Here is a man [Matthew Brady] who has seized the moment, and I admire him very much. He was at Fort Sumter to take pictures three days after the evacuation of the Union garrison. This will be a war of photographs, he says. His aim is to place these photographs in front of the people so they do not become complacent about the killing. He says he aims to photograph dead bodies. Well, I suppose he has a point. If people actually see what is being done, they won’t be so eager to have parades and military celebrations in honor of the war.
(from Sarah’s Ground, page 123)
Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation and family home of George Washington, was the only neutral ground during the American Civil War. I had the pleasure of touring the home and the grounds more than a decade ago, so it was interesting to read about the home when it was being restored and war was being waged all around it. Sarah’s Ground is based on the true story of Sarah Tracy, a young woman from New York who took a job at the estate as a caretaker of sorts. Ann Rinaldi used historical information in Sarah’s letters to Miss Cunningham of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in writing the book, but Rinaldi imagined much of Sarah’s story because her journals and other papers from her years at Mount Vernon were destroyed after the war when her home near Fairfax burned.
Sarah has just completed her schooling at the Troy Female Seminary when she gets the job as Mount Vernon’s caretaker in 1861. She will be working alongside Miss Cunningham, mostly writing letters, raising money, and bringing back some of the home’s original furnishings. One of the area’s most eligible bachelors, Upton Herbert, is also in residence, and he is overseeing the restoration of the home, Washington’s tomb, and the grounds. He longs to join the war effort, but he promised Miss Cunningham that he wouldn’t, that his job at Mount Vernon was just as important.
Sarah is the youngest child in her family. Her parents are older, and she was mainly raised by her siblings. She views accepting the job as a rebellion of sorts; she’s sick of being sent away to stay with friends of the family in hopes of finding a husband. However, she worries that Miss Cunningham will find out about her little lie — that she’s only 18, not 22, like she said when applying for the job.
Sarah soon shows her spunk. She responds to criticisms of the restoration project, kicks Washington’s relative out of the home, and questions whether the servants — descendents of Washington’s slaves — are free and insists that they be paid — all during her first day on the job. On trips to Washington, D.C., to procure supplies, Sarah presses General McClellan and even President Lincoln for the necessary passes for her and the servants. She makes soldiers wear shawls to cover their uniforms when visiting Washington’s tomb, entertains Napoleon, and refuses to give Mrs. Lincoln a tour for fear that she would be viewed as taking sides in the war. When Miss Cunningham must return to South Carolina to care for her ill mother, Sarah is left alone with Upton — which is okay because he’s a true Southern gentleman — until her flirty and obnoxious friend, Mary, arrives and creates waves.
Sarah’s Ground is an interesting novel (intended for younger readers but enjoyable to all) about Sarah Tracy’s efforts to create an island of neutrality in the midst of a very divisive war. I liked Sarah and Upton, and I enjoyed watching their relationship grow in a very caring, innocent way. Even though much of the story is fiction, I think Rinaldi did a good job making Sarah strong, likable, and true to the women of the era. Although there isn’t much plot, Sarah’s Ground is a nice, quiet novel that introduces readers to a little known event in our nation’s history, the preservation of Mount Vernon and how it survived the Civil War.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.