Drummer Boy is looking forward to his vacation in Charleston, South Carolina next month. I like reading ahead when I visit a battlefield or historic site. It helps me better appreciate where I am visiting. It also helps ratchet up the anticipation for an upcoming visit. So, I went looking for a book to read to Drummer Boy that introduces Charleston’s Civil War history in a way that is entertaining for a 4 year old. That is when I made the acquaintance of a “most unusual cat.”
Jack, the son of Miss Kitty and Mr. Tom, lives with the Rhett family in Charleston. He witnesses the initial bombardment of Fort Sumter before Colonel Rhett decides to take this self-proclaimed Confederate cat to the fort itself to help the soldiers control the mice eating their food stores and the birds polluting their drinking water. Readers learn about the layout of the fort, its Confederate occupation, bombardment by Union naval forces, and the lives of the Confederates inside the fort’s walls.
Jack’s story is based on oral tradition and period illustrations that indicate that a garrison cat existed at Fort Sumter. The book also contains actual documented historic events and figures who were important to the city and fort’s history. It is an effective blending of fantasy and fact to create a memorable story.
One of the big challenges with all children’s Civil War books--especially picture books-- is presenting the information in a way that honors the history in an age appropriate way without sugarcoating it. Many books like this struggle integrating slavery and the reality of the antebellum South in a way that doesn’t minimize the former and glorify the latter. Russell Horres strikes the right balance as he spends all of one page describing Jack’s antebellum life, accompanied by Kate Sherrill’s beautiful misty depiction of hoop skirts, oak tree avenues and a columned Great House. But he also introduces Mauma June, a slave who describes her abduction from her family in Africa, her sense of loss and the limits to her freedom. In a particularly telling moment, she admits to Jack that she is envious of him—the family pet—because of his freedom.
The book is text heavy, but each page is accompanied by beautiful illustrations that bring Jack to life, help illustrate the charm of Charleston and highlight the insular world of life in such a small, isolated fort.
The final pages provide an illustrated Glossary of Terms that helps both the children and any adults reading to them build their vocabulary.
This book was written in 2011 for the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the first shorts of the Civil War. It is no longer in print, but new and used copies are available through Amazon's third party sellers and other used book vendors.
Click on the book's title in this post to see the new and used offers on Amazon.
The first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. It was the beginning of a war, the scope of which was beyond the general citizenry’s imagination. This wasn’t only a beginning, but the ending of months of political and diplomatic failures that highlighted just how unprepared everyone was for the fight about to commence.
David Detzer’s Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston and the Beginning of the Civil War examines both the beginnings and endings that took place in and around Charleston during the Secession Winter of 1860 and the following spring that resulted in the fateful cannon shot that started the war.
Our cast of “characters” include:
It takes a special author to create suspense and a sense of urgency in a story of which we know the ending. Detzer does this. Even though we know that the Confederates fire on Fort Sumter, as we watch the calendar pages turn, the deft maneuvering by Union Major Robert Anderson, and the desperate incompetence of President Buchanan produce moments of frustration and disbelief for the reader.
Detzer paints Anderson as a man who is trying his best and being misunderstood at every turn. It doesn’t help that he has little to no political or military support aside from vague orders and non-specific encouragement. Further complicating issues is the fact that South Carolina is determined to see Anderson’s actions as coercion intended to force a military engagement despite the actions being taken deliberately intended to deescalate tensions to the extent his vague orders allowed.
There were so many times in the months between South Carolina’s declaration of secession and the bombardment of Sumter that could have initiated war (firing on of the Star of the West and the clumsy and comical efforts of the captain of the ship Shannon) that the ending seemed inevitable. We are only left wondering exactly when the fuse would burn up and the powder keg blow.
It is important to note that only the final two chapters deal with the actual bombardment of Fort Sumter. It is a compelling part of the story, but it is the easiest and most straightforward part. The bulk of this book is about politics and diplomacy and the failures and success of each, which makes this more of a political thriller than a military history.
This book is a great introduction into the messy politics of revolt, revolution and the start of a civil war. It reads like a novel, with well drawn characters you will care about. A great book for mature readers interested in how this kind of conflict starts, and those who love a good novel of political intrigue.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.