I remember reading this book as a boy and found it to be one of the best novels on the Civil War alongside Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Since then, I have read the counter-factual Civil War trilogy by Newt Gingrich, which I highly recommend. I do encourage parents and teachers to have kids read Rifles for Watie, as it is a great book dealing with an often forgotten area of the war, the Trans-Mississippi Theater.
The book by Harold Keith focuses on the story of Jefferson Davis Bussey (memory escapes me how he got the name in the book), who lives in Linn County, Kansas and decides to join the Union Army in 1861. Bussey goes on a journey through the war in the far West that encompasses a couple of actual battles and actual historical figures (Watie and Union General James G. Blunt) associated with the war in that area.
One of the early experiences that Bussey takes part in is the Union defeat at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in southwestern Missouri. Bussey also participates in the Battle of Prairie Grove in Arkansas. In addition to these battles, Bussey participates in many interesting adventures, both large and small, as he journeys through Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) with the Union Army. While venturing across the territory, Bussey encounters the beautiful Cherokee girl Lucy Washbourne, who is the brother of a Confederate soldier, whom Bussey takes a liking to.
One of the better aspects to the novel is Bussey’s secret mission infiltrating the Confederate Army in the area, commanded by Stand Watie. The reader experiences Bussey’s harrowing time serving with Watie’s men, as he attempts to find out about someone providing arms to the rebels. Ultimately, Bussey succeeds in his mission and helps the Union in the Indian Territory. He returns to Kansas, much older, wiser, and with three stripes of a sergeant on his sleeve.
The book illustrates how one young man goes off to war seeking glory and adventure only to find that war is cruel and destructive. This is a great first book for kids to read about the war and I highly recommend it for parents who have a child interested in the war.