With Every Drop of Blood is written by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. It is set in the Shenadoah Valley during the Civil War in 1864-5. It is told from the first person view of fourteen year old Johnny who is a farm boy. The war is closing in on the farm, At one point the Yankees come and steal their cow while the family hides in the woods. His father is off fighting in the Army of Northern Virginia while Johnny and his ma “plowed with the mules, planted, hoed, cut hay, and dug potatoes.” His father returns wounded from the Battle of Cedar Creek. He had enlisted because it’s what men did.
Pa explains that the war is about states’ rights. Southerners don’t want the federal government to tell them what to do. The North is too bossy. Besides, slaves aren’t worth the cost to keep them so slavery can’t be a major factor. And no one we know owns any. Unfortunately this wise man passes away in a touching scene. Before going he makes Johnny promise not to fight in the war. Johnny gets around this by conning his ma into allowing him to use the family wagon and mules to join a supply train bound for Richmond. They can really use the $400. (I sure hope that is not Confederate money, because if so, he is risking his life for nothing.) He convinces himself it will not be dangerous because 50 of Mosby’s cavalry will be escorting.
The wagon train is ambushed by Yankees. Surprise, they are darkies! (The authors also use the n-word.) Johnny is taken captive by a Private Turner. They immediately dislike each other. Johnny is confused and distressed by the fact that Turner does not fit his idea of how a slave is supposed to behave. Turner is uppity. He doesn’t show deference to him even though Johnny is white. Turner wants Johnny to teach him to read and Johnny agrees as part of his plan to escape. Turner has a copy of the “Gettysburg Address” that Johnny teaches from. Only Johnny is not exactly teaching all the words correctly. For instance, he substitutes “all men are created eagles”. He’s not about to help a darky become his equal. The book does a good job depicting the superiority attitude whites had with regard to blacks.
A bond develops between the two teenagers. Johnny is learning to empathize with this ex-slave especially when he learns what Cush has gone through. Cush even saves Johnny from being sent to a prison camp by claiming he is needed to drive his mules. In the process of loading the wagon, Johnny changes into a blue uniform and then can’t find his clothes to change back after Cush points out Johnny will be considered a spy now. Things get even more complicated when Cush is injured in a bombardment and Johnny drives them to safety. Somehow this makes them both fugitives now. They are on the run in the wagon when some Rebel cavalry stop them and take Cush to Appomattox Court House. Johnny follows, determined to rescue his friend. He gets a home cooked meal at the McLean house and is there for Lee’s surrender.
There are some really excellent historical young adult novels out there. Some of the best include Slopes of War, April Morning, and Fallen Angels. With Every Drop of Blood is not in their league. It is simplistic and shallow. The first and third parts are weak. The first third tends to be repetitive with its discussions of the causes of the war and the temperaments of mules. The only good part of the book is the middle third when Johnny and Cush are getting to know each other. The last third gets progressively silly. The whole teach Cush the wrong words to the Gettysburg Address scenario is lame. Cush deserting because he feels he will be seen as an accomplice to Johnny’s “spying” is unrealistic at best. The two ending up at Appomattox Court House is a stretch even for a young adult novel.
Considering that one of the author’s is a historian, the book is surprisingly light on history. The Shenandoah Valley shows little of the devastation that four years of armies marching through it would have created. The siege of Petersburg is vaguely alluded to. The non-historical figures are fictional, but supposedly everything that happened to Johnny and Cush “happened to somebody”. That seems hard to believe. Mosby’s Rangers were active in this area, but I don’t know if they escorted any wagon train into Richmond.
In conclusion, With Every Drop of Blood is satisfactory as a 6-9th grade novel, but it holds little appeal for an older audience. I think it has a positive effect on a younger audience and could teach empathy and tolerance. It is also a pretty good buddy story. It is endearing, if trite. By the way, the title is deceptive - there is very little bloodshed.