Billy Boy is the story of a mentally challenged soldier, a native of Berwick Maine (where we live) and his battles in going off to fight in the Civil War. He is referred to as being illiterate and simple minded. At the time the 17th Battalion out of Maine was recruiting in Berwick, and because Billy’s friends had decided they would register and elist, Billy decided he too would go. For so long, Billy’s friends had prevented people from ridiculing him, protected him when people became rude and condescending, and because of this, there was no way Billy would not go to war with his friends. He did not really comprehend the severity of his decision and what that meant. Upon arriving at his first station, training began and so long as Billy was with his friends, he seemed to be fine even though he was immensely homesick. While their platoon worked on canon drills, Billy noticed that the horses were upset and bolting each time the canon fired. Billy, being a farm boy and good with farm animals, calmed the horses and was transferred to overseeing the horses. This transfer was meant to be a better fit for his “simple” way but after two days, no friends at camp and the utter sense of being lost, Billy decided it was time to go home, and thus began his journey north.
In the meantime, Elijah was a slave at a large abusive plantation in the south. After a severe whipping, Elijah had enough and decided it was time to head north to Canada via the underground railroad. While he is on the run, we follow his trek through the forest, where he finally lands not far from Billy.
And thus, the two paths cross…this is a wonderful story. North meets South, Black meets White, Kindness overssteps Evil and meanness. Elijah and Billy take trains and ferries to get to Pennsylvania where Elijah is to meet up with the Underground Railroad conductor of sorts…and Billy is again alone.
Sadly Billy’s return home, though joyous is tainted by the Army finding him and trying him for Desertion…and accused, Billy is killed and buried. He was a soldier that never should have been. Local folklore, as Billy was a real person, has it that Lincoln had pardoned Billy but due to riots and messages not coming through New York in a timely manner, the pardon never reached Fort Preble. Billy was the Only Maine soldier accused of and killed for Desertion during the Civil War. He is buried in Berwick, ME.
*My kids have attended school in Berwick and most classes coming up through school read this story. Berwick is a small town where everyone knows everyone, where families have lived for generations, where small graveyards are scattered in old fields and near local intersections. My sons both read the book and thoroughly enjoyed the story, traveling along their local routes with Billy…knowing that certain landmarks, bridges and rivers mark being close to home…knowing the commaradery in our town among the boys is more like a brotherhood. They know, in their own group, who the protectors are and who needs protecting. It was SO familiar reading this story. I found the author’s website and sent a message, sharing my take on her story and received an email back with a personal invitation to hear her speak locally. Very exciting…I see getting my book signed and buying the sequel.*
Tagged: army, berwick, berwick folklore, Berwick Maine, Billy, Billy Boy, book, books, Boy, Civil War, desertion, Elijah, folklore, jean Mary Flahive, lincoln, local, Maine, maine folklore, president lincoln, school, underground railroad