Study Guide

Chains Warfare

By Laurie Halse Anderson


At the end of the block there were soldiers on watch in front of City Hall; a dozen or so men standing around a campfire, with more dozing on the ground […] Their guns were close to hand. I crept as close as I dared, but there was no way to sneak past them. (10.29)

Isabel may just be trying to get to Bellingham's house to deliver word of Lockton's Loyalist antics, but her encounter with the city's Patriot occupation gives her a first taste of how inescapable the conflict is. Her goal of seeking freedom for her and Ruth is all tied up with the colonies' own struggle for independence, making the situation considerably more complicated.

"This is an outrage," Lockton fumed.

"No, Elihu," Bellingham said. "This is war. Even our churches are making the sacrifice, delivering their bells to be recast as cannon. Surely you do not rate your home above the houses of God?" (11.33)

Sacrifice is a key theme of any war story, but here, Bellingham is more interested in manipulating Master Lockton than getting the pulls from his windows. He needs an excuse to get inside his house and get to Madam's notorious linen chest. For officials like Bellingham, who attempt to uncover proof of citizens' Loyalist leanings, war is fought psychologically as much as physically.

The men made short work of King George. When the statue was reduced into pieces that could be easily carted off, they did just that. The plan was to melt down all the lead into bullets.

"We'll fire Majesty at the redcoats!" joked a man with a booming voice. (20.14-15)

The celebratory mood of Patriot citizens as they destroy the statue of King George following the announcement of independence gives us (and Isabel) a look at the zeal that often comes with war. While Isabel doesn't totally grasp the reasoning behind their actions, she does understand the determination of the rebels and senses the danger that could come to those who support the King.

Becky asked around for days, but there were no spare carpenters to be found, no matter how much coin was offered. The men were all getting ready for war. The British had set up a new camp in Brooklyn on Long Island, and Washington was moving his troops around like pieces on a checkerboard. (26.5)

What's really fascinating about Isabel is that even though she doesn't really understand the reasons for the war, she still has impeccable knowledge of battle strategy. Her checkers analogy reflects both her relatively innocent mindset as well as her understanding of the inner workings of the war.

"What say you?" Grandfather said.

"I say I'm an American," Curzon said. "An American soldier." (26.26)

Curzon may say that he's fighting in the war to win his freedom from Bellingham, but it's pretty obvious that his reasons for accepting the deal from his master go beyond that. Throughout the story, Curzon's knowledge of the war proves that he really is a Patriot—not just because Bellingham is, but because he genuinely supports the cause of liberty. Although slaves aren't supposed to have political leanings, Curzon is clearly passionate about fighting for (some) independence.

"Washington had them melt down the church bells and make them into cannons. That will surely displease the Lord, I say. If God switches sides and allows the British to take New York, you'll see me headed for Jersey." (37.16)

The idea of God taking sides in a war isn't exactly a new concept—we've heard it before and continue to hear it today. Some call it superstitious thinking, others call it arrogance. Still, the fact that countries often enlist the support of a higher deity in their cause says something about the great unknown of war. While it's impossible to know the big guy in the sky's thoughts on matters of war, it's one way to cope with the frightening risks of battle.

The rebels kept coming in, row after filthy row, most with their heads down, some limping with a crutch or an arm in a sling. Their uniforms were torn and tattered. A few walked barefoot over the icy cobblestones, flinch when hit square with mud or a rock. They carried neither flag nor weapons. Their breath billowed like they were hard-ridden horses. It hung around their heads like smoke. (33.25)

Isabel's observations of the Patriot prisoners of war captured at Fort Washington gives us a haunting picture of the conditions of battle. Clearly, Curzon's unit has already suffered a great deal, and they're going to suffer more in jail. The zeal of the toppling of King George's statue is gone, as seen by the absence of weapons or a flag.

"When the battle finally started, the men fired their guns so fast the barrels grew hot. The cannon smoke was thick as fog. I saw the most horrid sights, Country, not fit for the eyes of any person." (35.56)

Curzon's emotional description of the horrors he witnessed in battle is a poignant portrayal of the merciless bloodshed of war. What makes his story particular disturbing, though, is how fighting has changed Curzon. He's no longer the feisty kid in a red hat we met at the beginning of the story; he's been hardened by the blood sacrifice of conflict.

The British promised each prisoner would receive two pounds of pork and hardtack biscuit every week. They did not announce that the pork was often spoiled, nor that the men had to eat it raw for there was no fire to cook it over. (36.13)

Just to recap: These guys are already living in a freezing cold jail in the dead of winter with few possessions or provisions. It seems like the British are trying to appease the American military leaders by giving food of some kind to the prisoners, though their dishonesty in the actual quality of the donations reveals the low value they place on the lives of their enemy.

The war seemed fought with as much paper as bullets, what with the letters and the passes and permissions piled on the table, orders received and recorded, recordings of conferences noted down. (40.55)

Here's what's kind of fascinating about Isabel: For a young slave girl who carries little to no value in society, she sees the broadest picture of the war out of any character in the story. She witnesses the deplorable conditions the prisoners of war are kept in, as well as the privileged, bloodless state of military leaders off the battlefield. Being "chained between two nations," as she says, may not afford her great opportunities in using either army to gain freedom, but it does give her a panoramic view of the conflict's two sides.