Intelligence Report--Mary Walker Wears The Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer and Civil War Hero
Children who see women dressed in pants and shorts these days may not understand how unusual the practice was in the past. Nor may they understand that being a female doctor in the mid-19th century was unusual. But both of these things, and others, make Mary Walker a unique woman. Mary Walker Wears the Pants is a picture book that looks at all the ways Mary Walker was different and the way society treated her because of it.
She was a courageous woman whose parents had encouraged independent thinking. That led her to embrace a movement called “dress reform” trying to change the norm of restrictive clothing women were expected to wear. She believed in women’s suffrage and equal civil rights for men and women. And author Cheryl Harness shows that she was whispered about and ridiculed for her choices.
The story quickly gets to Dr. Walker’s service during the Civil War in which she volunteered as a nurse, was finally accepted as an official Assistant Surgeon, and was captured and became a prisoner of war. Harness then explains the awarding of the Medal of Honor and her post-war career. Harness does not explain the controversy which resulted in the rescission of Dr. Walker’s Medal of Honor in 1917 or its later reinstatement.
Dr. Mary Walker’s story is exciting and appealing, and Harness does a capable job of telling her story. Harness does frame much of Dr. Walker’s experiences around her choice of clothing, and the theme is never really distant. At points, it seems as though Harness is trying to promote this as the most unusual thing about Dr. Walker’s extraordinary life. Unfortunately, this seems to be done at the expense of more thorough discussion of her medical school experience and her career as an army surgeon. I will give the author the benefit of the doubt in the latter, however, as it is not easy to find an age appropriate way to address the blood and gore of a field hospital. It also at least provides a framework for other discussions including how people treat others who dress differently or make unconventional choices for their life.
Harness certainly paints Dr. Walker as a capable, dedicated and persistent surgeon who encouraged rethinking many previously held ideas including gender roles and traditional medical treatment in combat situations.
This is a great book for girls and boys to be introduced to a little known, but important, female hero of the Civil War (and the country’s only female Medal of Honor winner).
As a historian and a bibliophile, I have a soft spot in my heart for children’s books that stress famous historic figures’ interest in, and love of, reading. In Words Set Me Free, Lisa Cline-Ransome uses the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave to set the stage for one of Frederick Douglass’s main thematic threads in his autobiography: education was the key to true freedom.
Cline-Ransome begins with the story of Douglass’s early life and chooses some of the most dramatic images from the Narrative to include:
She also uses a portion of Hugh Auld’s declaration to his wife to show the reason that education, in this case the ability to read, would become so important to Douglass: “He should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. If you teach him how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”
From that moment on, Douglass determines if reading will unfit him to be a slave, then he must learn to read. Cline-Ransome takes us through Douglass’s learning process and how he bartered with and tricked the local boys into teaching him his letters.
Even the iconic moment from the Narrative, Douglass’s lamenting over the fact that the ships he watched sail out to see had more freedom than he himself had, makes an appearance in this book.
There are a few drawbacks. The language used is easy for adults, but the sentence structure and language may be too complex for younger children. The very first page of the book has two examples:
“After I was born, they sent me to my Grandmamma and my Mama to another plantation," and “Cook told me my mother took sick. I never saw her again.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, but be prepared for questions from younger readers.
I also dislike the ending of the book. The Epilogue describes Douglass’s first escape attempt in 1835, in which he and several slaves from the plantation tried to escape with forged passes. If you stop reading here--as many would after an Epilogue--and have no more knowledge of Douglass’s story than what is in this book, you would be left with the impression that this escape attempt was successful. It was not. The rest of the story is buried in an Author’s Note on the bibliographical page in the very end of the book.
All in all, this is a good introduction to the life of Frederick Douglass for young elementary students, and also provides a historical reference to encourage an interest in, and love of, reading.
Last week, I shared with you the story of Robert Smalls, who made a daring escape from freedom by stealing a boat in Charleston Harbor. The story is exciting and highlights the lengths to which some slaves would go to secure their freedom.
Seven Miles to Freedom tells the story of Robert Smalls from his birth though the successful escape in a format illustrated with beautiful impressionistic paintings.
The story starts off with the author drawing the biographical background of Robert’s life on the McKee plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina. Robert tells of the horrors of slavery that he sees on other plantations, but proclaims his master to be good and fair and himself to be treated well. But his personal experience doesn’t temper his hated of slavery.
Halfmann introduces us to Hannah, whom Robert falls in love with and marries. The two are lucky in that their masters allow them to live together. When Robert and Hannah’s daughter is born, the two are able to negotiate with Mr. Kingman, Hannah’s owner, for the eventual purchase price of Hannah and their daughter for a sum of $800. To help the couple earn the money, both Mr. Kingman and Robert’s owner, Mr. McKee, allowed them to hire themselves out, and keep all of their earnings but $15 a week paid to Mr. McKee and $7 a week paid to Mr. Kingman.
On the verge of having enough to earn his wife’s and daughter’s freedom, the Civil War erupts in nearby Charleston Harbor. Robert reluctantly becomes part of the Confederate war effort as the ship he is the wheelman on, the Planter, is enlisted by the Confederate government to strengthen the harbor defenses by laying mines and destroying lighthouses.
One evening, the white crew prepared to leave the boat. Before they left, they jokingly place the captain’s distinctive straw hat on Robert’s head. The simple act is the inspiration for Robert’s daring escape attempt.
Halfmann describes the plan. On the next night that the white crew leaves, they will take the boat, pick up their loved ones, and sail out to the Union blockade, with Robert posing as the ship’s captain, straw hat and all. If they are caught, everyone agrees they will sink the boat and if the process takes too long, they will hold hands and jump overboard to drown themselves. They refuse to go back to a life of bondage.
Halfmann’s strength is in the narration of the escape attempt. The rather slow and ordinary beginning of the book hits its stride when Robert’s plan is executed. I am always impressed by authors who are able to achieve suspense when its readers know (or can easily find out ) how the story actually ends. Halfmann succeeds here, creating a “hold your breath” moment as Robert slides the ship past Fort Sumter as the sun rises and his cover could be blown.
This book works on several levels. First, it is an engaging story on the surface. Who doesn’t love a good, suspenseful escape from bondage story that allows you to cheer at the end? Second, for older children, the way Halfmann writes provides great opportunities to discuss the meaning of freedom:
There is some rather archaic language, as the author chooses to use the word “colored” on several occasions. This can be a bit of a shock for a book published in 2008. And I take a bit of exception to the idea that Robert knew, in 1861 , that a Union victory in the Civil War meant the abolition of slavery. At that time in the war, that conclusion could not be drawn, as the federal government was fighting for Union. Lincoln, after issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, used the carrot of retained slavery to entice the recalcitrant Confederate states back into the Union before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863. Had any slave state chosen to return to the Union prior to that date, slavery would have been protected as it continued to be in the Union-loyal slave holding border states.
Earlier this week, I shared the story of the VMI Cadets' coming of age. On May 15, 1864, 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute ranging in age from 15 to 19 years old put their military training to the test. For many of these cadets, this was the first time in a live combat situation. They were supposed to be the reserve of the Confederate Army operating under General Breckinridge. After a Confederate regiment from Missouri was cut to pieces, General Breckinridge gave the order he dreaded: “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.”
This book from Susan Provost Beller looks at personal letters and cadet files in the VMI archives to give a voice to that small number of cadets who helped the Confederates turn the tide of the battle. Beller begins with providing a bit of background, takes us with the cadets as they march north (“down the valley”) toward New Market, advance around the Bushong Farm House and through a muddy field (the Field of Lost Shoes) and finally as they defend their honor in the press and public perception years after the guns have gone silent.
The book is less than 100 pages long, so the background on the cadets and the battle is necessarily brief. The battle scenes have urgency and don’t get bogged down in lots of minutia. Beller’s use of the words and stories of only a few of the cadets gives the book focus.
However, the maps are hand drawn and difficult to read. The illustrations, with the exception of the cadet photos, did not reproduce well. Both maps and illustrations fail to adequately support the text. The writing style is very casual; the author writes how I imagine she speaks. She mentioned in the introduction she has shared this story with school groups many times, and it sounds as if she simply provided a transcription of one of those presentations. It is probably beneficial for young readers, but for me, it lacked authority.
One final thing that that is only incidental to the story but that bothers me enough to correct--or perhaps better explain--why going north through the Shenandoah Valley is actually “down the valley” while going south is “up the valley.” She gives a vague reason tied to Pennsylvania settlers moving south away from civilization and into the unknown, so they called it going “up the valley.” The real answer is much more concrete and even simpler: the Shenandoah River flows from south to north toward its confluence with the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry, WV. Therefore going south is going upriver—up the valley—and going north is going downriver—down the valley. It almost makes me call into question all of the research she did for this book. Thankfully, she quoted letters and official records enough that the voices of the cadets are authentic.
Earlier this week, I shared with you the story of Johnny Clem. The nine-year old earned fame for things he did and things he probably didn’t do. Called both “Johnny Shiloh” and “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”, Johnny survived the Civil War and later in his life went on to have a second distinguished career in the United States Army
Johnny’s story is the subject of John Lincoln Clem: Civil War Drummer Boy. This is a work of historical fiction and author E.F. Abbott has done a wonderful job creating an engaging, book-length story for young readers. The main character, Johnny Clem himself, is a well-written multidimensional character. He is stubborn and defiant, but honorable. He has a moment of cowardice and resolves to be brave. He is good but flawed. He is someone you want to root for.
The author weaves in a lot of vignettes about camp life for ordinary soldiers including the rampant disease that would claim more lives than bullets did. She even uses a well documented description of General Grant-- “He wore an expression as if he had decided to drive his head through a brick wall and was about to do it.” The battle scenes are realistic and urgent and don’t romanticize what was truly a confused and terrifying experience.
As a piece of fiction, this book is top notch.
Unfortunately, the author’s research on her subject seems spotty. As I noted in my previous post, it is highly unlikely that Johnny was ever at Shiloh. The 3rd Ohio, the regiment he unofficially joined in this book did not fight at Shiloh and the 22nd Michigan, the regiment that he eventually formally enlisted with, was not mustered in until August 1862, several months after the battle of Shiloh.
Several times, the author refers to beating the long roll as a call to advance. The long roll was actually a call used to call the soldiers to arms. It was to get the troops’ attention and get them all in one place so that a subsequent order could be sounded. It was not beat throughout an advance or to announce a charge.
An additional concern appears when Captain McDougal asks the assembled crowd the reason the Confederate states seceded. The crowd answers “slavery” and McDougal adds a whole bunch of other things that are another way of saying slavery including economics and states’ rights and throws in the tariff for good measure. Captain McDougal tries to lessen the impact slavery had on the Confederacy’s founding, which does a disservice to the actual history. To add insult to injury, officers of the rank Captain are in command of a company of approximately 100 soldiers, not entire regiments (until later in the war when casualties began to mount). Regiments were commanded by Colonels.
Because of the strong fictional narrative, I still highly recommend this book despite the historical liberties taken. In fact, the inaccuracies provide an opportunity to research some primary documents in a critical manner.
John Lincoln Clem: Civil War Drummer Boy is a great way to introduce the role of children in combat with an engaging and fast moving story so long as it is understood to be historical fiction.
15 year old Union soldier Sheldon “Say” Curtis meets Pinkus “Pink” Aylee while Say is suffering from a leg wound. Pink and Say have both been separated from their units, and they make the decision to travel the three days they anticipate it will take to rejoin their units. Along the way, they return to Pink’s home and recover under the care of his mother Moe Moe Bay. The setting, a cozy cabin on the ruined estate of Pink and Moe Moe Bay’s former owner, creates an evocative backdrop for meaningful discussions about fear and bravery, the true nature of freedom and sacrifice.
In 48 short pages, Polacco writes a story with developed characters who discuss the deeper impact of the war, and challenge us readers to think about some of its enduring themes. There are many topics for family or classroom discussion.
Despite giving this book 5 stars, I do have a few concerns. The first, and probably most problematic, is the audience for this book. It is a picture book, but the topics discussed and the graphic nature of the illustrations, skew this older than the typical picture book audience of preschoolers to young elementary readers/listeners. Two of the most moving vignettes captured in the story are deaths--the first that of Moe Moe Bay at the hands of “marauders” who come looking to loot Pink’s family cabin, and then Pink’s death himself by hanging at Andersonville.
These topics are important to understanding the Civil War, and I do not advocate shying away from the difficult discussions. Knowing the true toll of war brings it from the realm of romanticism into reality. As Robert E. Lee said “It is good that war is so terrible--lest we grow too fond of it.” I do struggle, however, about the age appropriateness of this material. Amazon lists the appropriate age for this alternatively as: age 5-9; ages 6-9; Grade 4 (age 10) and up and Grade 1 (age 7) to Grade 4 (age 10). My best advice is for parents and teachers to read the book first to determine if your children or students are ready to handle the weighty discussions which will likely result from this book.
My final reservation is that the author claims this is a true story handed down through family history. This simply is not the case. A review of the regimental muster rolls for the 24th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Say’s regiment) does not show any soldier enlisted by the name of Sheldon Curtis (or alternative names that could have been the result of administrative error). Pinkus Aylee does not appear in the muster rolls of the 48th United States Colored Infantry. Further confirming the fictional nature of the story, according to each unit’s history, these two units never fought in the same battles.
The story is strong enough to stand on its own without the disclaimer that this is a true story handed down generation by generation. It is possible the author deliberately used this “true story” label disingenuously. It is equally possible that the author, like so many of us, just accepted family history as gospel truth because it came from the sincerest of her elders. Either way, the fact that it is fiction from someone’s imagination does not diminish its impact. Even knowing the truth, I end the story with tears in my eyes as I say out loud, “Pinkus Aylee.”
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.
A few weeks ago, I told you about the ironic tale of young Tod Carter who had experienced quite a lot of army life--battle, capture, prisoner of war camp, and a daring escape from a train--only to be mortally wounded a few hundred feet from his family’s home near the center of the Union line at the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864.
Nancy Gentry has written a young adult historical novel about the last few days of Tod’s life--beginning her tale on November 29, 1864--and his family’s anticipation of his homecoming. This book is engaging and well written but its main premise, that the family was preparing for an expected homecoming, doesn’t seem to be born out by the facts. Brad Kinnison is a tour guide with the Battle of Franklin Trust, a not for profit preservation organization that now owns and operates several landmarks that played important roles in the Battle of Franklin including Tod’s family home, Carter House. According to Kinnison, the Carter family had no way to know where Tod was at the beginning of the battle. It wasn’t a secret that it was the Army of Tennessee, including Tod's regiment, approaching Franklin, but during his army experience, there had been times when Tod had been detailed for duties away from his unit. One of those times, Tod had escorted prisoners to Virginia. Though the Carter family may have hoped to see Tod, and worried over the possibility of him being engaged in the battle as they huddled in the basement, nothing was confirmed for them until a Confederate soldier found them as they emerged from the basement. He told them that Tod had been wounded and was nearby.
I understand why Gentry took this liberty. The Carter Family’s anticipation of the homecoming was fraught with a sense of impending doom. If there had been a soundtrack for this book, much of the first half would have been underscored by the ominous sounds of low brass and timpani rolls. The final culmination is both sad and inevitable.
The story uses a few fictional and composite characters to fill out life on the home front. Sarah Beth, Tod’s love interest (in the most PG way), brings a unique perspective to the narrative. She illustrates the often overlooked story of the women left behind after the men go off to war. She is the voice of lost hope for an entire generation of a society where many young men didn’t come back and those who did were damaged by the ravages of war.
Gentry uses Sam as a way to insert the slave’s viewpoint into the story. I don’t mind the character’s inclusion, however, whether intentionally or unintentionally, she chooses to ignore factual history in favor of a popular myth that continues to be perpetuated in today’s media (I’m looking at you, Underground).
In Gentry’s narrative, Tod’s father, Fountain Branch Carter, “had quietly given all his slaves a written pass to freedom.”
Unfortunately for slaves, manumission (granting a slave his or her freedom) was not as simple as giving them a piece of paper as Gentry describes here. According to the 1826 Statute of Laws of Tennessee, the process was much more involved and wouldn’t have been quiet in any regard. Chapter 22 of the Statute outlines that if a slave owner chooses to grant his slaves freedom, he must petition the court. The petitioner (the slave owner) must explain his motives for freeing his slaves and if two thirds of the justices of the county court deem it in the best interest of the state, the petition will be filed with the court. The petitioner was then required to enter into a bond with sufficient financial security to ensure the county would be able to seek recompense from the former slave owner if the newly freed slave caused damages.
Given the prevalence of this myth in popular media, I am inclined to believe that she simply didn’t consider that the accepted method of freeing slaves she describes was not factual.
While I would have enjoyed a look at the road Tod traveled to make it back to Spring Hill before the book commenced, the book still has enough action to entertain. The pivotal part of the story was told with grace and the dialog is natural and the situations and motivations are, by and large, believable. This is a good book to introduce not only the Battle of Franklin to a young reader, but also to explore timeless themes of honor, duty, family, hope and disappointment. Families can discuss the different reactions between James Cooper (a real person) and Tod Carter upon finding out battle was eminent. They can also discuss Fountain Branch Carter’s options of staying or leaving and what they themselves may have done. Families can explore reasons that freed slaves would stay with their former masters instead of heading North.
This is a very readable historical fiction work for young adults, but will get dinged 1 1/2 stars for the lack of historical accuracy and the continued perpetuation of myth.
When Drummer Boy was 2, I wanted to supplement his library with history picture books. While on one of my trips to a battlefield (though I don’t remember which one), I picked up a picture book about the Civil War that had everything I was looking for: beautiful illustrations, great Civil War topics and a way for me to teach him the alphabet.
The topics addressed in B is for Battle Cry are very broad—Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis are discussed alongside disease, the role of quartermasters and prisons for captured soldiers—and add a level of depth and context that will make this interesting for older readers and parents as well as children just learning their alphabet.
For me, the meter of the verses was a little bit difficult to navigate. It never seemed to quite roll of the tongue while I was reading it aloud. I believe the reason for this is the verses were written to be sung to the tune of Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More. Don’t be worried if you, like me, were not immediately familiar with this incredibly popular song from the mid-nineteenth century. To help you out, the author, Patricia Bauer, sings her verses to the accompaniment of her acoustic guitar in a free download available on her illustrator husband’s website.
The four line alphabet verses are supplemented by sidebars that give older readers and parents more explanation of the topics addressed. Though “T is for Trains,” its side bar discusses the new and emerging technology like telegraphs, rifle muskets and the Gatlin gun, that leads many historians to consider the Civil War the first modern war. And while “Y is for Yankee” Johnny Reb is mentioned as the counterpoint to Billy Yank and the author describes the families who were torn apart by divided loyalties.
Overall, this is a great introduction to the Civil War for young readers and little ones who like to be read to. For the full experience, try singing the verses and see how it transforms story time.
Buy your own copy of B is for Battle Cry: A Civil War Alphabet.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.