Rifles for Watie

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Rifles for Watie
Cover of the 1991 reissue hardback
Author Harold Keith
Country United States
Language English
Genre Historical, War novel
Publisher Thomas Y. Crowell
Publication date
1957
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

Rifles for Watie is an American children's novel by Harold Keith. It was first published in 1957, and received the Newbery Medal the following year. Commonly shortened "Rifles", Rifles for Watie is written at an 8th grade advanced – 9th grade level.

Set during the American Civil War, the plot revolves around Jefferson Davis Bussey who is sixteen and caught up in the events of history. Actual historical personages (e.g. Generals Stand Watie and James G. Blunt) and battles (e.g. Wilson's Creek and Prairie Grove) are seen from the viewpoint of an ordinary soldier, enabled by the choice of protagonist. Harold Keith spent many years interviewing Civil War veterans and visiting the sites depicted in the book, resulting in an authenticity that is rare for historical fiction that targets a young adult audience.

The setting, west of the Mississippi, is also not typical of Civil War novels, so the reader gets a perspective on the war not generally available in other books, let alone one found in children's books.

Plot summary[edit]

Jefferson Davis Bussey marches off to Leavenworth from Linn County, Kansas in 1861, on his way to join the Union volunteers. He's off to fight for the North; his zeal having been fueled by reaction to the guerilla war of "bushwhackers" that was taking place in eastern Kansas. However, Stand Watie is on the side of the South. We meet many soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war, including Watie's raiding parties, itinerant printer Noah Babbitt and, in Tahlequah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) the beautiful Cherokee girl, Lucy Washbourne.

Jeff's story is notable as he eventually winds up fighting for both the North and the South (while on a special undercover mission) at different times during the conflict while making new friends on each side. It is also notable for the detailed depiction of contemporary Cherokee life in Indian Territory, including various tribal political factions. During an undercover mission Jeff finds that Captain Asa Clardy of the Union Cavalry is smuggling new Spencer rifles to the Indian forces of Stand Watie. Keith portrays how Jeff Bussey, in the midst of huge conflicts, had to choose one side or another at various times and how this was not always as simple as it may seem in historical hindsight.

Main Characters in Rifles for Watie[edit]

  • Jefferson (Jeff) Davis Bussey – the protagonist. Originally an infantry private but later his whole company is trained as cavalrymen. After a long secret mission and daring escape he is promoted to sergeant and sent home.
  • Lucy Washbourne – Jeff's love interest, a young woman living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (then Indian Territory)
  • Lee Washbourne – Lucy's brother, a Confederate soldier and scout. Killed in a firing squad in which Jeff unknowingly took a part in. Jeff, however, did not shoot and did not realize that it was Lee, whom he had heard about from Lucy and Mrs. Washbourne, until he saw Lee's name engraved on his watch.
  • Noah Babbitt – an itinerant printer, older than Jeff, and a Union soldier and a lover of nature.
  • Stand Watie – historical character, the last Confederate general to surrender at the war's end. His forces are described as " using old British one shot Enfield's and double barrel shotguns." The use of Spencer repeaters could mean a victory against Union cavalry.
  • James G. Blunt – historical character, Union general who battled to control Indian Territory.
  • David Gardner – Jeff's hometown friend who joins the Union Army with him.
  • John Chadwick – Another of Jeff's hometown friends who joins the Union Army with him.
  • Captain Asa Clardy – Jeff's commanding officer in the Union Army, and a major antagonist against Jeff. He is the one smuggling the Spencer Rifles to the Rebels. Eventually found killed and exposed postmortem as a traitor.
  • Heifer Hobbs – company cook and mentor for Jeff in the Indian cavalry, a part of the Confederate States Army.
  • Sparrow – The cook in Jeff's regiment on the Union side. He is murdered by Clardy after he finds out Sparrow told Jeff about the woman he killed.
  • Bill Earle – A friend Jeff made in the war, on the Union side
  • Pete Millholland – One of Jeff's sergeants. He's killed by Rebels while cooking supper in Choctaw country
  • Jimmy - The 14 year old drummer boy for the Union army. He is critically injured and eventually dies.
  • Emory Bussey - Jeff's dad
  • Edith Bussey - Jeff's Mom
  • Ring - Jeff's dog in Kansas
  • Dixie - a dog Jeff found, who didn't want to leave its dead owner.
  • Keegan - A commander for the Confederates.

Lieutenant Orff - Commander of the scout platoon that Jeff and Noah join after becoming cavalrymen. Carries a Spencer 7 shot rifle.


Sergeant Fields - NCO for the company of Confederate cavalry Jeff joins.


Bostwick - a scout that Jeff works with. Killed in a battle while posing as a Confederate.

Main themes[edit]

  • Love (Lucy Washbourne and Jeff always find a way to get over their different beliefs, no matter how passionate they are.)
  • War spies of the Civil War

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • Winner, 1958 Newbery Medal
  • Notable Children's Books of 1957 (ALA)
  • 1964 James Carroll Shelf Award

Release details[edit]

  • 1957, USA, Thomas Y. Crowell, NY (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1957, hardback (First edition)
  • 1960, UK, Oxford University Press (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1960, hardback
  • 1960, Sweden, Tiden (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1960, hardback (Swedish title: Vapen till rebellerna)
  • 1974, UK, Oxford University Press (ISBN 0192720511), Pub date 20 June 1974, paperback
  • 1987, USA, Harper Trophy Books (ISBN 0-06-447030-X), Pub date ? September 1987, paperback reissue
  • 1987, USA, HarperCollins (ISBN 0694056138), Pub date ? June 1987, paperback reissue
  • 1991, UK, HarperCollins (ISBN 0-690-70181-0), Pub date ? June 1991, hardback reissue

Footnotes[edit]


References[edit]

Awards
Preceded by
Miracles on Maple Hill
Newbery Medal recipient
1958
Succeeded by
The Witch of Blackbird Pond

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