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In February 1862, the North, under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant, is victorious at Fort Henry, and then again at Fort Donelson. Jethro, Jenny, and their father celebrate as do the rest of the people in the Northern states. Matt’s hopes are tempered, however, because even though reports from the newspaper describe General McClellan as “brilliant”, he is not moving forward in battle with his Army of the Potomac. In addition, the family is worried that Tom and Eb were with Grant’s army during the bitter fighting at Donelson.
Finally, the Creightons receive a letter from Tom. In it Tom says that he and Eb are fine, and goes on to describe the fighting at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. He also confesses how the soldiers, overconfident from their victory at Fort Henry, discarded their coats and blankets not realizing that some would freeze to death in the snow at Donelson.
Ellen, saddened by the letter, sends Jethro to spend the night with Shad who, along with John, will be leaving for the war the following week. Jenny helps Jethro get ready and shares with him her misery that Matt will not allow her to marry Shad because of her young age. Jethro promises to bring Jenny a full report of everything Shad has to say, and will also invite Shad for supper the following day.
It is a bitter mile-long walk to Shadrach’s. Jethro warms up inside Shad’s house while Shad echoes Jenny’s complaints about not being allowed to marry. Knowing he is leaving with no certainty of returning adds to Shad’s pain. He and Jethro talk about the war and Shad reads Tom’s letter. He explains the strategy of war to Jethro, mapping out the states and strategic rivers, towns and railroads. They talk about Grant, McClellan and Lincoln. Jethro refers to the President as “Ol’ Abe” and Shad rebukes him. Shad and Jethro respect Lincoln and, though some may criticize him for the mistakes of his generals, the two are confident of the President’s ability. Finally, they speak of Bill. Shad assures Jethro that Bill’s search for what is right, even if it is not the same “right” that others see, took tremendous courage.
To alleviate their sadness, Shad and Jethro have supper. They talk of Shad’s return to marry Jenny and how Jethro can come live with them to continue his studies. Jethro promises to take care of Shad’s books, study hard, and watch over Jenny while Shad is gone. The two sing together by the fire. Afterward, Jethro curls up with thoughts of Lincoln, Grant, Bill, Tom, Jenny and Shad, happy to have spent the evening as a “bachelor”.
Jethro’s continuing transformation into premature manhood is illustrated in this chapter by Hunts descriptions of Jethro’s farm work, which now includes independently piling wood, and preparing hay and corn for the livestock, not just placing potato cuttings in his mother’s furrows (see Ch.1). It is also evidenced by his ability to understand the painful logic of the war as explained by Shad, an understanding that goes beyond the newspaper and public opinion.
Two themes are also addressed here. The first is the power of the Presidency. Both Shad and Jethro respect and support Lincoln, even though the President seems indecisive about the war and receives criticism from many. He is constant regardless of the successes or failures of his generals. Shad corrects Jethro to be more respectful than to call the President “Ol’ Abe”. The second theme is how the perception of war varies depending on from where the account of the war is coming. The newspapers glorify McClellan who is an excellent administrator and trainer, yet he has done nothing noteworthy with his Army of the Potomac in battle. Public opinion is behind Grant who has two decisive victories that some naively feel will end the war. Tom’s first hand account shows neither the glory nor the politics of war, but the power of the ironclads [shallow-draft gunboats fortified with up to 2 ˝ inches of iron], the helplessness of soldiers, and the grim reality of death. And lastly, Shad’s account is of the logic and strategy of war, spelling out the grave work ahead.