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Rifles for Watie  
Cover of the 1991 reissue hardback
Author Harold Keith
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Historical, War novel
Publisher Thomas Y. Crowell
Publication date 1957
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 352 pp (hardback edition)

Rifles for Watie is an American children's novel by Harold Keith. It was first published in 1957, and received the Newbery Medal the following year. Commonly shortened "Rifles", Rifles for Watie is written at an 8th grade advanced - 9th grade level.

Plot introduction[]

Set during the American Civil War, the plot revolves around Jefferson Davis Bussey who is sixteen and caught up in the events of history. Actual historical personages (e.g. Generals Stand Watie and James G. Blunt) and battles (e.g. Wilson's Creek and Prairie Grove) are seen from the viewpoint of an ordinary soldier, enabled by the choice of protagonist. Harold Keith spent many years interviewing Civil War veterans and visiting the sites depicted in the book, resulting in an authenticity that is rare for historical non-fiction that targets a young adult audience.

The setting, west of the Mississippi, is also not typical of Civil War novels, so the reader gets a perspective on the war not generally available in other books, let alone one found in children's books.

Plot summary[]

Jeff marches off to Fort Leavenworth from Linn County, Kansas in 1861, on his way to join the Union volunteers. He's off to fight for the North; his zeal having been fueled by reaction to the guerilla war of "bushwhackers" that was taking place in eastern Kansas. However, Stand Watie is on the side of the South. We meet many soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war, including Watie's raiding parties, itinerant printer Noah Babbitt and, in Tahlequah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) the beautiful girl, Lucy Washbourne.

Jeff's story is notable as he eventually winds up fighting for both the North and the South at different times during the conflict while making new friends on each side. It is also notable for the detailed depiction of contemporary Cherokee life in Indian Territory, including various tribal political factions. Keith portrays how Jeff Bussey, in the midst of huge conflicts, had to choose one side or another at various times and how this was not always as simple as it may seem in historical hindsight.

Characters in Rifles for Watie[]

  • Jefferson (Jeff) Davis Bussey – the protagonist
  • Lucy Washbourne – Jeff's love interest, a young woman living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (then Indian Territory)
  • Lee Washbourne – Lucy's brother, a Confederate soldier and scout
  • Noah Babbitt – an itinerant printer, older than Jeff, and a Union soldier.
  • Stand Watie – historical character, the last Confederate general to surrender at the war's end.
  • James G. Blunt – historical character, Union general who battled to control Indian Territory.
  • David Gardner – Jeff's hometown friend who joins the Union Army with him.
  • John Chadwick – Another of Jeff's hometown friends who joins the Union Army with him.
  • Capt. Asa Clardy – Jeff's commanding officer in the Union Army, and a major antagonist against Jeff.
  • Heifer Hobbs – company cook and mentor for Jeff in the Indian cavalry, a division of the Confederate States Army.
  • Sparrow- The cook Jeff's regiment on the Union
  • Bill Earle- A friend Jeff made in the war, on the Union side

Main themes[]

Jeff learns about the destructiveness and waste of war. In this sense, the novel is very much in the tradition of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. The novel examines the issues, weapons (the Spencer rifle), and strategies of the western campaigns.


good vs. evil= (Captain Clardy vs. Jeff) (North vs. South) (South vs. North)

  • Things aren't always as they seem (Jeff thought the North was good and the South was bad until he "joined" Stand Watie and they were good to him)
  • Never Lose Hope (Jeff was on the rebel side for a while, but he never lost hope) (Even when Jeff was lots of months overdue for duty he still waited for the right information) (When Jeff was running away from the Confederates even when he was starved and tired he still tried to make it back) (He made friends with Sully the Bloodhound to get across the river) (He never lost hope of seeing Lucy again) (He never lost hope of seeing his friends and family again)
  • Love (Lucy Washbourne and Jeff always find a way to get over their different beliefs no matter how passionate they are.)

Awards and nominations[]

  • Winner, 1958 Newbery Medal
  • Notable Children's Books of 1957 (ALA)
  • 1964 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award

Release details[]

  • 1957, USA, Thomas Y. Crowell, NY (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1957, hardback (First edition)
  • 1960, UK, Oxford University Press (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1960, hardback
  • 1974, UK, Oxford University Press (ISBN 0192720511), Pub date 20 June 1974, paperback
  • 1987, USA, Harper Trophy Books (ISBN 0-06-447030-X), Pub date ? September 1987, paperback reissue
  • 1987, USA, HarperCollins (ISBN 0694056138), Pub date ? June 1987, paperback reissue
  • 1991, UK, HarperCollins (ISBN 0-690-70181-0), Pub date ? June 1991, hardback reissue



Template:Start box Template:S-ach |- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
Miracles on Maple Hill |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Newbery Medal recipient
1958 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
The Witch of Blackbird Pond |- |}