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A personal tragedy helped one author connect with a pivotal event in American history.
In April 1975, in the final days of the Vietnam War, I adopted my daughter, a Vietnamese orphan airlifted from Saigon in what became known as “Operation Babylift.” Because of her, perhaps it’s no surprise that three of my six nonfiction books for young readers are about children in war—a topic we pay too little attention to. A century ago, 90 percent of war casualties were soldiers. Today, 90 percent are civilians. In the decade of the 1990s, an estimated two million children around the world were killed in wars. Any child survivor of war experiences grief and hardships that leave lifelong scars. But who hears this message?I have purposely crafted my books about children in war for young readers because this age gets it: they’re still open-minded to all types of characters and experiences. Young readers tell me years later that they were deeply affected by Jack, the main character in my book Surviving Hitler. When they read about Matt, the orphaned Amerasian child in Escape from Saigon, they ask me questions about my Vietnamese daughter. I’ve had so much positive feedback from young readers about these two books that I wanted to give them a story set on American soil so they would not think about war as something that only happens to children somewhere else. That brought me to the Civil War and my new book, Under Siege! Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg. I first learned in high school American history class about the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the summer of 1863. My textbook included no more than a sentence or two about it, yet I was riveted. A 47-day siege? On American soil? Abraham Lincoln felt Vicksburg must be taken at all costs if the North was to win the war. “Vicksburg is the key,” he told his generals. The proud and prosperous little city of 5,000 inhabitants—which included an estimated 1,000 children—occupied steep hills and bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. There, the Confederate Army set up powerful cannon to keep the Union from taking control of that vital water highway. Lincoln chose Ulysses Grant to defeat Confederate General John Pemberton. The Vicksburg campaign would take 16 months and include five battles leading up to the siege that finally ended it. In 2003, when I started my search for children who had lived through the siege, I turned to Gordon Cotton, the now-retired director of Vicksburg’s Old Courthouse Museum. He had published several volumes of Vicksburg stories from the war and sent me a volume that he thought might be helpful. It was in this small self-published book that I found two of my three main characters. Lucy McRae was the privileged 10-year-old daughter of a well-to-do merchant, and Willie Lord was the 11-year-old son of the Reverend W. W. Lord, minister of Vicksburg’s Episcopal Church. Both families could have fled the city, but in their dedication to the Southern cause, decided to stay. Knowing I now had the voices of two children, I dug into the research. Then it was time for a visit to Vicksburg. To have as authentic an experience as possible, I chose to be there over the Fourth of July. I wanted to feel the heat and see the light on the river the same way soldiers and townspeople experienced them in 1863. My husband, Jay, was with me, eager to assist with the research. In spite of doctors’ assurances that he was healthy, he was not feeling well, and the town’s thick humidity and steep hills proved punishing for him—an avid rollerblader who’d never met a hill he didn’t like.We saw Dr. Lord’s church and Lucy’s house, and we took a cruise on the river so we could view Vicksburg and its majestic courthouse from the water, just as Union gunboats did. On the Fourth, fireworks launched from a barge in the middle of the Mississippi lit up the river, the noise reverberating against the Louisiana shore a mile away.Gordon Cotton welcomed us to the Old Courthouse Museum and supplemented what I now knew about Lucy and Willie. When I commented that I wished I had a way to also offer a Northern perspective, Cotton casually remarked that Ulysses Grant’s 12-year-old son, Frederick, had been with him at Vicksburg. My writer’s heart began to race.Once home, I located the newsletter archives of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. I combed through them, searching for Fred, and came up with reprints of several interviews he had given during his own military career in which he talked about his father and—Eureka!—his boyhood experiences at Vicksburg. Fred was a spirited lad, always in the middle of things, in spite of his father’s admonitions to stay out of harm’s way. Only a bullet wound to the leg at the Battle of the Big Black River, just before both sides settled into the siege, slowed him down. His mother was a model army wife who frequently visited her husband, bringing along their four children. Fred was with his father at Vicksburg because both his parents felt the experience would be good for him.My research also introduced me to various townspeople. As I learned about their lives, I was amazed at their determination to stay put and do what they could to help the Rebels defend Vicksburg. When the Federals began shelling the town around the clock, they dug caves and moved into them, bringing along household furnishings and battling snakes, scorpions, mosquitoes, flies, heat, and mud. Because of the caves, fewer than a dozen civilians died during the siege. Then, just weeks after we returned from Vicksburg, my research came to a halt when Jay was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer. For the next two years we went to war for his life—and lost. For a year after his death, I wrote only about him, using my writing to keep him close to me. Finally one day I took out the Vicksburg project to see if it would pull me back in. Not only did it do so, but I identified with the life-and-death struggle for Vicksburg more deeply than before. I began constructing the text, writing from both sides, bringing to life the children, the townspeople, the generals, and the soldiers.I included what I could find about the slaves of Vicksburg. Lucy was sensitive to the plight of Rice, the house slave who stayed loyal to her family throughout the war, desperate though he was to flee to Grant’s army and gain his freedom. Lucy openly admired her mother, who faced incredible hardships in caring for her children under dire conditions. Willie, too, recognized what his parents were up against, particularly his father, who conducted daily services during the siege in his badly damaged church, even as shells fell nearby. As for Fred, the horrors and confusion of the battlefield sickened him. When he got shot in the leg, he faced the prospect of having his leg amputated. During his recovery he contracted several camp diseases and was very ill. But at least he always had plenty to eat. Both Lucy and Willie ate mule meat when there was no other meat to be had. Gradually the townspeople were reduced to eating roots and pea meal.Finally, after 47 days, everyone was so weakened by malnourishment and thirst that General Pemberton knew they had to quit: Grant’s next all-out assault would be a slaughter. The surrender of the city on the Fourth of July caused much bitterness among the townspeople, many of whom would have willingly accepted martyrdom rather than give up. So many refused to sign the Oath of Allegiance that Vicksburg remained under government occupation for 13 years—longer than any other Southern city and longer than the U.S. occupation of Germany after World War II. And it was only in 1947 that the city once again celebrated Independence Day. Readers of my book will come face to face with the realities of war and the toll it takes on its participants, both willing and unwilling. The children of Vicksburg, along with the rest of the townspeople, carried psychological scars to their graves. Lucy wrote, “I do not think a child could have passed through what I did and have forgotten it.” No child can. Though my daughter was an infant during the Vietnam War, the trauma is still there, indelibly impaled in her subconscious. I understand all this better now. Writing about the battle for Vicksburg was part of my life when I was recovering from my own war against my husband’s cancer, and I, too, have scars. It will come as no surprise that this book is dedicated to him.Sampling Warren
Escape from Saigon: How a Vietnam War Orphan Became an American Boy. 2004. 128p. Farrar/Melanie Kroupa, $17 (9780374322243); paper, $9.95 (9780374400231). 959.704. Gr. 5–up.Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. 2001. 160p. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (9780060007676). 940.53. Gr. 5–10.Under Siege! Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg. 2009. 176p. Farrar/Melanie Kroupa, $21.95 (9780374312558). 973.7. Gr. 6–9. Andrea Warren is a former teacher and journalist who lives in the Kansas City area. She can be reached through her Web site at www.AndreaWarren.com.
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