This story emphasizes that having fought in a war or played the part of a hero in battle does not necessarily mean having good character. Uncle Jed, a man who refused to fight in the war, had more goodness and character than many of the other men in his town. He was a better father and a harder worker, and he had more kindness in his heart. Will learns this lesson eventually, but at the beginning of the novel he judges character based on a person’s war accomplishments. As Will struggles with his own difficult situations with the local bullies, he learns to behave with character and principle, following the advice of his uncle. The Northern soldier who stays at the farm for a while also demonstrates character; he tells stories of how his regiment did all they could to save the farms they were ordered to burn and how they tried to minimize the damage done while still following orders. He demonstrated to Will that having the suit of an enemy does not mean you have the character of an enemy. Phrased best by Will’s Aunt Ella, soldiers that did bad things in the war were probably bad men before they arrived there; men who do what is right no matter the circumstances held that virtue in the face of war.
Will struggles the entire novel with his sense of duty to the war. He feels that his uncle’s choice to avoid fighting in the war, as duty required, displayed cowardice and treachery. When conscription agents came to the homesteads to coerce men into fighting, Will thought that they were only enforcing the people’s duty as citizens of their country. Another sense of duty comes from Will’s having to stay at his uncle’s farm in the first place; they are his only family left, so he is sure that they are keeping him only out of a sense of duty. He comes to realize, eventually, that they truly care for him and want him to be there out of love, not duty. Through the example of his uncle and his struggles with the local town boys, Will learns that the only duty that truly matters is your personal duty to do what is right in your heart.
The Effects of War
The novel describes quite well the damage that the civil war caused. This damage included the significant loss of men as well as crops, livestock, wealth, lifestyles, pride, family, friendships, and loyalties. As Will travels east to his new home, he passes through the blackened remains of farms and homesteads; graves dot the countryside. He lost his entire immediate family to the ravages of war. Uncle Jed’s entire source of wealth—his livestock—was confiscated by rebel troops for the cause, and ever since he has struggled long and hard to recuperate and to provide for his family. Entire towns were affected and struggled after the war to survive and build back what was damaged. Beyond the physical damages are the strains the war produced in relationships; families were divided because of differing loyalties. Before he died, Will’s father had cut off all communications with Uncle Jed and his family, causing a fracture in the family line that Will struggled to repair. War is devastating, and it is only through hard work, integrity, and persistence that recovery can begin.
Through much of the novel, Will learns the value of hard work. Before he came to live with his uncle, he did not have to work very hard at anything other than school. His family had slaves...
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who did all of the hard labor. At Uncle Jed's farm, however, his aunt, uncle, and cousin do all of the work that is required to live—the washing, cooking, sewing, mending, hunting, maintenance, and repairs. Will slowly learns to do many of these things for himself, and as he does, he grows proud of his handiwork and strengthening body and takes great satisfaction in his accomplishments. He is also able to take the hard work he had previously accomplished at school and read to his new family, eventually teaching his younger cousin, Meg, to read. Even though adjusting to his new lifestyle of hard work is very difficult for a long time, William learns the value of producing things with your own two hands and of using your own mind and creativity to solve problems that arise on the farm on a daily basis. His uncle demonstrates trust in Will’s ability to solve those problems and to help out the best that he can. Will comes through and becomes a valuable asset to the family.