Two Little Confederates
by Thomas Nelson Page (1923)
paperback; 156 pages
What a delightful book for younger readers! Two Little Confederates is a fine historical novel about the War of Northern Aggression from the vantage point of two pre-teen Virginia boys. Penned by Thomas Nelson Page, a cousin of Robert E. Lee and a descendant of Jamestown colonists, this book was originally published in 1888 (this reprint was taken from the 1923 edition). Page was a prolific writer, a lawyer, and also the U.S. Ambassador to Italy during the Wilson Administration.
Page was born at the real Oakland Plantation in Virginia in 1853, where he sets the short novel for young readers, mid-elementary age and up. Younger children would likely enjoy Two Little Confederates as a read-aloud, and the book's picturesque verbiage lends itself well to that activity. Homeschoolers will find vocabulary words, irony, humor, and a well-developed plot to use.
Dedicated to author's mother, the book contains eight original pen-and-ink illustrations spread across the twenty chapters. The true-to-life feel of the anecdotes and adventures of Frank and Willy make the book a fine read. Truly, Page wrote Two Little Confederates for the senses, and his pen enables readers to fairly smell the "virgin forest," hear the colloquial dialect of servants and "po' white trash of Holetown," and see the fine Virginia troops who the boys are sure could do anything.
Page makes enjoyable the oft-times eyebrow-raising antics of the boys, who live through the War and the deprivation it causes, though their gun-totin' ways would not be politically correct to our day and age. According to the "little men," having a horse and a gun meant manhood (page 3). Frank and Willy took their ideas of war from the Bible, played pirates, and fished in a creek that ran through a nearby meadow: "Once they made an extended search up and down its bands for any fragments of Pharaoh's chariots which might have been washed up so high; but that was when they were younger and did not have much sense" (page 5).
Frank and Willy's family was pro-Union and anti-secession until Virginia voted to secede; then the men-folk joined the Confederate Army and marched off to protect home and hearth. Oakland then filled up with cousins, including a beautiful cousin Belle. "This was the first time the boys knew anything of girls, …the inability of girls to hunt, climb trees, or play knucks, etc., caused them to hold with the opinion that 'girls were no good'" (pages 9-10).
The War also brought regiments near Oakland, and the boys were thrilled to see the soldiers, especially the cavalry. "It was thought an honor to furnish food to the soldiers. Every soldier was to the boys a hero, and each young officer might rival Ivanhoe or Coeur de Lion" (page 20). Called "servants" in the book, Oakland's slaves also benefited from the Confederate encampment: "The negroes all had hen-houses and raised their own chickens, and when a camp was near them they used to drive a thriving trade on their own account, selling eggs and chickens to the privates while the officers were entertained in the 'gret house'" (page 20).
As the war continued, conditions worsened at Oakland. "The boys' mother, like all the other ladies of the country, was so devoted to the cause that she gave to the soldiers until there was nothing left. After that there was a failure of the crops, and the immediate necessities of the family and the hands on the place were great" (page 53). No sugar or tea, making sugar from sorghum or sugar cane, sassafras tea instead of the regular tea, "and a drink made out of parched corn and wheat, of burnt sweet potato and other things, in the place of coffee; but none of them were fit to drink – at least so the boys thought. The wheat crop proved a failure; but the corn turned out very fine, and the boys learned to live on corn bread, as there was no wheat bread" (page 53).
The boys' mother freed the slaves in the latter days of the war. "'Hi, Mistis,' broke in Uncle Balla, 'what is I got to go? I wuz born on dis place an' I 'spec' to die here, an' be buried right yonder:' ...'Y' all sticks by us, and we'll stick by you'" (page 55). Eventually, even Uncle Balla does leave Oakland, but he and several other return. Yankees threaten Uncle Balla during one of their raids at Oakland, describing the real-life disposition of most Union soldiers towards Blacks in that era. Page touches on harsh realities like this, weaving reality into this novel. Parents will likely want to pre-read to judge suitability for their individual children. Another reality is the way the Yankees treat Frank and Willy, capturing them and threatening Frank with a strap and gun. Page makes the boys into heroes in their own right, such as when they bring provisions to their older brother and Cousin Belle's beau in hiding, and when they care for one of their Yankee captors when he is wounded.
Reading Two Little Confederates made me curious about the author. I have a so-far unverifiable suspicion that the novel is based upon his own exploits during the War. Page died in 1922, renowned for his writing about a more genteel time in the South.
– reviewed by Deborah Deggs Cariker