Across Five Aprils
In the autumn of 1862 it seems the war is going fairly well—the Confederates only control a tiny piece of the Mississippi River. The optimism is short lived, however, when news comes that the Confederates have driven Union forces away and are marching north toward Kentucky. Soon after, news arrives that McClellan's army is faltering and disorganized. "[C]riticism of the President poured in from all sides, armies were demoralized, and desertion began . "
The men of the county help the Creightons build a new barn, and Mr. Burdow sends up a shipment of wood and logs. Ross Milton tells Jethro that Mr. Burdow has been accepted into the community again, largely for helping Jethro a few months back. The men talk about the war as they work, and one speculates that McClellan is actually a "reb" and will never attack. The men argue about whether Lincoln is right or wrong. A few days letter they get a letter from Shadrach, just after the battle of Antietam. Shadrach says that the soldiers worship McClellan and rally around him but that he does not think McClellan has what it takes to lead the army to victory. Antietam is much like Shiloh—a victory in technical terms, but it resulted in a tragic loss of life as well as military blunders. A general named Ambrose Burnside replaces McClellan in the news as the new star.
After the devastating battle in Fredericksburg, they hear from Shadrach who tells them what an awful mistake the battle was and how Burnside now has the blood of thousands of Union soldiers on his hands. Similarly, John is in the battle of Stones River, which results in the death of over 13,000 soldiers. After these battles, "they were losing faith in their leaders and in the cause of union the deserters began pouring back into Illinois."
Deserters start arriving, and many of them are still armed. They camp out at a place called Point Prospect and until March of 1863, they do little besides steal food. Later, a story emerges about a soldier named Hig Phillip who paid a replacement to fight in his stead. Unlike other people who hired replacements, Hig Phillips did not have children or a condition that made fighting difficult—he simply did not want to fight. A while later, a group of former soldiers murder him. People are afraid of these men so scarred from war that they do not think anything of hurting or killing others.
One night, men representing the Federal Registrars come to the house asking about Eb. They say they have reason to believe he is a deserter, and they ask the Creightons if anyone has seen him lately. They all say no and allow the men to search the house. Jenny tells them that if they want to find deserters they should go to Point Prospect, but they make it clear they will not go there. The men leave, saying that if anyone sees Eb they must report it or suffer severe penalties.
That spring Jethro is plowing the field when he hears a strange noise. He finds Eb hiding. Eb is embarrassed that he has deserted the war, but he said that after losing battle after battle and burying man after man, he had to leave. Eb says he cannot go to the house because he does not want Ellen and Matt to know or to get into trouble. Eb says Point Prospect is an awful place—all the deserters are angry and violent. Jethro fills him in on everyone in the family and tells him about the Federal Registrars that came looking for Eb. Eb is upset, and says "I was an awful fool—at least you got a chance in battle—maybe it's once in a hundred, but it's a chance. This way, I got none." Eb goes on to say he wish he were back there, in the war. Jethro promises Eb that he will bring out a quilt and some food and returns to his work.
Jethro does not know what to do. He feels sorry for Eb, but he knows that the family can get into a lot of trouble. He knows he cannot tell his parents or ask them for advice, and he blames his silence and preoccupation at dinner on being tired. Jenny presses him on it, and guesses Jethro has been smoking. Jethro says yes, to divert her, and asks her to sneak him a little bit of food later. She agrees. That night, Jethro cannot sleep. The only thing he can think of to do is to write President Lincoln and ask for his advice. In the morning he takes the food Jenny gave him, some tea, and a quilt to Eb. At noon Jethro goes into town and mails his letter.
Weeks later, Jethro gets his response. The family sees the postmark and waits for Jethro to open the letter. In the letter Lincoln says that he has been pondering the problem and had just decided that deserters could rejoin their posts without punishment if they report to a recruitment office by April. Lincoln commends Jethro on seeking out "what is right."
Chapters 8 and 9 are grim. Jethro and the Creightons continue to survive, but the situations both at home and in the war are deteriorating. Perhaps the worst indication is that the soldiers themselves are giving up. Hunt makes a point here about what it means to believe in what one is doing. The outsiders who get newspapers and hear reports about what is happening in the war are afforded the luxury of an outsider's opinion. Those people can decide that they support and admire Ulysses Grant or General McClellan or Abe Lincoln, or they can decide they do not like or support them. People on the outside have the luxury of judgment without having to spend any moment in peril or making the difficult decisions. People on the outside take for granted that those involved in the war cause actually support it. They believe in their generals and their soldiers without ever stopping to realize how lucky they are that they can believe in them. People on the outside are blessed and can afford to believe in the soldiers and the war effort because of what they do not know and what they will never know.
This section marks the time when the soldiers begin to lose faith. They stop believing in the war effort and they stop believing in themselves. The reason the trend of desertion is so daunting is because of what it represents. If the fighters cannot make themselves believe in the cause, then the situation is so bad that they are willing to break a promise and put themselves at risk. Jethro and the rest of the country struggles to make sense of the war, and one of the ways they do is that to put stock in heroes. Everyone needs a hero in a war to represent triumph and confidence and faith, but in this war the people have been denied that. Generals have seesawed back and forth, riding a public wave of alternating exultation and disappointment. Soldiers desert the effort, leaving no one in whom the people or the soldiers can put any faith.
Abraham Lincoln's letter fills a void that Hunt carefully created. Jethro longs for a guiding voice to help him decide what to do about Eb, because like many other people Jethro does not know what to do. The choices seem to all be wrong and wrong. The president's letter reminds Jethro that first and foremost, seeking the right thing is commendable and never shameful. The president also provides Jethro with a concrete answer to his particular problem. The president's decision indicates recognition of the grimness of the war effort, and the president's willingness to forgive the deserters if they rejoin is indicative of tolerance and understanding for what the soldiers have been through. He may not be a fighter or a general, but in a time when voices are hushed and leaders virtually nonexistent, the president steps in to take command and demonstrate mercy.
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