Study Guide

Across Five Aprils Warfare

By Irene Hunt


War, he had thought, must give men that same feeling of strength and fulfillment. He had sympathized with Tom and Eb, and he had been angered at his father's command for silence when they grew loud and vehement in their demands for war.

Suddenly he was deeply troubled. He groped toward an understanding of something that was far beyond the excitement of guns and shouting men; but he could not find words to define what he felt, and that lack left him in a turmoil of frustration. (2.27-78)

Jethro's perspective of the war at this point is very juvenile. But then again, he's still a child. However the reality of war is more than kids playing guns in the street, which may be the reason Matt gets so angry when Tom and Eb get overexcited about the war. Certain aspects of war can only be understood in time. But this is a coming-of-age tale, so Jethro's covered on that one.

"I don't know if anybody ever 'wins' a war, Jeth. I think that the beginnin's of this war has been fanned by hate till it's a blaze now; and a blaze kin destroy him that makes it and him that the fire was set to hurt. There oughtn't to be a war, Jeth; this war ought never to ha' bin." (3.26)

Wise words courtesy of Bill. According to him, the war started long before, well, the actual war. This might also explain Ross Milton's position later on that peace is not a "perfect pearl." We'd be interested to hear Bill's solution for how to avoid war when it beginnings are "fanned by hate." Is it avoidable?

"There wouldn't be any question about it if it weren't for this war," he said, after a moment with his own thoughts. "I'd be willing to wait years for Jenny, but when I think of leaving her, maybe for—a long time—I guess panic hits me a little." (4.77)

There's something about the war that makes Shad unsure about the future, which isn't unique to him at all. In the real world, there are hundreds of stories throughout history of soldiers marrying their hometown sweethearts before leaving for war.

"I can't quite see how they're callin' it a vict'ry," he said, his eyes fixed on the ground as they walked along the furrow. "If we'd got down to Corinth and pushed the Rebs out, that would hev bin good news. This way, looks to me like all we done was to keep the Rebs from hevin' a vict'ry." (6.41)

Hey there, Jethro—this sounds kind of similar to Bill's "nobody ever wins a war" line earlier. Although it's not surprising that there's a similarity between Jethro's and Bill's views, since they are a lot alike. But here Jethro is playing the semantics game trying to examine what it means to have a victory, and he points out a very important relationship—in war (and any competition or game), so long as there is a winner, there will always be a loser. Like two sides of the same coin.

"What do you s'pose it was like, Jeth?"

He shook his head. "It must ha' seemed like the end of the world had come, " he said soberly.

"Fer thousands it had, hadn't it?" (6.84-86)

So this theme doesn't exactly spur the most optimistic quotes. And we hate to break it to you, but the rest of the book is pretty bleak too. But most of the time that's what you get with war. It's known for having lots of death and end-of-the-world moments.

Dan Lawrence was not yet twenty; he was still weak from his wounds and loss of blood, still under the cloud of a horror that only subsequent horrors could make him forget. He walked slowly with his father's help up the path to the cabin where Matt Creighton stood at the door, and when Dan extended his hand in greeting, his eyes had a tired, haunted look. (7.5)

The line we love here is "a horror that only subsequent horrors could make him forget." So good, right? Yeah it's tragic and depressing, but it describes the extent of psychological damage war causes. Dan Lawrence and other surviving soldiers will have to live forever with the memories they made on the battlefield.

"It started at breakfast time, all of a sudden—and terr'ble. I ain't never heered sich noise, or seed so many boys and men laid low. It was jest one awful roar of cannon and screams—that was the worst. Maybe I hadn't ought to say these things—" he looked timidly toward Ellen, who sat close to her husband, her great dark eyes staring and without expression. (7.9)

Here we have not only an eye-witness account of the fighting at Pittsburg Landing (courtesy of Dan Lawrence), but it also happens to be the last day of Tom Crieghton's life. Dan and Ellen provide polar opposite examples in this quote. Dan is a soldier basically retelling a memory of a battle that he is so desensitized to that he questions whether or not he should give all the details, while Ellen, on the other hand, not only has no war experience but is the mother of a victim of war. This one moment is an example of how differently one situation has multiple effects on people.

It is unfortunate that congressmen and their ladies should have been deprived of this spectacle. There was drama here, I can tell them—thousands upon thousands of us crossing the Rappahannock with banners flying, drums rolling, and our instruments of death gleaming in the sunlight. They could have seen those thousands scrambling up the innocent-looking wooded hills and falling like toy soldiers brushed over by a child's hand; thousands of young men whose dreams and hopes were snuffed out in a second and who will be remembered only as simple soldiers who fell in a cruel, futile battle directed by men who can hardly be called less than murderers. (8.44)

Nothing like some good ol' passive aggressiveness. Well played, Shad, well played. The beginning of his letter refers back to the Battle of Bull Run when congressmen considered the battle to be a good spot for a date night (3.3). Now, after experiencing the horrors of war, Shad not only calls out the politicians on their ridiculous attitudes toward war, but also blames them for the whole extravaganza, calling them murderers. Now those are some fighting words (horrible pun only slightly intended).

With broken young bodies piled high at Gettysburg and thousands of homes rocked in agony over their loss, the beaten army was allowed to withdraw and prepare for still more bloodshed, while the victorious army licked its wounds and made no effort to pursue its opportunities. (10.15)

So the loser gets to leave while the winners lick their wounds? Seems like it should be the other way around. But this is great reversal because it confuses our expectations. What Hunt is doing here is blurring the line of difference between the two sides of battle. And more than that, it's not just Union or Confederate homes getting rocked in agony, it's thousands—everyone gets lumped into the same category of suffering.

In it the boy told of the burning of Columbia, of how the soldiers laughed as a great wind fanned the flames, of the loot carried off, of mirrors and pianos smashed, and of intimate family treasures scattered to the winds by men who seemed to have gone mad.

Ed Turner's hands trembled as he returned the letter to its envelop.

"What is this goin' to do to an eighteen-year-old boy, Matt? Kin a lad come through weeks of this kind of actions without becomin' a hardened man? Is human life goin' to be forever cheap to him and decency somethin' to mock at?" (12.22-24)

Ed Turner has some very legitimate concerns, especially since war has proven to have some extreme effect on soldiers. And what Ed describes is more than just shooting at the enemy—this type of action is barbaric and not reminiscent of what we expect war to be.

"Don't expect peace to be a perfect pearl, Jeth," Ross Milton had warned. "This is a land lying in destruction, physical and spiritual. If the twisted railroads and the burned cities and the fields covered with the bones of dead men—if that were all, we could soon rise out of the destruction. But the hate that burns in old scars, and the thirst for revenge that has distorted men until they should be in straightjackets rather than in high office—these are the things that may make peace a sorry thing…" (12.44)

So technically this one isn't about warfare, but Ross Milton has some insightful things to say about life after war. From his perspective, peace is not something that just magically pops up once war is declared over. And just like Shad, Ross Milton alludes to politicians being distorted and worthy of being thrown in to the loony bin.