It wasn't hard for author Sid Hite to choose the subject for his first novel in the My Name Is America series. Hite writes, "I grew up in a small town located about halfway between Fredericksburg and Richmond, Virginia. I would have needed to pass my entire childhood with wax in my ears to avoid hearing stories about the Civil War. Thus, when I was asked to write a book for the My Name Is America series, I did not have to look hard for my subject. Rufus's story takes place in some of the very same places that I spent my youth in and around Bowling Green, Virginia."
In The Journal of Rufus Rowe: A Witness to the Battle of Fredericksburg, Bowling Green, Virginia, 1862, sixteen-year-old Rufus uses the journal, given to him by his favorite teacher, and his passion for writing and words to describe southern life at Brompton mansion just before the Civil War battle comes to change that life forever. Faithful family servants and slaves in the fields of white landowner John Marye become a memory as Rufus details the military occupation of the mansion and the deaths of 18,000 soldiers at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Rufus's journal entries present a Virginia boy's optimism that the Rebels will win the war. He gets a glimpse of his hero General Robert E. Lee and hears the wails of grief coming from Stonewall Jackson's wife when her husband dies from a wound inflicted by one of his own soldiers.
About the War Between the States Sid Hite writes, "It was a ghastly war, principally fought as most wars are, by young men, and one in which the combatants often stood close enough to look each other in the eye. It is estimated that more than six hundred thousand people lost their lives during the Civil War." The Journal of Rufus Rowe offers a portrait of war young readers will not soon forget.
"It appears as if I am soon to witness some historic times up close," writes sixteen-year-old Rufus Rowe in his journal in November of 1862. The War Between the States has been going on for a year and a half, and so far, the South has won the majority of the battles. Rufus has journeyed to Fredericksburg from his home in Bowling Green, Virginia, after leaving his mother and "meaner than a cornered snake" stepfather. He first seeks work at Brompton, the large estate of a lawyer, John Marye. Although there's no job for him there, he is allowed to sleep in the stable where he becomes friends with George, one of the older slaves. While looking for work in town, Rufus meets Charlie Kent, a young Confederate soldier whose regiment is camped in the town. Rufus soon begins visiting the soldiers and earning money fetching store items for them.
Meanwhile, a large Union army arrives and sets up camp outside the city on the opposite side on the Rappahannock River. The Confederate army soon takes over Brompton and makes it their headquarters. As more troops appear, the residents of Fredericksburg are advised to leave for their own safety. Rufus watches the Union army organize and notes, "It was a strange feeling, looking at all those Yanks and knowing they came with guns for shooting Rebels and anyone else in their way. It made me think there are some things I don't understand about people"
News comes that the whole Confederate Army under the command of General Robert E. Lee is on its way to Fredericksburg. Everyone wonders why the Yanks don't attack, but they have forgotten to bring along pontoon bridges for crossing the river. Finally, they are able to move into the town, and the fighting begins. On December 13th, a cold and foggy morning, Rufus has a firsthand view of the battle. He states, "It was a terrible day of events," but he "could not stop looking at the advancing soldiers." The number of dead on both sides (13,000 Yanks, and 5,200 Rebels) shocks Rufus "No idea in the world is worth such a slaughter, " he writes. "The Confederates won the battle…but what did they win? If you were close to one of the men who died, you would not feel as if you had won much. Maybe that's what war is. You lose when you lose and lose when you win."
Fredericksburg and Brompton are both badly damaged in the battle. The Northern Army retreats and the Confederates continue to camp at Brompton. Rufus becomes ill with swamp fever and is cared for by George. When he recovers, he decides to return home. Bidding farewell to George and to the remaining soldiers at Brompton, Rufus walks the twenty-two miles back to Bowling Green. Along the way he thinks, "Some may consider my return home to be a defeat, but then I never made any claims about my departure, and the fact is, I've had an adventure I will not soon forget."
Thinking About the Book
- Why did Rufus leave his home in Bowling Green and travel to Fredericksburg? Did the situation at home change when he returned?
- How does Rufus support himself at Brompton?
- Rufus's favorite teacher, Miss Brooks, gives him a journal to record the historic times they are living in, and she says she hopes to someday read what he has written. Does she ever get that chance? Why was Rufus the only student given this gift by Miss Brooks?
- Many boys Rufus's age joined the Confederate Army to fight in the War Between the States. Why do you think Rufus did not become a soldier?
- Why do you suppose the author of The Journal of Rufus Rowe included the character of George, the servant at Brompton?
- Why is Rufus excited that he might get a look at Robert E. Lee? What do you learn about General Lee from Rufus's entry on November 22nd? What is his impression of General Lee when he finally sees him (December 18th)?
- Rufus, right before the Battle of Fredericksburg, writes his name and his mother's name and "from Bowling Green, Virginia" on two different slips of paper and hides one in his boot and the other in a coat pocket. For what reason does he do this?
- What causes the Yanks to lose the Battle of Fredericksburg?
- There are several sayings found in Rufus Rowe's journal. What do each of these mean?
"Luck should never be pressed."
"Let bygones be bygones."
"Rome wasn't built in a day."
- What happens to Rufus Rowe after the Civil War?
- In his journal Rufus recounts examples of horror and bravery in war. He writes, "Maybe that's what war is. You lose when you lose and lose when you win." Do you believe this statement? Allow each member of your Discussion Group to share their ideas on this question.
- Research more about the following and share your findings with members of you Discussion Group or with the whole class.
*General Ambrose Burnside
*Jeb Stuart General Stonewall Jackson
*Battle of Chancellorsville
- When Rufus returns to school, his new teacher, Miss Howlett, has him read Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack. In this book, Franklin included advice for living in the form of short sayings. Read all of the sayings, then choose one and explain what it means to you.
- Rufus's entry for December 15th tells of "a South Carolina boy from the Rebel side going into the field to carry water to some of the fallen Yanks." This actually happened, and the Rebel soldier was Richard Kirkland. What can you learn about him? How has he been honored?
- Corporal Welch calls Virginia, "Old Dominion." Another nickname for Virginia is "Mother of Presidents." Find out why Virginia is named so and what presidents were born there.