbourne women, milking their cow and later showing them how to persuade the cow to accept her calf. Although he fights bravely and kills Confederate soldiers without reluctance in battle, Jeff refuses to be a member of the Union firing squad that later executes Lee Washbourne, and he demonstrates both compassion and a noble character when he arranges for Lee's body to be returned to his mother and sisters for burial.

Contrasting the hero's noble behavior, Captain Asa Clardy, who commands Jeff's unit, is vindictive, cowardly, cruel, greedy, and treacherous. He wrongly accuses Jeff of several transgressions and reports that Jeff is a troublemaker. Clardy avoids serving at the battlefront. attempts to bully Lucy Washboume, grinds his heel into the eye of a dying Confederate prisoner, and steals rifles from the Union Army to sell to Stand Watie. In addition, Clardy probably is responsible for the murder of Sparrow, a soldier who was the only witness to one of Clardy's earlier acts of robbery and murder. By revealing Jeff's identity to Watie's men, Clardy deliberately jeopardizes Jeff's life. According to Jeffs father, Emory, Clardy once "had the makings of a good officer," but became embittered by his failure to be elected colonel of the Mississippi Volunteer Rifles during the Mexican War.

A more sympathetic antagonist is the young, high-spirited Lucy Washbourne, who describes herself as "a rebel—to the backbone." A year younger than Jeff, she matches him in independence, courage, honor, loyalty, and even naivete. From their first meeting, when his dog chases her cat, they clearly are on opposite sides of every issue; yet each comes to respect and admire the other. After Jeff becomes a reluctant recruit in Watie's army, Lucy urges him to change sides, but she does not betray him when he tells her he must return to Fort Gibson with the information about the stolen rifles.

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