I Shall Be Near You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (2014)
by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library, March 2014
Feisty farm girl, Rosetta, is fighting mad at her new husband, Jeremiah Wakefield for going off to war. Its early1862, ‘near Flat Creek’ New York, and Jeremiah is consumed by a desire ‘to fight the Rebs’. They are in their late teens and have been shyly in love with each other since childhood. Rosetta insists they marry before he goes off, saying,
“Marry me. If you aim to go off and fight, well I don’t aim to be a spinster. You make me a widow before you go off and die, that’s what.”
So Rosetta and Jeremiah marry quickly, settling into their new home, Wakefield Farm, and in a few days he leaves for camp. Rosetta cannot believe he actually left her. She is miserable, alone and still fighting mad. A visit from her new mother-in-law only heightens her anger.
“I brought along some mending, needs doing,” she says, and sets down her basket. Inside are chambray shirts and trousers and woolen socks.
“I can do that”, I say, even though there is nothing I hate more.
She gives me a pointed look and then acts like I ain’t said one word. “The men discussed it and Mr. Wakefield thought you might be of help with the sugaring.”
“I’d like that better than mending”, I say, thinking of being outside, tapping the maple trees and collecting the syrup, “I can drill taps – you only need to tell me where the tools are kept—“
Jeremiahs’ Ma frowns. “That’s work for James and Jesse. The mending needs doing. And it’s the sugarhouse tending you’d be best suited for, since you don’t have anyone else to mind.”
Oh boy, ‘women’s work’ is not what Rosetta had in mind. She’s been milking cows, haying, planting and harvesting, shoveling out barns and doing ‘man’s work’ on the family farm with her father since she was a small child. Rosetta is the older of two sisters and her father needed help. She’s strong, determined and a plain speaker.
Jeremiah is only gone a day or so before Rosetta can take no more. In a dramatic gesture, she cuts off her hair, binds herself, changes her name to Ross Stone and begins to walk to the enlistment office, determined to join her husband. She tells no one she is going; she simply walks away.
Her disguise fools everyone, including the enlistment officer, everyone that is except the boys from her village who have also enlisted with Jeremiah. Grudgingly, these wild boys accept her, for Jeremiah’s sake, and learn to live with a ‘girl’ in their midst. Rosetta adapts, ever thankful to be at her husband’s side. She is determined to be a good soldier, not only so she can stay, but also to make the money she will earn as a soldier. Rosetta and Jeremiah have dreams that include a farm in Nebraska.
Only the Captain’s wife discovers Rosetta’s secret. She tries to recruit Ross as her companion on hospital visits to the Judiciary Square Hospital in Washington, DC but it is not work that suits Rosetta and she is afraid that by being singled out, the soldiers will discover her true identity. The descriptions of the hospital ward are grisly. Rosetta is asked to write a letter home for one of the wounded soldiers.
“And then he shifts his shoulders to throw his covers back and he’s got nothing but bandaged stumps for arms, stopping halfway to where his hands should be. Where the bandages ought to be white they are rustbrown and yellow.”
Antsy young soldiers are aching for battle. It comes at Bull Run (August 1862):
“Before I get to Jeremiah, to the fray, before the ground even starts rising there is a bugle call mixed in with the fighting and screaming and our flag moves off to my side, away from the embankment, back through the trees. The flood of our blue boys comes back swirling Jeremiah up in it and coming all around me, elbows and hands and knees jabbing at me, pushing me around and then we are running. There are bodies strewn under the trees and I don’t know how I get over or through without stepping on them or tripping and falling, or maybe I do and don’t know it, I am running so fast to get back through the trees, away from the embankment and the firing, hoping that Jeremiah is running too.”
And then on to Antietam (September 1862):
“Sully is still missing. Jeremiah is buried in the ground. But Captain leaves Sergeant to set up pickets and teams of men to go scavenging for rations and weapons scattered on the fields. Sergeant calls out my name along with Ambrose and Will and Thomas. My throat closes again thinking on working a detail without Jeremiah keeping between me and them. But I’ve got to keep myself hidden, keep moving, acting like a man I am trying to be, until I find my own way, until I can see what is next for me.”
In this debut novel about one girl’s choice to become a soldier so she could be by her husband, author Erin Lindsay McCabe offers a detailed, sad look at war. This novel is about the Civil War but it could be any war.
McCabe based the novel on An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864 and other primary sources. Yes, Rosetta actually existed, died in battle and was buried as a man.
“I discovered Rosetta Wakeman was not an anomaly. An estimated four hundred women fought on both sides of the Civil War, many of their names lost to history. Just like Rosetta’s almost was. But even more, I mulled over questions Rosetta’s letters never answered. How did she conceal her identity? What did her family think of what she had done? What was she apologizing for in her letters home? What was it like, being a woman hidden among men? Did she tell anyone her real identity? Those questions fascinated me and I began imagining their answers.”
Booklist, in a starred review says, “Author McCabe makes every sentence count, with a narrative full of authentic dialog, historical realism, and great feeling.”
Other Civil War novels:
- Escape from Andersonville : a novel of the Civil War by Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan.
- A Blaze of Glory: a novel of the Battle of Shiloh by Jeff Shaara
- March by Geraldine Brooks
- Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
- Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Erin Lindsay McCabe studied literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz and taught high school English before completing her MFA at St. Mary’s College of California in 2010. I Shall Be Near You began as McCabe’s final paper for a U.S. Women’s History class and is her first novel. Visit her web site for more information.