I first became aware of this story when I made a flea market purchase of a Little Big Book (Saalfield Publishing Company’s version of Whitman’s Big Little Books). The volume had numerous photos from the 1935 Shirley Temple movie, but almost none of the illustrations had any connection with the book’s plot line.
After reading my abridged version of The Littlest Rebel I watched the movie, then downloaded and read the complete 1914 novel, which was an adaption of a 1911 stage play.
The play was written by Edward H. Peple, who was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1869. Since Peple began life in the former Confederate capital just five years after the Civil War ended I assume he grew up hearing stories about the days of the Confederacy. Though he writes of a family loyal to the Southern Cause, he portrays most Union Army officers and enlisted men in a sympathetic light.
The film version begins right when war is being declared and, since it is a Shirley Temple movie, the first scene is of singing and dancing at young Virgie Cary’s birthday party. The festivities ended abruptly when Virgie’s father learned of the attack at Fort Sumter, and he goes off to fight for his country.
The book, however, begins in 1864, three years into the war, when seven-year-old Virginia Cary is one of the few remaining residents on the family’s plantation near Richmond. There are only Virgie and her mother, plus two remaining slaves – a foolish girl named Sally Ann, and loyal Uncle Billy. Most of the livestock had been taken by both the Union and Confederate armies, and there was little remaining food of any kind.
Virgie’s father, Captain Herbert Cary, a scout in the Confederate Army, comes home for a ten minute visit to hug his family and change horses. Moments after he leaves Union cavalrymen, led by Colonel Morrison, came in search of Captain Cary.
Morrison told Mrs. Cary they had to search the house, but he assured her no harm would come to her property. Unfortunately, after the search was concluded, drunken Sergeant Dudley – who’d been an overseer on the plantation until Captain Cary had horsewhipped and fired him for mistreating slaves – set fire to the upstairs rooms.
Sergeant Dudley staggered out of the burning house and rushed away. He was ordered to halt, and when he did not Morrison shot and killed him.
In the next chapter young Virgie was the only one living on what was left of the plantation. Her mother had died, Sally Ann ran off, and Uncle Billy had gone to Richmond in search of food, but the Union Army blocked his return. Virgie was barefooted, dressed in rags, and staying in an overseer’s cabin. She was surviving on berries and parched-acorn coffee.
Her father, wounded and on foot, comes to her with a pass from General Lee to get her safely through the military lines. But Colonel Morrison and his men returned in search of Captain Cary. The colonel was separated from his men when he discovered the captain’s hiding place, and the captain asked him to get Virgie to Richmond, and not let her know he was to be executed.
Colonel Morrison decided to allow Captain Cary to get his daughter to safety, and requested that he travel as a father and not as a scout, and to forget anything he might see while slipping through the Union lines. He wrote his own pass on the back of the one from General Lee, and left with his troops.
During the Carys walk to Richmond they met up with Union soldiers. Corporal Dudley, the brother of the man Colonel Morrison shot after the man torched the Cary home, came into possession of the double pass. It was proof that Morrison helped a suspected spy escape, and the corporal went after revenge.
Both Captain Cary and Colonel Morrison were put under arrest, and the colonel was court-martialed and found guilty of treason. Both officers received the death sentence.
In the Shirley Temple movie Virgie and Uncle Billy set out for Washington and asked President Lincoln to pardon the captain and the colonel. But in the novel author Edward H. Peple knew who had the real power during the war. The officer who’d served as Colonel Morrison’s court-martial counsel went to see General Grant and asked for a pardon.
General Grant referred to himself as a war machine. He focused on what needed to be done to defeat the enemy, and if a defective cog was found within the machinery of war it was replaced for the purpose of reuniting the country. Grant was not swayed by sob stories. But when a barefoot girl in a ragged dress defeated the sentries and rushed into the general’s headquarters he was presented with a witness to the crucial question of whether Captain Cary was merely an enemy scout, or if he truly had been a spy.
I found The Littlest Rebel a compelling book, though it is not politically correct. There were viewpoints on slavery that made me want to reach into certain paragraphs and bang heads against a wall. But the story is about a little girl who looses all except her Daddy, and her love for the Southern Cause and General Lee. She remained determined to make the best of her ordeals, and be a brave “soldier.”
The war was coming to an end, both of Virgie’s parents had known the South would be defeated, but both believed the fighting had to continue. Virgie met some good “damn Yankees” and her seven-year-old intellect pondered how they would need to follow commands from their own general, whom she assumed they loved as much as she loved General Lee.
The book is melodramatic, with the purplest of purple prose about love and honor, and fighting for a doomed cause. I found some sections cringe-worthy, but was often near tears as I read about flawed people I grew to care about.
If you would like to read The Littlest Rebel it can be downloaded free of charge at: www.gutenberg.org/files/15414/15414-h/15414-h.htm