Across Five Aprils: Chapters 7-9
That spring, Matt’s neighbors come to his aid, banding together to get him new grain, hay, and farming equipment to replace everything that was destroyed in the barn fire. They clean his well, volunteer their labor, and even provide a replacement dog.
Men who have been wounded in the battle of Shiloh pour into Illinois. One of these wounded men, a neighbor called Dan Lawrence, brings news that Tom has been killed. He was shot as he watched boats arriving with reinforcements. Ross Milton publishes a letter in the newspaper to the men who burned down Matt Creighton’s barn. The letter points out that Matt has not only been punished by the loss of his barn, but now his son has been killed. He reminds readers that Tom Creighton died facing his opponents bravely in battle, in contrast with the cowards who set fire to the Creighton barn at night and ran away – and have never faced a Confederate bullet.
Jenny adds the date of Tom’s death to the family ledger in the Bible. Jethro notices the names of his three siblings who died in the year he was born. Jenny thinks it a miracle that she and Jethro survived the illness from which they died. Jethro says he looks forward to the day he can write Jenny’s marriage in the ledger, but Jenny says she is too frightened to make any plans.
In the fall of 1862 Sam Gardiner, the owner of the Newton general store, expects Wortman to target his store in retaliation for Gardiner’s condemnation of Wortman’s attack on the Creighton barn. Gardiner lies in wait for Wortman at night and catches him vandalizing his store. Gardiner shoots Wortman in the backside and ends his reign of terror.
The Union’s General Halleck manages to take Corinth, but is criticized for being fooled into allowing the Confederate army to retreat without recrimination.
By the fall of 1862 the Union has won some important victories and only a small strip of the Mississippi is under Confederate control. But soon, word comes from Tennessee that the Confederate forces have driven the Union forces out of the Cumberland Gap and are moving north to Kentucky. A second disaster for the Union forces takes place at Bull Run. Criticism of the President and the Union generals abounds and desertion begins in earnest.
In September, men from as far away as Newton come to help the Creightons build a new barn. Ross Milton comes to look on, though he is too crippled to work. His employee, Charley, brings a load of logs from Dave Burdow. Jethro, touched, asks Ross to thank Dave. Ross tells Jethro that since Dave protected Jethro on his return trip from Newton, Dave has begun to be welcomed back into the community.
Ellen lays out a meal for the men, who are full of talk about General McClellan, who is derided for being ineffectual. Some criticize the President, too.
A few days after the barn-raising, Jenny receives a letter from Shadrach, who fought his first battle at Antietam. This time, she reads the entire letter aloud. Shadrach writes that the men are devoted to McClellan, though he does not share their devotion. Shadrach feels that he lacks the necessary singleness of purpose to win the war. Soon afterwards, the President relieves McClellan of his command and he is replaced by a man called Ambrose Burnside. The North suffers terrible losses at Fredericksburg. Shadrach sends another letter in which he says that Burnside does not have the confidence of his men.
At the beginning of 1863 Nancy receives a letter from John relating his experiences at the battle of Stones River, which ended in victory, but entailed huge losses. The people of the North are discouraged. They lack faith in their leaders and feel that the war may never be won.
Deserters pour into Illinois. They are desperate and armed, and roam the country raiding vegetable gardens and orchards for food. They even kill a man who is known to have paid a substitute to go to war in his place. They congregate at a place called Point Prospect, which quickly becomes a no-go area for ordinary people. People feel that a state of lawlessness has descended. Nancy boards up her home and moves her family in with the Creightons for safety.
One night, three soldiers from the office of the Federal Registrars visit the Creighton family and announce that they are hunting down deserters. They ask after Eb, who has deserted, and ask the family if they know the penalty for shielding a deserter. Matt truthfully says they have heard nothing from Eb recently. An angry Jenny asks them why they do not go to Point Prospect, where many deserters have gathered, but they are clearly not prepared to go there. They search the property but fail to find anyone. They tell Jethro that if Eb turns up, he must tell the Federal Registrars office immediately.
In spring, Jethro goes to John’s place to work, taking a gun with him for defense. Each time he gets near the woods at the side of the field, he hears what he thinks is a wild turkey calling. He feels compelled to investigate, heads into the woods, and discovers Eb. He is skeletally thin and has a desperate air. Eb tells Jethro that he was unable to stand the deaths and defeats of the battlefield and simply left. Jethro wants Eb to come to the house and visit the family, but Eb says he does not want to get them into trouble. Eb asks after Bill, but Jethro says they have not heard anything. Jethro tells Eb that the soldiers from the Federal Registrars have been to the Creightons’ looking for him. Eb says that he has been “an awful fool”: at least on the battlefield he had a chance, but as a deserter he has none. Jethro wonders what to do. He tells Eb he will bring him quilts and food, and that then they will work out a solution. Eb says that not even President Lincoln himself can help him.
Jethro leaves Eb for the time being and returns to his work. He reflects that he cannot judge Eb, as he has no idea how he himself would respond to the stresses of the battlefield. Jethro decides he cannot tell his father about Eb, as that would simply shift the burden of a difficult decision onto a sick old man (Matt).
Jenny notices that Jethro is not himself, and Jethro allows her to think that it is because he has made himself ill by smoking. The next day he takes food to Eb and asks him if he would return to the army if he could. Eb says he would, but a deserter cannot go back. Jethro secretly writes to President Lincoln, telling him about his dilemma and asking for his help.
A few days later, President Lincoln replies to Jethro’s letter. He writes that he has recently given much thought to the problem of deserters. He has come to the conclusion that he will declare an amnesty: any deserter who reports to certain designated posts on April 1 will be allowed to rejoin their regiments without punishment except loss of pay for the time they were away. The President ends his letter with a prayer to God to bless Jethro for his desire to seek out what is right.
Analysis of Chapters 7-9
The barn-raising is a positive note in what is otherwise a chronicle of suffering. Matt’s neighbors come together to provide all the things that were lost in the fire set by Wortman and his accomplices. Most touching is Dave Burdow’s gift of wood from his land to rebuild the barn. Dave has responded to the vengefulness of Wortman’s act of arson with generosity to the victims (the Creightons), reciprocating the generosity that Matt Creighton once showed to Dave’s son Travis. The entire episode shows the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of kindness to win over malice. It also shows the tendency of compassionate and selfless acts to rebound and create more harmony, whereas vengeful and violent acts create only suffering and hatred. As a result of Dave’s gesture, he is once again welcomed back into a community that has long shunned him.
There are many situational ironies in the novel that are brought about by the war. Situational irony is a literary device in which there is a discrepancy between an expected result and an actual result; the perverse outcome often highlights a surprising but telling truth. For example, Jethro, the baby of the Creighton family, ends up as its head when all the other sons go off to war and Matt becomes ill. Eb, who banged the drum the loudest for war, ends up deserting. Dave Burdow, whom everyone has long condemned as feckless, ends up in the role of hero as he saves Jethro’s life. And the soldiers of the Federal Registrars office who arrive at the Creightons’ to hunt down supposedly cowardly deserters are themselves revealed as cowards when, as Jenny points out, they are too frightened to go to Point Prospect, where many desperate and wild deserters have gathered.
Hunt questions through this episode whether deserters like Eb are the real cowards. Jethro realizes that the truth about bravery and cowardice is not as simple as the ‘armchair generals’ like Ed Turner and Ross Milton suggest in their analyses of the war, carried out from a safe distance. While Eb may not be a conventional hero, thinks Jethro, “How do I know what I’d be like if I was sick and scared and hopeless; how does Ed Turner or Mr. Milton or any man know that ain’t been there?” (Chapter 9, p. 140). Jethro learns that judgments are easily made but they may reflect little of the truth about men and situations.
Jethro’s maturity is shown in the episode in which he decides not to burden his father with the knowledge of Eb’s presence, but instead writes to the President asking for help. The President’s reply shows that he has been thinking about exactly the question that Jethro puts to him, suggesting that Jethro and the President operate on a similar level of thoughtfulness and wisdom. The President’s attitude is humane and compassionate but also has the practical benefit of reclaiming for the Union forces a huge number of soldiers who deserted. His calmly thought out response to a difficult situation contrasts starkly with the stupidity and destructiveness of the attitude held by Guy Wortman to Bill’s perceived betrayal of the North. Wortman would punish the innocent for this perceived crime and perpetuate the cycle of hatred and fear. Lincoln, on the other hand, steps back from the emotions involved and produces a positive outcome for all, just as Matt Creighton did in the wake of Mary’s killing.