A Chain of Thunder

Interest Level: Middle School, High School, Adult

“When the sun went down, the shelling began again, the civilians moving inside quickly, but she remained outside the cave, watched the red streaks, heard the thumps and distant thunder, and noticed now for the first time that something was missing. What had been done to James’s best friend was an act of raw desperation repeated in the town, and all throughout the cave-spotted hills. Until now, every time the shells came, it had been the same, the whistle and shriek of the mortars and the cannon fire answered by a scattered chorus of howling dogs. But tonight there were no howls…” (510)

If the above quote doesn’t make you want to pick up A Chain of Thunder: A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg (the Civil War in the West) by Jeff Shaara, then perhaps you should just stop reading here! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. (Yes, Mr. Shaara himself calls it a novel in his letter to the reader.)

A friendly note: I read this book right before my trip to Vicksburg. I made sure to take pictures of everything I could find that was mention in this novel, therefore, you will see A LOT OF PICTURES in this post. Quite possibly more than I have ever included!

 

A Chain of Thunder follows the Vicksburg campaign. Grant, Sherman and several other Union Generals and their men are headed to Mississippi from Tennessee. There to meet them is General Pemberton. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the President desires Pemberton to protect Vicksburg, but General Johnston desires Pemberton to march out and meet Grant.

Pemberton is an interesting person in that he is originally a Pennsylvanian but married a Virginian woman. Therefore, he sides with the Confederacy in the war. His men, however, do not fully trust him seeing as he is a Yankee by birth. This makes his command even more challenging.

The chapters are each presented by a different character in the novel, which I love! It allows you to get multiple perspectives about the same situation.

It also gives you a glimpse into the relationships between different leaders. Not until I read this book did I realize that Sherman and Grant were so close. Sherman was fiercely loyal and protective of Grant. Even when he didn’t fully agree with Grant’s decisions he bow to military rule and followed Grant’s orders.

We meet both Confederate civilians like Lucy Spence and file-in-rank soldiers from both sides. We learn of wounds, starvation, death, and fear from each character.  

I jotted down lots of notes in the margins and kept wishing my students could read this novel! (My pre-ap kids just might read it next year!)

There are too many details to get into in this post, but I will say Shaara does a magnificent job putting you in the minds of those involved in this conflict. His attention to detail and research is phenomenal. As a teacher, I always stress to my students the importance of studying an event such as the Civil War from both sides. Shaara definitely does this.

 

Cautions:

*This is a war book therefore battle scenes are discussed. There is no description that is unnecessarily gory. Do to the nature of the event, the dead on the Union side were left out in the field for some time. There is one chapter in particular where Bauer sees several Union dead out in front of him and will describe the bloated bodies.

*Civilians who chose to stay in Vicksburg will eventually have to move to the hills and create caves. There they will eventually subsist on donkeys, squirrels, dogs, and even rats.

*There is some good natured ribbing among the soldiers and some harsh commands from the younger officers. (I don’t rightly remember off hand there being any foul cuss words used.)

Awesomeness:

*You get a glimpse into the lives of the leaders. Until I read this book and William Tecumseh Sherman by James Lee McDonough, I did not know that Sherman lacked confidence in his abilities and vehemently hated the press! (For good reason!)

*The reader gains a better understanding of the strategy and reasoning behind the siege. We are privy to the true intelligence of all those in charge.

*The book is incredibly well-written and will have the reader eager to finish. (Even if you already know the outcome.)

*This book would be a wonderful springboard to use in studying the Civil War leaders like Sherman, Grant, Pemberton, and Johnston.

Lesson Plan Ideas:

*Research each leader: Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Pemberton, Bowen, Johnston

*Go to the Vicksburg National Military Park youtube channel and watch several awesome videos!

*Research Vicksburg civilian stories

The Underground Railroad

Interest Level: Adult

 

Intense. Sad. Overwhelming. Cruel. These are the words that come to mind when describing   The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize Winner) (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah’s Book Club): A Novel by Colson Whitehead.

The story follows Cora, a slave in the deep south. Woven throughout her story are the stories of her mother, grandmother, and other characters in the novel. Colson Whitehead does a marvelous job of weaving these stories together into a seamless tale.

The novel’s central focus is on Cora and her journey north on the underground railroad. She is first approached about this journey by Caesar, another slave on the plantation. It wasn’t until her master died and his brother took over the farm that she even considered running away.

Cora and Caesar take off together and make it to Charleston, S.C. There they become comfortable with life as freed blacks. That is, until they are discovered. Cora is being hunted by Ridgeway, a slave catcher out for revenge & vindication. He had attempted to hunt down Cora’s mother when she run away but never found her. He is driven by hate and a need to clear his name.

When writing these posts, I always struggle with exactly how much of the story to share. I don’t want to give away too many details and spoil the emotion that will inevitably come along with the first time you read this. But I do feel that I must share some serious concerns with you. Please forgive me if you feel as though I have ruined the storyline for you.

Cautions:

*This book is written in vivid detail. There are scenes of rape, torture, and murder that are described. Corpses hang along roads with genitals cut off. A slave is tortured & burned on the front lawn of his master’s house while he hosts a luncheon!

*As a history teacher, I was annoyed that Whitehead chose to make the underground a real railroad underground. As a literary lover, I can appreciate the attempt to change it up a bit and be more creative.

Overall, this book was hard to read and the ending was disappointing. I actually listened to it as an audiobook and that may have made getting through it even more difficult. It’s one thing to read something so intense to yourself; it’s another to have it read to you!

I would not suggest letting younger readers read this book. It is definitely for mature audiences only!  

Wedded to War

Interest Level: High School/Adult

 

Forget being wedded to war, I am wedded to this book! I did NOT want to put it down, but I HAD to put it down a few times. This book made me cringe, gasp, moan in fear, sigh in frustration, and talk back to the characters. All of which are signs of a great novel.

Quick summary: Charlotte volunteers to be trained as a nurse for the Civil War. Her mom, sister, and suitor all disapprove of her decision. After training in New York, she is sent to Washington, D.C. to serve in the local hospital. There she is thrust into the hardships of being a woman in a male dominated world as well as the hardships of war. Woven throughout the war is Charlotte’s personal struggle with following her calling and what society deems appropriate.

Long summary: Charlotte is considered a spinster because she is 28 and not yet wed. She is being courted by Phineas Hastings, a wealthy New Yorker. Much to his chagrin, Charlotte volunteers to be trained as a nurse for the war. He figures this will be a short term infatuation and she will eventually put it all behind her and marry him. A few chapters in, we are introduced to Ruby, an Irish immigrant also living in New York. She is struggling to make ends meet and her husband Matthew recently shipped off to war. She finds herself in Five Points seeking work. She meets the a group of women who place women of high moral character but low socioeconomic status as domestics.

As fate would have it, Ruby is placed in the house of Phineas’ mother. There she meets the ill tempered Phineas. Phineas feels the need to control all the women in his life and out of fear for something Ruby overheard, he rapes her. Once violated Ruby takes to a life of prostitution. She meets Dr. Blackwell at her office in Five Points. There Dr. Blackwell matched Ruby up with a job in Washington, D.C. She is put under the care of… you guessed it, Charlotte. Ruby works hard and diligently and doesn’t know of Phineas’ and Charlotte’s connection until months after being in D.C.  

Charlotte, her sister Alice, and Ruby continue to work for the Sanitary Commission. All the while, Phineas is attempting to retrieve Charlotte and convince her to marry him. Phineas’ stoops to some really low levels in order to protect his wealth. It is his character that caused all of the emotions mentioned at the beginning of this post. 

I do not want to say too much more for fear of ruining the story and for you chance to make faces such as mine! (Note: these are from my instastory!)

Cautions:

*Phineas is a terrible man. He does rape Ruby and then blackmail her about it.

*Prostitution is discussed and for a short time Ruby is a prostitute.

*Ruby toys with idea of abortion and suicide.

*This novel is set during war, as such, wounds, fever, and amputations are all discussed.

*Be prepared to discuss abusive treatment or thoughts toward women.

Overall, this book is AMAZING!! I have not felt this kind of reaction to a book in a long time. I had to put it down and walk away a few times from frustration with the characters!! But I could not wait to come back to it! Jocelyn Green also does a wonderful job weaving in Biblical truths that stand the test of time. I love how Charlotte, Caleb, Edward, and Ruby all quote scripture to each other as a form of encouragement and love.

 

Lesson Plan Ideas:

*Chapter Two discusses the secession of Virginia and the attack on Union forces in Baltimore. Research the city of Baltimore and why they might attack Union forces. What was Lincoln’s response? You can check out The Hour of Peril as a resource for this. 

*Research all the historical figures in this novel:

-Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

-Dorothea Dix

-Robert E. Lee

-Abraham Lincoln

-George B. McClellan

-Frederick Law Olmsted

-General Winfield Scott (Scott’s Great Snake/Anaconda Plan)

 

*Research the inspiration for Charlotte: Georgeanna Woolsey

*Research the battles mentioned:

-Bull Run

-The Peninsula Campaign

-The Second Battle of Bull Run

*Watch the scene from America the Story of US: Civil War about the minie ball

*Look into Five Points and the Irish Riots of 1863 (Watch Gangs of New York for mature readers or used selected scenes that show the Conscription Riots.)

*Chapter 19 mentions Rose Greenhow, the main character from Wild Rose. You could have your child read Wild Rose: The True Story of a Civil War Spy or research female spies in the Civil War.

*In chapter 30, Charlotte meets Marty, a fallen soldier. She learns that Marty is actually a woman. Look into female soldiers in the Civil War. There are some great scholarly works out there about female soldiers. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War is an excellent resource.

*The end of the book offers an insight into the true parts of the novel, including social norms.

*Jocelyn Green offers a free supplemental guide on her website for this novel. 

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer

Chasing Lincoln's Killer

 

Grade Level: Seventh Grade

 

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer was an amazing read! The author, James L. Swanson, is incredibly educated about the assassination of Lincoln. The historical information presented in this book is outstanding.

 

As I read through this book, my heart would beat faster as Swanson described the chase for John Wilkes Booth. The description of the plot to assassinate Lincoln was well laid out. The description of the days later were intense. I did not know about the near misses in arresting Booth. He manages to escape from the calvary multiple times.

 

There are several things to be aware of in this novel. Mostly, the descriptions of the murder of Lincoln and the attacks on the other governmental official. On page 41, the author writes, “The ball ripped through his chestnut-colored hair, cut the skin, penetrated the skull, and because of the angle of Lincoln’s head at the moments of impacts, made a diagonal tunnel through Lincoln’s brain. The wet brain matter slowed the ball’s speed…” Later he mentions Dr. Leale’s attempt to relieve pressure on the brain. In both instances, the author states that the doctor uses his finger to remove the blot clot from the bullet wound. In one description he mentions “Fresh blood and brain matter oozed through Leale’s fingers.” (page 77)

 

Chapter III presents a vivid description of the attack on Secretary of State Seward. The author describes how Powell attacked multiple people in the house that night in attempt to get to Seward. These attacks include pistol whipping Seward’s son Frederick. Powell engages in hand-to-hand fighting with a veteran and guard of Seward. He also attacks Seward’s daughter Fanny. Swanson writes, “The blade slashed open Seward’s cheek so viciously that the skin hung from a flap, exposing his teeth and fractured jawbone.” Later on page 169, there is a picture of Seward showing the scar he received from the attack.

 

Most of the book focuses on the chase for Booth. Swanson lays out the route Booth took after shooting Lincoln. He lists the people who assisted him on his way south. In one instance, Booth hires an African-American to help him. Personally, I found this interesting seeing as Booth was a very proud confederate and pro-slavery.

 

In the epilogue, Swanson mentions the fate of those charged with the assassination of Lincoln, Seward, and Vice President Johnson. One of those was Mary Surat. She was the first woman hanged by the US Government. Swanson uses pictures from newspapers from the time throughout his book. A word of warning: the image of the hanging of the four members of Booth’s plot is in the epilogue. Swanson also tells his readers that the man in the booth with Lincoln goes crazy and kills his wife.

 

Overall, this book was an amazing read. The information is strongly supported by historical sources and much research on the part of the author. If your child is interested in Lincoln, then this book is a must read.

 

Lesson Plan Ideas:

  1. Your child could do a science experiment over coagulation.
  2. Use the map on page 62 to practice directions. They could plan an alternate route for Booth to take from Ford’s Theatre.
  3. Create a timeline over the events of the two week search. TEKS 8.1A talks about using chronology and identifying important eras and dates in history.
  4. Kids can create a newspaper article over the assassination of Lincoln or even the capture and death of Booth.
  5. Write a diary entry as one of the characters.
  6. Create a witness statement.
  7. Created a wanted sign for Booth and the men in his group.

Lincoln’s Spymaster

Lincoln's Spymaster

 

Grade Level: 7th Grade

Lincoln’s Spymaster: Allan Pinkerton, America’s First Private Eye by Samantha Seiple is an engaging read. Similar to that of The Hour of Peril, Lincoln’s Spymaster focuses on the detective agency started by Allan Pinkerton. This book starts a few days before the plot to assassinate Lincoln on his way to the White House. Seiple uses this plot as an introduction to Pinkerton’s skills. She continues on through Pinkerton’s career discussing his involvement with Union General George McClellan as well as his experiences fighting the Reno Brothers’ Gang and the James-Younger Gang.

Seiple does a great job of introducing vocabulary to the reader. She presents the facts in short spurts that are easily digested and followed by the reader. She keeps the story short and sweet outlining all of Pinkerton’s cases.

I enjoyed this book for several reasons. One, she uses a lot of pictures. It is always fun to see pictures of the people being discussed in the book. The images used give the reader a chance to better visualize this time in history. One particular image on page 166 shows the Younger brothers. I found it fascinating because they do not look like what one might think outlaws would look like. The author also mentions that they came from a wealthy family. I found this interesting. I thought both the picture and that particular fact opened up the possibilities of conversation with kids. You could talk about how we cannot always tell things about people by their outsides. It also lent itself to a conversation about greed.

Two, this book lends itself to Civil War research. It talks about the Battle of Ft. Sumter ( page 53), the Battle of Antietam (page 112) and Bleeding Kansas (page 154). All three of these events are listed in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) under 8.8B. Seiple does a great job of introducing these events and the role the difference characters in the book played in them.

Three, this book is a great introduction to Wild Rose and The Hour of Peril. All three of these books are set during the mid to late 1800s. Many of the characters are seen in all three of these novels. I think this would be a great book to start with and if your child shows continued interest in Pinkerton or the issues surrounding the Civil War, they could look into the other two books.

Part I of the book is really child friendly. Part II is a little more violent. The second part of the book focuses on Pinkerton’s hunt of outlaws. This particular topic lends itself to a little more violence. On pages 140 & 147, Seiple describes the hanging of a group of outlaws. These lynchings are at the hands of a vigilante mob. For example, at the bottom of page 139 and continuing on page 140 she writes, “The nooses were tightened around each one of their necks. The barrels they were standing on were kicked away. Instantly, they were hanging by their necks, their bodies flailing until finally limp.” The scene on 147 is a little more graphic because she describes the assault on the sheriff before the mob kidnaps the robbers and hangs them. Chapters 13 and 14 also contain graphic information. Several Pinkerton guards are killed while investigating the James-Younger Gang. An example of one of the deaths described can be found on page 171: “There was a dead man lying in the road. His hands and feet were tied. The dead man’s body was shot all to pieces.”

I really enjoyed this book. It was very interesting to think about the issues West of the Mississippi in the late 19th century. While the level of this book is 7th grade, I encourage you to think about the maturity of your child. I do believe this book opens up discussion about the development of the US. Many people don’t think about the development of law enforcement. It’s hard to imagine a time where people really believed in an “eye for an eye”. Outlaws and vigilante forces are a fact in American History and should not be overlooked, but this book may not be the best choice for your child depending on their age or maturity.

 

Lesson Plan Ideas:

*Read all of Lincoln’s Inaugural Address and summarize his thoughts on secession.

*Read Jefferson Davis’ Inaugural Address and fill out a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting his thoughts on the Union and secession with Lincoln’s. (This is TEKS 8.8C)

*List and define all vocabulary mentioned in the book.

*Create a wanted poster for a member of one of the gangs.

*Write an obituary for Pinkerton.

The Hour of Peril

The Hour of Peril

Grade Level: Upper Middle/High School

 

“We never sleep” was the motto of the first private eye in the United States. Allan Pinkerton, an immigrant from Scotland, made a name for himself as Chicago’s best and only private eye. The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower follows the early years of Pinkerton and ultimately outlines how he came to Baltimore to uncover a plot to kill the newly elected President: Abraham Lincoln.

 

The book is divided into three parts. Part one does an outstanding job of describing the life of Allan Pinkerton. The reader is taken all the way to Scotland during a time of civil unrest and introduced to the fiercely passionate Allan. Stashower brings us into the story of a youngman caught up in the Chartist movement of his day. So much so, that he will become a fugitive and board a boat to America with his new wife.

 

Stashower gives the reader many details depicting the early life of Pinkerton in the United States. Using many of Allan Pinkerton’s own words, Stashower portrays the story of the unlikely detective.

 

The meat of the story really develops in part two. There, Stashower introduces the reader to the turmoils of America in the late 1850s. After Lincoln was elected president, there was an outcry from the Southern states, many of which seceded. Maryland is what we call a border state. It did not secede and housed both pro-slavery and anti-slavery sentiments. It is discovered that there is a plot to kill Lincoln to his way through Baltimore en route to DC. Allan Pinkerton is hired by a railroad owner to investigate these rumors and foil the plot to kill the president-elect.

 

Part three ultimately wraps up the plot and ends with the installation of Lincoln in the White House.

 

This book is well written and plays out like an old fashioned mystery. I was eager to continue reading to learn the details. Daniel Stashower moves back and forth between Pinkerton’s investigation in Baltimore and Lincoln’s travels to the capital. Because of the back and forth, the reader is constantly wondering if Pinkerton will foil the plot in time for Lincoln to safely pass through Baltimore on his way to the White House.

 

This book would be a great read if your child already has some basic understanding of the tension in the United States at this time. It is a rather lengthy book at 340 pages, but is well researched. The use of primary sources is outstanding and really allows the reader into the thoughts and feelings of all of those involved at the time. There are two specific instances to be aware of: on page 123 there is a description of one of the plotters spending time with a woman of ill repute. The gentlemen is said to have “hugged and kissed” this woman for over an hour. That is as far as the description of the scene goes. The other area to be aware of is the use of the word G–D— in the primary sources. These particular sources, found on page 83, are addressed to the president and written by southern sympathizers.  

 

Lesson Ideas:

 

  1. Draw Pinkerton & Lincoln’s heads and create a conversation between the two of them.
  2. OR create a text message conversation between Lincoln & Pinkerton. (Or any two characters)
  3. Since the book moves forward and back through time, creating a timeline might be really helpful. Timelines are a great way to practice chronology.
  4. Create biographies for some of the minor characters like Pinkerton’s detectives or Lincoln’s travel companions.
  5. Create a biography/backstory for the detective’s characters.
  6. Create a facebook or instagram for any of the characters in the book.

Wild Rose

Grade Level: Upper Middle School/High School

 

Wild Rose is a detailed account of Rose Greenhow’s espionage on behalf of the Confederacy. Ann Blackman does a superb job detailing the life of Rose. Using excerpts from letters and diary entries by Rose herself, Blackman pieces together the life of this unlikely spy.

 

After the death of her father, Rose is sent, along with one of her sisters, to live with an aunt in Washington, DC. There she is introduced to society and sophistication. Never one to bend to others, Rose spoke openly about her support of the south and her love for the Confederacy. Through a series of connections, Rose is able to send word of Union movements to southern officials. Her outspokenness for the southern cause and her fraternization with union officials, eventually lands her in prison.

 

This book, while heavily supported by Rose’s own words, reads more like a novel than a scholarly work. As a history teacher, I loved that Blackman set the stage for the Civil War by mentioning all the events of the 1850s and how they connected to Rose. The connection between Rose and many key players for both sides of the war is fascinating. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the role of women in the Civil War.
My one word of caution is this: she was a southern sympathizer. The reader must understand that this book will point out Rose’s views and beliefs about slavery and the Confederacy. Blackman does a great job of presenting Rose’s point of view without belittling any one group of people. Rose is also thought to have had intimate relations with multiple men in order to receive important information. Blackman only mentions this to educate the reader on how Rose knew so much. She does make a point to mention that there is no evidence to support these claims. Only Rose will ever know what truly happened in her personal space.