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Not to be confused with "When Will This Cruel War Be Over?" (film).

"Try as I might, I cannot seem to stop thinking about times past. The long walks, the buggy rides into town, the dances and fancy balls after which we would feast on cake, strawberries, and ice cream, the sparkling conversation, the laughter and the merriment–there is none of that now."
Emma Simpson[2]

When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson is the third book in Scholastic's Dear America series. It was written by Barry Denenberg and was his first book for the series. The book was published in September 1996 and republished in April 2011. It was adapted into a short film in 2000.

The book is set during the American Civil War and follows Emma Simpson, a young Southern girl.


"For my own lovely Emma"

Book description[]

""I am no longer young"
Wednesday, November 23, 1864

Sometimes I try to remember what our lives used to be like, but it has been so long I have difficulty conjuring up the images. I can, at times, picture the house when it was alive and full of activity—everyone getting ready for a carriage ride into town or perhaps an excursion into the countryside. Mother giving the servants last minute instructions, Father and Brother Cole seeing to the bags, and me sitting at my vanity for what I am sure must have seemed like endless hours....Those days are gone forever—I am no longer young.
At times I feel like I am a thousand years old—that is what this cruel war has done to me.

"My name is Emma. This is my story....
The peaceful, traditional Southern life that Emma Simpson and her family know is shattered when the Civil War reaches their soil. Soon, Emma's father and brother are called to battle, but her family is confident that the South will quickly win the War between the States. As the months drag on, though, the harsh realities of war set in. Death and hardship are all around, and food, medicine, firewood, and ink for Emma to write her diary become increasingly scarce as troops from the North march deeper into the South. Eventually, even Emma's home is commandeered by the Yankees. Still, with a brave spirit and the knowledge of what is most important in life, Emma never loses hope that the war will end.


Fourteen-year-old, Emma Simpson lives in Gordonsville, Virginia with her mother in the middle of the Civil War. Mrs. Simpson handles the management of the household and instructing their slaves, Iris, Amos, and Nelson. Meanwhile, Emma's father Robert and elder brother Cole, soldiers in the Confederate States Army, fight against the Union Army. Near Christmas, they receive word that Cole has died of pneumonia, while recovering in a hospital.

Life goes on almost normally, until Emma's mother falls ill in January 1863. Emma's aunt Caroline Colsten, older cousin Rachel, and baby cousin Elizabeth come to live at the Simpsons' home, while Emma's mother is unwell. In the meantime, Emma receives a letter from Tally Mills, a boy she met a year ago. He includes a ring with the letter, though Emma decides to wear it on a chain. Over the next three months, her mother's health steadily declines. Her last words to Emma are to "spend as little time as possible on tears, for tears will do us all no good."

Caroline takes on the household management in Mrs. Simpson's absence. Emma still heartbroken finds solace in reading Jane Eyre. One day, the "Yankees" (Union soldiers) invade the house of a nearby neighbor, the Broyles. Mrs. Broyles, "too frightened to stay there", moves with her two daughters, Lily and Lucy, into the Simpson residence. A Yankee officer, Colonel Davenport later arrives and makes Emma's house his headquarters. Emma and her guests are forced to move into the third floor guestrooms.

However, Emma becomes grateful for the Colonel's presence, after many of her neighbors have unfortunate encounters with the Yankees. Just as they grow use to their presence, Colonel Davenport and his men depart suddenly. The Simpsons' slaves run away not long after, excluding the loyal Iris and Amos. Emma longs for the time before the war, but realizes that "there is no going back." Christmas again, Emma laments the death of Elizabeth, and worries about her father and Tally.


Tally was wounded and taken prisoner in Winchester, Virginia in September 1864. He was taken to a prison in Elmira, New York in April 1865 when the end officially ended. After being released, he reunited with Emma in Virginia. They married and moved to Richmond, where their two children, Robert and Jane, were born. Tally became a successful journalist while Emma taught piano and volunteered at the Richmond Library. In 1916, Tally passed away at the age of seventy. Emma died the following year. The ring Tally gave Emma continues to be been passed down through the generations. It now resides with her great-great granddaughter Emma Clark Broughton.

Emma's father died at the Battle of Cedar Creek after being mistaken for a Union soldier. After the war, Caroline, Rachel, and Amos stayed at the Simpsons home, which Caroline turned into an orphanage. Despite his age, Amos was able to repair the home with some help. In 1867, Caroline sent Rachel to Richmond Lunatic Asylum, where she died a year later. After Caroline's death in 1893, the home fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished. Iris and her daughter Dinah lived with Emma's family in Richmond for several years. She later married and moved away with her husband and daughter.

Historical Note[]

The American Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president, eleven southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The point of contention was slavery, which the south relied on economically while northern abolitionists opposed it. In 1861, the war began with the goal for the northern states being to reform the Union. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which stated that all slaves were now free. Though the Confederacy ignored it, the document was important politically since it meant that the war was officially to end slavery along with preserving the Union.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant which ended the war. President Lincoln was assassinated five days later. The Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery, was later ratified. Eleven pictures are included in the section along with two maps of the United States and important battles from the war. The sheet music and lyrics of the song, "When This Cruel War Is Over (Weeping, Sad and Lonely)," is also included


Main article: List of When Will This Cruel War Be Over? characters
  • Emma Simpson is a fourteen-year-old girl living in the South during the Civil War. She has conflicting feelings about the war, despite her father being a Confederate officer.
  • Caroline Colsten, Emma's loving aunt, who comes to live at the Simpsons' home. Her husband died a year previously at the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • Rachel Colsten is Caroline's daughter and Emma's older cousin. After her father's death, Rachel becomes sullen and ill-tempered.



Screenshot from "When Will This Cruel War Be Over?"

Main article: When Will This Cruel War Be Over? (film)

In 2000, When Will This Cruel War Be Over? was adapted into a television film. The film was produced by Scholastic Entertainment and aired on HBO. Unlike the other Dear America films, it was not released on video tape. Melyssa Ade starred in the film as Emma.


Main article: Barry Denenberg

Barry Denenberg is a nonfiction and historical fiction author, known for writing biographies. He is the author five Dear America books, including So Far from Home, One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping, Early Sunday Morning, and Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Denenberg also contributed two books to My Name Is America, and one to The Royal Diaries. He chose to set the story in the south because most of the military activity took place there. Denenberg also named the main character after his own daughter.



  • NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People[6]


"The author would like to thank the editorial, production, and design staffs at Scholastic for their painstaking efforts on his behalf. In particular, Tracy Mack, whose caring shines through on every page."


  • The portrait on the cover of the first edition is a detail from the 1868 painting Mary Cadwalader Rawle by William Oliver Stone. The background is a detail from the 19th century engraving A Planter's House in Georgia from the Granger Collection.[7][8][9]
  • The portrait on 2011 reprint was illustrated by Tim O'Brien. The background is a detail of the 1864 engraving Grant's Great Campaign - Stevens's Battery at Cold Harbor.[10][11]
  • In Denenberg's Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, the characters prepare to perform a play of When Will This Cruel War Be Over?. Bess Brennan is cast as Rachel whom she prefers playing over Emma.


See also[]

Arts & Crafts, File:When Will This Cruel War Be Over? Discussion Guide.pdf

Dear America

A Journey to the New World | The Winter of Red Snow | When Will This Cruel War Be Over? | A Picture of Freedom
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie | So Far from Home | I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly
West to a Land of Plenty | Dreams in the Golden Country | Standing in the Light | Voyage on the Great Titanic
A Line in the Sand | My Heart Is on the Ground | The Great Railroad Race | The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow
A Light in the Storm | Color Me Dark | A Coal Miner's Bride | My Secret War | One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping
Valley of the Moon | Seeds of Hope | Early Sunday Morning | My Face to the Wind | Christmas After All
A Time for Courage | Where Have All the Flowers Gone? | Mirror, Mirror on the Wall | Survival in the Storm
When Christmas Comes Again | Land of the Buffalo Bones | Love Thy Neighbor | All the Stars in the Sky
Look to the Hills | I Walk in Dread | Hear My Sorrow


The Fences Between Us | Like the Willow Tree | Cannons at Dawn | With the Might of Angels | Behind the Masks
Down the Rabbit Hole | A City Tossed and Broken

External links[]