Rifles for Watie

by Harold Keith

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Rifles for Watie begins at the Bussey family farm in Linn County, Kansas, during the spring of 1861. Once Jeff Bussey enlists in the Union Army, his company moves through Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, but most of the action takes place in territory belonging to the Cherokee Nation, with brief forays into areas belonging to the Creek Nation and the Choctaw Nation. All of this land is now part of Oklahoma. The novel ends in June 1865, when Jeff returns to his family's farm after his discharge from the army, but Keith suggests that Jeff will soon return to the Cherokee Nation to marry Lucy Washbourne.

Literary Qualities

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The most striking literary quality in Rifles for Watie is its abundant historical detail. As Keith traces Jeff's development from a sixteen-year-old farm boy to a mature Union war veteran, he accurately recreates the routines and customs of the Civil War era. When Jeff is at home in Kansas, for example, he helps his father "thresh the wheat by hand, using two hickory clubs tied together with buckskin," and he and his family feast on " 'sweet toast,' homebaked wheat bread toasted in a pan over the fireplace coals." But when Jeff is in the field with his regiment, he learns about the grim realities of army life: when his friend Ford Ivey is wounded in the leg and has to have an amputation, Jeff watches the orderlies place him on a wooden table in a crowded, dirty tent, smells the "sweet odor of chloroform," and notices one of the attendants "cleaning bone fragments from a small saw." Jeff also meets a variety of people during his experience in the war—free blacks, slaves, Native Americans, Confederate sympathizers—and Keith uses these encounters as opportunities to relate historical information about the social and economic status of each group.

Much of Keith's historical detail is drawn from his extensive research on the Civil War. Keith interviewed twentytwo Confederate war veterans and studied veterans' diaries and letters in preparation for his novel. Although the plot of Rifles for Watie is completely fictional, several of the characters, such as General Stand Watie, are based on real-life figures.

In Rifles for Watie, Keith not only tells an exciting story, but also presents a realistic view of human nature—especially as revealed under the extreme stress of war. Keith has observed that a good plot spells constant trouble for the hero, who faces new complications as soon as he extricates himself from previous conflicts. The crisis, according to Keith, presents "the final knockdown punch" just as the protagonist thinks he or she is safe. In Rifles for Watie, Jeff finds himself in a continuing series of conflicts with Asa Clardy, Lucy Washbourne, Stand Watie's men, and his own divided loyalties. These conflicts, along with the actual battles, yield a fuller and more realistic picture of war than most war novels offer.

Social Sensitivity

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Rifles for Watie shows great sensitivity in dealing with four significant social issues: war, sectional rivalry, racial hostility, and the role of the nonconformist. Jeff expects war to be exciting and noble, but finds that it is frightening and dirty. The initial training is so dehumanizing that one of his friends deserts, and only Jeff's sense of humor and his loyalty to the Union cause enable him to endure this experience. His individualistic attitude naturally resists military discipline, keeping him in constant conflict with his superior officers. The dark reality of war negates the glory of Jeff's heroic acts. Though a brave soldier, Jeff cries during his first battle, laments the deaths of his comrades, and is horrified by the...

(This entire section contains 438 words.)

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amputations he observes. Forced to witness Lee Washbourne's execution, Jeff faces the constant threat of a similar fate while in the custody of Watie's men.

The book also demonstrates that human nature transcends regional and ideological boundaries. Jeff's Confederate enemies are as kind, honorable, and brave as his fellow Union soldiers. In fact, the Confederate officers generally show more concern for their men's welfare than most Union officers do. Though the Union opposes the system of slavery, an account of the Cherokee Trail of Tears brings the North's sense of justice under question. Clardy's cruelty toward the dying Confederate prisoner, the callousness of the confiscation orders, and Washbourne's execution offset the violence of the Confederate bushwhackers. As Jeff becomes better acquainted with his fellow soldiers and his Confederate enemies, he discovers that kindness and cruelty can be found in both armies and that the Union and the Confederate soldiers as his followers do. Through Leemon Jones and the black regiment he joins, are actually very much alike.

Neither the Native American nor the black characters conform to conventional stereotypes, thus confounding Jeff's initial suppositions. The Jackmans and the Washbournes–both Native American families–surprise Jeff with their sophistication and their elegant homes. Even more astounding to Jeff is Stand Watie, the leader of the Confederate Cherokee. Jeff expects a large man with an air of command but finds that Watie is a short, nondescript man who sleeps beside a campfire, just as his followers do. Through Leemon Jones and the black regiment he joins, Keith acknowledges the important role that blacks played in fighting the Civil War.

Jeff asserts the supreme value of individual conscience. Despite the orders of his superiors, he makes his own decisions concerning the issues he confronts. His individualism keeps him in perpetual conflict with army discipline, and he finds the casual attitude toward discipline one of the most appealing characteristics of Watie's army.

For Further Reference

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Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1971. Contains a brief biographical sketch, list of works, autobiographical commentary, and bibliography.

Fuller, Muriel, ed. More Junior Authors. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1963. A brief biographical sketch.

Kingman, Lee, ed. Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-1965. Boston: Horn Book, 1965. Section about Rifles for Watie includes a brief description of the novel, a biographical essay by Fayette Copeland, and the text of Keith's Newbery acceptance paper.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. Contains a brief biographical sketch and analytical comments about Keith's major works, along with a list of works.




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