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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

The Silent Witness

A True Story of the Civil War

Houghton Mifflin Company | April 2005 | Nonfiction Picture Book

The Silent Witness book cover

“The war started on my front lawn and ended in my front parlor.”

—Wilmer McLean


When Ken Burns' PBS series, THE CIVIL WAR, was re-aired one summer, my husband and I sat down to watch the first episode. It opened with the story of Wilmer McLean, a man who found himself on the front lines of the Civil War when the first major battle broke out on his front lawn.

McLean decided to move his family from the dangerous fighting. So the McLeans picked up and left town. Unfortunately, the war followed them again when four years later their house was used as the site for the surrender.

I turned to my husband and said, "Wow - they were there when it started and there when it ended - even after they tried to escape. That would make a great picture book!"

My husband replied, "Well, why don't you write it?"

I'd never written nonfiction before, so I was a bit intimidated by the amount of research that would be necessary. But as I delved into the story of Wilmer McLean, I found out about his little daughter, Lula McLean, and her beloved rag doll, and that became the centerpiece of the story.

This book was rejected by 22 editors before it was accepted.



It's 1861, and Lula McLean's peaceful life in Manassas, Virginia, is about to come to an end — forever.

Not only that. Her precious rag doll — the one Mama so lovingly made for her — is about to become a witness to history.

A little-known but true Civil War story comes to life in this compelling picture book about family, destiny, and extraordinary coincidences.



"Lula's experiences are the basis for this thoughtful tale. The delicate, detailed illustrations convey the experience of living in a civil war with haunting power."

—The New York Times Book Review

"Battles on her front lawn and meetings in her parlor makes Lula's house seem anything but homey during this difficult time. With her rag doll by her side, Lula and her family have the unique experience of witnessing one of the most monumental events in American history."

National Educational Association Today

"A book that reminds us that history is about stories.... This is a story that shows how war can totally change ordinary people's ordinary lives."

— The University of Iowa College of Education
Curriculum Resources Laboratory


"This picture book set during the Civil War emphasizes the ways in which warfare can touch an individual... The finely executed watercolor and gouache paintings, reminiscent of primitive art, accentuate the idea that this war was an intimate part of everyday life in the South... The small, telling details show a personal side of the war often lost in the epic of history books."

The Horn Book

"Friedman expertly weaves the major facts of the Civil War into her narrative, always returning to Lula's experiences as a touchstone...

By focusing on Lula and her doll — the 'silent witness' of the title — the grand sweep of history is placed very firmly and humanely within the grasp of young readers."

— Kirkus Reviews

"Friedman's economical text clearly shows how the Civil War touched the life of a young child. The watercolor-and-gauche illustrations and folk-art style add a sense of comfort to the turmoil and destruction of the war."

School Library Journal

"This is the story of the Civil War's impact on one little girl, her family, and her doll. This brief but significant story may serve to interest readers further in a long-ago conflict. An informative Author's Note provides additional details."

—Children's Literature Review

"This true story is a fitting introduction for children to the losses suffered during war."

The Grand Rapids Press

"Among the intriguing footnotes to Civil War history is the story of the Wilmer McLean family.... Nivola's delicate, naive watercolors capture the bittersweet dignity of a family doing its best to preserve their stability and their Cause, and the author's note that expands on the McLean family and Lula's doll is of considerable interest in its own right."

—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books