Set during the American Civil War, the plot revolves around the fictional sixteen-year-old Jefferson Davis Bussey, who is caught up in the events of history. Actual historical personages (e.g. Generals Stand Watie and James G. Blunt) and battles (e.g. Wilson's Creek and Prairie Grove) are seen from the viewpoint of an ordinary soldier, enabled by the choice of protagonist. Harold Keith spent many years interviewing Civil War veterans and visiting the sites depicted in the book, resulting in an authenticity that is rare for historical fiction that targets a young adult audience.
The setting, west of the Mississippi, is also not typical of Civil War novels, so the reader gets a perspective on the war not generally available in other books, let alone one found in children's books.
Jefferson Davis Bussey marches off to Leavenworth from Linn County, Kansas in 1861, on his way to join the Union volunteers. He is off to fight for the North, his zeal having been fueled by reaction to the guerilla war of "bushwhackers" that was taking place in eastern Kansas. However, Stand Watie is on the side of the South. We meet many soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war, including Watie's raiding parties, itinerant printer Noah Babbitt and, in Tahlequah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) the beautiful Cherokee girl, Lucy Washbourne. During an undercover mission, Jeff finds that Captain Asa Clardy of the Union Cavalry is smuggling new Spencer rifles to the Indian forces of Stand Watie.
Jeff winds up fighting for both the North and the South (while on a special undercover mission) during the conflict while making friends on each side. The book is also notable for the detailed depiction of contemporary Cherokee life in Indian Territory, including various tribal political factions. Keith portrays the difficulties Jeff Bussey faces in choosing one side or the other in the midst of huge conflicts.
- Jefferson (Jeff) Davis Bussey – the protagonist. Originally an infantry private but later his whole company is trained as cavalrymen. After a long secret mission and daring escape he is promoted to sergeant and sent home.
- Lucy Washbourne – Jeff's love interest, a young woman living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (then Indian Territory)
- Lee Washbourne – Lucy's brother, a Confederate soldier and scout. Killed by a firing squad in which Jeff unknowingly took a part. Jeff, however, did not shoot and did not realize that it was Lee, whom he had heard about from Lucy and Mrs. Washbourne, until he saw Lee's name engraved on his watch.
- Noah Babbitt – an itinerant printer, older than Jeff, and a Union soldier and a lover of nature.
- Stand Watie – historical character, the last Confederate general to surrender at the war's end. His forces are described as "using old British one shot Enfield's and double barrel shotguns." The use of Spencer repeaters could mean a victory against Union soldiers.
- James G. Blunt – historical character, Union general who battled to control Indian Territory.
- David Gardner – Jeff's hometown friend who joins the Union Army with him.
- John Chadwick – Another of Jeff's hometown friends who joins the Union Army with him.
- Captain Asa Clardy – Jeff's commanding officer in the Union Army, and a major antagonist against Jeff. He is the one smuggling the Spencer Rifles to the Rebels. Eventually found killed and exposed postmortem as a traitor.
- Heifer Hobbs – company cook and mentor for Jeff in the rebel army of Stand Watie. He stands up for Jeff when Sergent Fields accuses Jeff of being a Union spy.
- Bill Earle – A singer who served with Jeff made in the war, on the Union side
- Stuart Mitchell - A Union P.O.W who was able to escape from Watie's men and enlist in Jeff's unit.
- Pete Millholland – An older gentleman who is elected as Jeff's squad leader. He's killed by Rebels while cooking supper in Choctaw country
- Jimmy - The 14-year-old drummer boy for the Union army. He is critically injured and later dies on Christmas Day
- Edith Bussey - Jeff's Mom
- Emory Bussey - Jeff's father
- Ring - Jeff's dog in Kansas
- Dixie - A dog owned by a rebel who is killed at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. Jeff befriends her and keeps her, later leaving her with Lucy Washbourne.
- Keegan - A commander for the Confederates.
- Lieutenant Orff - Commander of the scout platoon that Jeff and Noah join after becoming cavalrymen. Carries a Spencer 7 shot rifle.
- Sully - A "bloodhound" that is supposed to be hunting Jeff when he befriends him. Sully also looks very sad and ugly.
- Sergeant Fields - NCO for the company of Confederate cavalry Jeff joins.
- Jim Bostwick - a scout that Jeff works with. Killed in a battle while posing as a Confederate.
- Sparrow - the chef at the army camp. Killed by Clardy after telling Jeff a secret about him.
- Mike Dempsey- Older Irishman who befriends Jeff.
- Ford Ivey- One of Jeff's best friends who was severely wounded during the Battle of Wilson's Creek. He eventually has his leg amputated.
- Zed Tinney- God-fearing boy who owns a bible that is bound in black leather. Killed during the Battle of Wilson's Creek.
- Jake Lonegan- A squad leader in Jeff's company.
- Jim Veatch- Cardplayer in Jeff's company.
- Neely North- A breezy recruit from Shawnee Mission.
- Walter Van Ostrand- A cowardly youngster in Jeff's company who purposely shot his gun off in order to be discharged.
Kirkus Reviews said of the book: "Stirring, original and always credible, this is distinctly superior." In a retrospective essay about the Newbery Medal-winning books from 1956 to 1965, librarian Carolyn Horovitz wrote of Rifles for Watie, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow: "All have value, all are told skilfully. If they lack the qualities of greatness, it is largely because their style has a commercial sameness."
Awards and nominations
- Winner, 1958 Newbery Medal
- Notable Children's Books of 1957 (ALA)
- 1964 James Carroll Shelf Award
- Rifles for Watide on Rifles for Watie. BookRags Study Guides. Retrieved 2007-06-26.
- Kingman, Lee (ed.) (1965). Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-1965. Boston: Horn Book.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)