The Journal of James Edmond Pease Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
To the Discussion Leader
Although there have been thousands of books written about the Civil War, few of them tell the stories of the underage boys enlisted as Union or Confederate soldiers. By some estimates, as many as 420,000 boys under the age of eighteen and as young as ten fought in the Civil War. Boys joined armies on both sides for various reasons, from defending home and family to not wanting to look like cowards in the eyes of their friends to simply wishing to be part of a grand adventure.
In his second Dear America book, Newbery Honor and Orbis Pictus Award-winning author Jim Murphy lets readers see the Civil War through the eyes of sixteen-year-old James Edmond Pease. Private Pease is ordered by his lieutenant to keep "an accurate and honest account" of the men and actions of G Company Union Volunteers. James's journal brings readers into the smoke of Civil War battles to hear the sounds, experience the fears, and witness the heroism and cowardice that are a part of every war. Beyond those universal experiences, James Pease shares with young readers his unique perspective on the war — the importance of mail, the taste of the ever-present hardtack biscuits and bad coffee, the pain and pride that go with changing from a young teen into a leader of soldiers, and his brush with death.
The Journal of James Edmond Pease: A Civil War Union Soldier was inspired by actual diaries written by soldiers who fought in the Civil War. "Not only do their stories make for great reading," Murphy writes, "but I can honestly say that each one teaches me something new about our history and about the spirit of adventure." Readers of James's journal will feel the same way.
Admitting that he is neither the best in spelling nor the smartest in the company, James Edmond Pease begins his Civil War journal on November 5, 1863. Pease is an orphan "sixteen years old...or thereabouts" who has wandered the countryside since running away from his uncaring uncle and aunt.
Pease chronicles the mundane, everyday events in the life of a soldier. As a growing teen, James Pease's most urgent concerns — and complaints — are his sleep and his stomach. "We was up at five this morning, marching by six, with only hardtack biscuits and a tin of coffee in between. The coffee had to be as old as Colonel Titus himself and tasted like the inside of a boot with the foot still inside." James describes deadly battles involving cannons and playful battles with snowballs, near starvation in enemy territory and Thanksgiving dinners. He never glamorizes or glorifies the Civil War. "Sgt. Donoghue was sitting with his back against the breastworks, shot thru the bowels, holding his guts in his hands and bleeding badly." People, animals, death, and destruction of the countryside-all are drawn with an honest line.
James Edmond Pease, a teenager who had enlisted "because I needed a pair of boots and dinner," concludes his diary as a mature and seasoned soldier who has a pretty good handle on his life. He has established friendships, discovered love, earned the respect of his peers and his superiors, formulated a philosophy to guide his life, and in the process managed to survive the most deadly war in the history of the United States.
Thinking About the Book
- Why did James decide to join the army? Why was he called a Jonah?
- Lieutenant Tom asks James to "put in the details" as he writes his journal. What scene do you remember best because James learned to put in the details?
- What do the following words mean?
* Minié ball (Nov. 6)
* Parrott shell (Nov. 7)
* Pontoon bridge (Nov. 10)
* Sutler (Nov. 10)
* Commissary depot (Nov. 20)
* Bayonet charge (Nov. 26)
* Breastworks (Nov. 30)
* Wedge tent (Dec. 7)
* Artillery (Jan. 14)
* Chevrons (Jan. 14)
* Batteries and batteries of light artillery (Jan. 15)
* Flank (Jan. 15)
* Caisson (Feb. 22)
* Skirmishes (March 23)
* Stockade (March 23)
* Roster reports (April 22)
* Advance pickets (May 5)
- Jim Murphy writes, "The Civil War also changed the boys who fought in it. It robbed them of their childhoods." What changes did you notice in James Edmond Pease from the beginning of his journal to the end?
- Look at the illustrations and photos in the Life in America in 1863 section at the back of the book. Which picture helps you see more clearly what James describes in words?
- Two of the men who are mentioned most often in James Pease's journal are Charlie Shelp and Johnny Henderson. Compare and contrast them. What are the traits that make one man a good friend and one an enemy?
- James draws in his journal to help readers get a better picture of the war and his experiences. Draw a picture of your own that could go in James's journal. Where would you place it in the book?
- James Pease, like so many other Civil War soldiers, often commented on the food, especially the hardtack biscuits. Bake a batch of these biscuits with the recipe from the 1862 U.S. Army cookbook and see what your classmates think about them and their taste.
- Union Soldiers were surrounded by the smoke from the thousands of muskets fired during the battle at Gettysburg, and by mistake they fired on their own troops. See what you can find out about this Civil War battle. Did this unfortunate event actually take place?
- James Edmond Pease assumes many roles during the course of his journal: he is an orphan, a soldier, and a friend. How else can you describe Pease's character? Make a graphic organizer to help you visualize how James Edmond Pease changes.
- Almost every soldier sent letters home. Imagine that you joined one of the armies to fight in the Civil War. Write a letter back home telling your family about your experiences as a soldier.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.