Across Five Aprils: Chapters 10-12
In May 1863 news comes of another Union defeat with heavy losses, at Chancellorsville. The Confederate victory is credited to the superior generalship of Robert E. Lee. The Union general, Joseph Hooker, is quickly discarded.
A letter arrives from Shadrach in which he says that he has been lucky to come through the battles alive but that Jenny must prepare herself for the possibility that he may be killed. Nancy receives a letter from John and Jethro receives one from Eb, who says that some of the men hate him for deserting but that he is resigned to it.
Discontent grows with General Ulysses S. Grant, who is seen as ineffectual and a drunk. Under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate army is penetrating as far north as Pennsylvania. The North strikes back in July with a great victory at the battle of Gettysburg, followed by its capture of Vicksburg. Grant is once again a hero.
The Creightons receive notice from an aunt of Shadrach’s, who lives in Washington, to the effect that he has been seriously wounded at Gettysburg and is calling for Jenny. The aunt offers to pay for Jenny’s trip and to accommodate her in her house. Jenny is devastated. Ross Milton visits and offers to accompany Jenny to Washington. Matt gives his permission, insisting that he will pay her expenses, and wonders if he was right to forbid the pair to marry.
Jenny and Ross leave for Washington. Jethro visits Shadrach’s cabin and is shocked to see the filthy state the replacement teacher has left it in. Jethro decides to clean the place ready for Shadrach’s return.
The Creightons receive a letter from Ross in which he says that though Shadrach is very ill, he will survive. Ross believes that Jenny’s arrival saved Shadrach’s life. Ross writes on behalf of the young couple asking Matt’s consent to marry, which Matt gives. Jenny writes to Jethro asking him to write the date of their marriage in the family ledger. Jenny describes the wedding, which took place at Shadrach’s hospital bed. Jenny is working in the hospital as a nurse, tending the wounded soldiers. She writes that she and Shadrach are very happy.
Jethro writes a letter to Jenny using the tips he has learned from Ross Milton’s book on how to write good English.
Nancy receives a letter from John reporting on the battle of Chickamauga, at which the North, under General Rosecrans, suffered a terrible defeat. Only John’s unit, the Army of the Cumberland, had held firm. John writes that during the November of 1863 the army had been close to starvation and had had to eat “things that wood make you sick to think about” (p. 162). Then Grant had arrived with reinforcements. Eventually the Army of the Cumberland broke the Confederate line.
In November President Lincoln makes the speech that has become known as the Gettysburg Address. Some think it is embarrassingly bad, but Ellen declares, “It has the ring of the Scriptures about it” (p. 164).
In December President Lincoln declares an amnesty in which he promises pardon and full rights to any Confederate who swears loyalty to the Union. He also promises that a Confederate state can return to the Union if ten percent of its voters establish a Union government in the state. Matt tearfully praises the President’s mercy, but others, both in the North and South, criticize him.
Grant is put in charge of all the Union forces.
Shadrach slowly regains his health. He writes to Jethro saying that he and Jenny saw the President and Grant driving through Washington together. He says that in person, the President looks gaunt and Grant looks awkward and unimpressive.
By the beginning of 1864 President Lincoln begins his electoral campaign in a bid to be re-elected. He is criticized from within his own party (the Republicans) and from the Democrats. His critics want a policy of “no mercy to the South” (p. 167).
At the battle of Cold Harbor, Grant’s army fights that of Robert E. Lee. Grant is not victorious but he does not give up.
In August 1864 the Democrats nominate General George B. CcClellan as their Presidential candidate. Lincoln is nominated by the Republicans. Ross Milton predicts that he will win, as the country could not bear to admit that its sons had died for nothing, and he proves correct. Lincoln is re-elected.
After the election, General Sherman’s Union army disappears somewhere in Georgia. John fights in a battle in Nashville, Tennessee, and writes in a letter that the Union army drove out the Confederate General Hood’s army from Tennessee. John reports that he met Bill among the Confederate prisoners that his army had taken. John’s captain gives him permission to talk to Bill. John tells Bill all the family news. Bill tells John that he was not at the battle of Pittsburg Landing, so the bullet that killed Tom was not fired by him.
In December, Sherman makes contact with Washington and announces that he has taken Savannah. His army had marched from Atlanta to the sea and hardly met any resistance. Reports filter back about Sherman’s march and how his army had raided farms, burned houses and barns, and sabotaged railroads. Some believe that the South deserves such treatment, but others think that the bad feeling created means that the North can never truly say it has won the war.
Sherman’s army joins that of Grant and the two forces move into South Carolina. There, the army seems to go mad and indulges in shocking atrocities, justifying them with the excuse that this state gave birth to secession. Ed Turner’s son is in this army, and Ed worries that the nation’s cheering of the army’s excesses will corrupt him. The South is starving, its railroads and seaports gone. Eb writes from Tennessee that the war will soon be over, but it drags on.
Jethro turns thirteen in 1865. He is a reserved boy who reminds his family of Bill. Ellen tries to get him to talk about what is on his mind, but he will not. In fact, he is thinking about Ross Milton’s words: “Don’t expect peace to be a perfect pearl, Jeth. … This is a land lying in destruction, physical and spiritual” (p. 179). The physical destruction of the South is terrible enough, but the hatred and thirst for revenge that burns in the hearts of Southerners will tarnish the peace. Regarding his own family, Jethro is happy at the prospect of Shad, Jenny, John and Eb’s return home, but all too aware that Tom, and maybe Bill, will not return. Ross Milton tells Jethro that he hopes President Lincoln can help heal the spiritual wounds of the South and allow it to rise again with dignity.
Congress passes the thirteenth amendment, which outlaws slavery, and Illinois is the first state to ratify it. Jethro cannot understand why Ross only gives cautious welcome to this development, but Ross says that the abolition of slavery will raise a further problem. Black people who have known nothing but slavery and who have no other work experience or education will come north in search of the opportunities that have been promised them. Ross worries that they will not receive welcome. He points out that even within the army, the Northern soldiers have been angered by black people assuming that they are their friends. Jethro remembers that Wilse Graham had voiced the same views back in April 1861.
Eventually, in April 1865, peace is declared. Jethro travels into Newton with Ross for the celebrations. People dance in the streets and embrace each other, and the crowd sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
One April day, Nancy runs up to Jethro as he is working in the fields and tells him that the President has been killed. Jethro is grief-stricken at the loss of a man whom he loved as a friend. He reflects, “It was the saddest and most cruel April of the five.”
Shadrach and Jenny return home. Jethro tells Shadrach how disappointed he is that he never got to see the President. Shadrach talks about the night that he and Jenny saw him, and recalls that he looked old but happy. Shadrach offers to take Jethro to see the President’s body laid out, but Jethro agrees that it is only an empty shell.
Shadrach tells Jethro that he is returning to college to complete his studies. He and Jenny have decided that Jethro should come and live with them and take time off farming to study. Eb and John will help Matt and Ellen with the farm. Jenny calls them in to the cabin. Jethro walks with Shadrach towards her open arms, feeling that at the moment, all shadows are lifted.
Analysis of Chapters 10-12
President Lincoln’s amnesty to the almost-defeated South is typical of his merciful and thoughtful approach to events. Again, this stance is contrasted with that of less wise souls who are quick to resort to violence and vengefulness. In this section of the novel, the men of blood include the Union soldiers who ransack the exhausted South. One of Matt’s neighbors warns, “A war ain’t won that leaves scars like this on folks who be our brothers” (Chapter 12, p. 175). The men of blood also include those within government who criticize Lincoln’s conciliatory stance and demand “no mercy to the South” (Chapter 11, p. 167). Lincoln is vindicated in being re-elected, only to be assassinated shortly afterwards by a madman. In an example of tragic irony, this exponent of peace and mercy also falls victim to violence.
While the novel ends with the victory of the Union, the tone is anything but triumphant. The outcome warned of at the novel’s beginning by the defender of slavery, Wilse Graham, is reiterated at the novel’s end by an opponent of slavery and one of the wisest characters, Ross Milton. He warns of a whole new series of problems that will arise when the former slaves, who are without education and skills, migrate north. They will expect a welcome from the whites who fought against the slave states, along with the same benefits and rewards due to all free people. Ross believes that things will not be so simple, as even the Union soldiers who fought to abolish slavery are angered by an assumption of friendship on the part of black people. He says, “Don’t expect peace to be a perfect pearl, Jeth. … This is a land lying in destruction, physical and spiritual.” It is no accident that the period after the Civil War in the United States was named the Reconstruction Era (1865–1877). True to Ross Milton’s predictions, the struggle of African Americans to secure full civil rights lasted well into the 1960s.
The strongest positive message at the novel’s end relate not to the fate of the fractured nation but to the piecing together of the Creighton family. Jethro, who has come of age through the period of the war, will live with his teacher and friend Shadrach, and his beloved sister Jenny, and continue the education that was interrupted. It is fitting that the final image of the novel is of Jethro running towards Jenny’s embrace.