Crossing the Deadline

Stephen's Journey Through the Civil War

When Stephen's father passes away in 1861, he and his mother and brother are left at the mercy of a cruel uncle. As the Civil War intensifies to the south, Stephen's brother enlists to fight for the Union and help support the family. The war drags on and Stephen, an accomplished bugler in the town band, is witness to the sad consequences of slavery. The opportunity to enlist as Colonel Eli Lilly's personal bugler arises and Stephen jumps at the chance. After surviving the Battle of Sulphur Trestle in Alabama, Stephen is sent to a Confederate prison camp to await the end of the war. The trials of prison camp are severe but at war's end Stephen is set to be sent home to Indiana aboard the steamboat Sultana. However, disaster strikes and the ship catches fire and capsizes in America's largest maritime disaster. Through luck and fortitude Stephen survives, but his Civil War journey is one that will engage readers of all ages. Based on historical facts and characters, Stephan's story truly captures the essence of the era.

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Interest Level Grade 4 - Grade 7
Reading Level Grade 5
Dewey FIC
Lexile 730L
ATOS Reading Level 4.8
Guided Reading Level W
Language English
Publisher Sleeping Bear Press
Available Formats Hardcover (9781585369515), Paperback (9781585369522), PDF (9781634710114), Hosted ebook (9781634710121)
Copyright 2016
Number of Pages 384
Dimensions 5.5 x 8.5
  • Charlie May Simon 2018-2019 (Arkansas) Reading List , Short-listed, 2018

Booklist - Crossing the Deadline

Desperate to help support his mother and escape his cruel uncle, Stephen, 13, secretly enlists in the Civil War in 1863, following in the footsteps of his brother, Robert, killed fighting for the Union. Although Stephen is too young to be a soldier, he is not too young to use his skills as a bugler. After suffering defeat in a skirmish, Stephen and other soldiers are sent to a prison near Selma, Alabama. Stephen’s first-person account vividly describes the horrific conditions they endured, but the trials he faces are only beginning: he is eventually sent home aboard the doomed steamship Sultana. This is fiction, but Stephen is based on a real person, and many details and events are based on diary and journal accounts. Readers unfamiliar with the Sultana disaster may be shocked to know more people died here than in the sinking of the Titanic. The realistic situations and feelings, viewed through the eyes of a young bugler, will appeal to readers who like war stories.

School Library Journal - Crossing the Dead Line

In this highly relatable work of historical fiction, Shoulders brings to life one of the darkest chapters in American history: the Civil War. The narrative revolves around 13-year-old Stephen Gaston, who manages to enlist in the Union Army to support his mother, despite being underage. As a personal bugler for a major in the Ninth Indiana Cavalry, Stephen must act as his company’s timekeeper—both during daily activities and on the battlefield. The story is told from Stephen’s point of view and is full of historical details. As the character experiences training, battle, and imprisonment, readers are privy to what it must have been like to experience war from a soldier’s perspective. Like young Stephen, most enlistees are eager to “see the elephant” (be part of a battle), but their excitement fades as the realities of mosquitoes, heat, and constant drilling set in. The novel covers very little of the Battle of Sulphur Branch Trestle, instead focusing on the horrendous conditions after the Ninth is forced to surrender. Life in “Camp Morgan” is almost unimaginable: the men must deal with outbreaks of dysentery and lice, flooding has made proper sheltering impossible, and overcrowding makes food so scarce that the men resort to eating rats. Through so much misery, the author is still able to evoke feelings of empathy and hopefulness. Faith in humanity is demonstrated throughout: soldiers unselfishly make sacrifices to take care of one another, and even the guards, whose lives are not much better than the prisoners’, are presented in a sympathetic light. VERDICT A sensitive and detailed portrayal of a Civil War soldier’s life.

Author: Michael Shoulders

Having been involved in education for more than 30 years, Dr. Michael Shoulders travels extensively, visiting schools and speaking at conferences across the country. In addition to authoring the companion title, Say Daddy!, he has written several books for Sleeping Bear Press, including G is for Gladiator: An Ancient Rome Alphabet. Mike lives in Clarksville, Tennessee.

  • Prologue
  • Part One: Centerville, Indiana
  • Part Two: The South
  • Part Three: Homeward Bound
  • Author's Note
  • About the Author
Author/Illustrator biography
Teaching guides