I have often wondered exactly why the point of view of animals in any historical situation is of any interest whatsoever. Everyone knows animals really have no well-defined point of view. Anthropomorphizing animals is one of the things all “pet parenting” books warn of, and yet one is addressed as a “pet parent.” The first serious history I ever wrote, complete with a primary source (a newspaper article) and research was “Paul Revere’s Ride From the Point of View of His Horse.” I was ten.
Nevertheless, whenever a book about an animal in history shows up on my radar, I buy it. I have books on George Washington’s cat (named Liberty), a cat who came over on the Mayflower, Robespierre’s parrot, General Charles Lee’s pack of hunting dogs, Traveller, Little Sorrell, Cincinnati, and a variety of others with titles such as Famous Dogs of the French Revolution and Civil War Animal Heroes: Mascots, Pets and War Horses.
When I heard about Russell Horres’s Civil War cat book, popularly referred to as Jack the Cat, I had to have it. I am now the proud owner of the Fort Sumter, South Carolina Sesquicentennial Anniversary Edition of Jack the Cat, signed by the illustrator. And you’re not . . . but if there is a young future Civil War historian within your scope, you probably should be.
This is not the story of the fall of Sumter, but the story of Sumter under Confederate control as told by Jack, proud scion of an old Charleston feline family, son of Miss Kitty and Mr. Tom. Jack himself tells his story, beginning with his enjoyment of antebellum ice cream served at elegant parties in his home, a Charleston mansion by the water.
Jack is a city cat, but slaves service the home where he resides. They tend livestock and Jack’s special favorite, Mauma June, weaves sweetgrass baskets in the African tradition.
After Sumter is surrendered, the Confederacy takes control of the fort and raises the Stars and Bars. Jack’s owner, “the Colonel,” decides to volunteer Jack’s services to the fort, as rats and mice are in danger of overrunning the bakery. This gives author Horres the opportunity to explore Sumter using garrison cat Jack as a vehicle to introduce young readers to the layout of the fort, and to some of the military vocabulary pertaining to such a location. Additionally, there is a short, illustrated dictionary at the end of the book. Jack patrols his fort, catching vermin so successfully that fairly soon the soldiers are taking turns fishing for Jack’s supper. He also eats his share of bacon and cornbread.
The attacks on Fort Sumter (summer, 1863) by both Rear Admiral Du Pont and General Quincy Adams Gilmore are described in detail as poor Jack flees from live cannonballs on the parade ground to hide in Mauma June’s basket. Although branded a “scaredy-cat” by the men, Jack endures until Sumter itself falls, once again, into Union hands.
Fearing Sherman’s army, Captain Thomas Huguenin evacuates first the fort, then Charleston. Jack gets as far as his old house, but the family has left. Only Mauma June remains, soon to be asked to leave her old cabin or pay rent. Jack and Mauma June share a house with another family of former slaves, and Jack lives yet another of his nine lives strolling the Battery and remembering his war days.
Although early in the book Jack claims to be a “Confederate Cat,” he expresses no opinion about politics or slavery. He is just a simple striped tabby, based on the oral tradition concerning the existence of a real “garrison cat” at Sumter who served during the major bombardments of the fort and slept in a seagrass basket.
Jack the Cat is one of those lovingly told, beautifully illustrated books for children that hold such an important place in the hearts of every history buff. We all started with books like these. Buying this one for the children you care about will help support the Fort Sumter National Monument, and it may just blow some oxygen on that small flame within a future historian’s heart.