The Paula Gordon Show
Civil Wars, Civil Rights

Donald McCaig

      . . . is a writer who moved with his wife, Anne, from New York City to Virginia in the early 1970‚s. They became sheep farmers and in the process they also became Virginians. In addition to the Civil War historical fiction Jacob‚s Ladder, Mr. McCaig has written three other novels, plus entertainments, nonfiction, and poetry. The McCaigs and their Border Collies continue to work a sheep farm in the western mountains of Virginia

Excerpts3:22 secs

      Winners name wars, so America‚s War of Rebellion turned into the Civil War. And a terrifying time it was, Donald McCaig learned in the six years he spent researching letters, diaries, archives and landmarks for his historical novel, Jacob‚s Ladder. How does a Montana lad who lived for years in New York City write a Southern Civil War novel? By getting to know the neighbors.

      Don and his poet-wife, Anne, moved to Virginia in the early 1970s, where they sheep farm to this day. Without even trying, they became Virginians. It slowly dawned on Don that had he lived in Virginia in the 1860‚s, he and his neighbors would have banded together and marched off into battle, just as Virginians did then. He was so intrigued he wrote Jacob‚s Ladder from the perspective of the South, but this time, he told a bigger story than we usually hear -- he gave voice to both whites and black, slaves and those who owned them.

      McCaig believes the Civil War made us Americans. For decades after the War, former Confederate and Union soldiers in the West as well as the South and North continued to play out their anger and frustrations about the way the War was conducted. (And, by the way, McCaig has no doubt about the strategic value of Sherman‚s March to the Sea. Zero. He believes it was revenge, pure and simple.) McCaig‚s confident that the questions which were left unresolved at the end of that War are with us still. „There but for the grace of God, go Iš tales abound. And haunting stories of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) -- virtually all of whom were run-away slaves -- enable McCaig to make tangible much of the carnage and terror of this very American experience.

      Racism was undeniably rampant in both the South and the North before, during and after the Civil War, McCaig assures us. But he attributes much of the tremendous rage expressed during the War itself and the post-Civil War evils of Southern segregation to the moral and spiritual mistake of slaveholders. Many felt personally betrayed when slaves chose freedom, shattering the enforced intimacy of slavery. In fact, McCaig believes the institution was so strong that had the Civil War not ended it, he‚s confident slavery would have continued for decades more. It took one hundred additional years and another social upheaval before the descendants of slaves who were declared free became free.

      Why the current bounty of Civil War books?  Oddly enough, McCaig again credits the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960‚s. He believes it liberated Americans of all persuasions finally to talk openly about our past, neither to defend nor to deny our heritage. He thinks that exchange is a vital step for moving forward, out of our tragic past. There‚s a lot to be said for ventilation.

Conversation 1

Donald McCaig tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell what six years of research into the Civil War yielded. McCaig describes his novel as his Virginia neighbors‚ story.  The task McCaig set himself was trying to figure out why the Confederates went to war with the Union forces in the first place. He offers his explanation for how the Civil War made us Americans and the legacy that remains with us today.


Conversation 2

„A story of hope,š is how McCaig describes the African-American story during the Civil War. By the end of the War, there were 171 regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT), virtually all of whom were run-away slaves. (All the New England states combined only had 176 regiments of white troops.) McCaig describes the experience of the USCT during the War and how the North abandoned these soldiers in Texas when the War ended. McCaig asks what the big issues were and tries to answer his question as ordinary Virginians did at the time. He compares the South and North and offers some „what ifs.š He recalls how Southerners viewed Gettysburg and Lincoln‚s re-election in 1864. McCaig names the only two things he believes the War settled and many others it did not.


Conversation 3

McCaig summarizes the War of Rebellion as a „terrifyingš time and offers some reasons. He reminds us that most of the soldiers on both sides were country boys and the impact this had on their lives and their behavior, including a powerful religious revival in which Generals Lee and Longstreet participated. McCaig describes Southern hospitals, which were, for a time, the biggest and best in the world. He has anecdotes about activities within those hospitals and the impact of injuries on tens of thousands of men both during and after the War. McCaig describes what Virginia looked like when the War was over and for decades to come.


Conversation 4

The recent flurry of good books about the Civil War, Donald McCaig believes, was made possible by the 1960‚s Civil Rights Movement and he explains the basis for his opinion. He tells why he deliberately made his perspective in his novel that of Southerners. He recalls ghosts he encountered on Confederate battlefields, particularly the 23rd United States Colored Troops regiment which he believes were deliberately slaughtered. He explains the impact of going to war in the company of one‚s neighbors, and if one were very lucky, returning home to live with those same people or their survivors. He gives a story of his boyhood in Montana, where there were so many Southerners that it was suggested the state capital be named after Jefferson Davis‚ wife. He speculates about the impact angry former soldiers had on how Native Americans were treated in the West and describes the politics that surrounded the War and the years that followed. He offers his opinion of the strategic value of Sherman‚s march.


Conversation 5

The role of women in the Civil War fascinated Donald McCaig. He gives the example of how nursing became open to women as a result of the War. He gives his „there but by the grace of Godš theory of the human experience. He gives a glimpse into the process by which he created the various characters in his novel and uses General Lee‚s daughter and wife as examples of how he brought people back to life in his story.


Conversation 6

McCaig names what he believes is the source of the tremendous rage associated with the War. He describes how slave holders usually responded to slaves‚ wishes to be free. He connects these responses to the evils of post-Civil War racism that held sway over the country until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He explains why he believes slavery would have continued full-bore to the end of the 19th century had the Civil War not ended it.


Acknowledgements

Cathy Melnicki at W.W. Norton and Allison Tyror at The Margaret Mitchell House worked together to make it possible for us to record this program in Margaret Mitchell‚s apartment.

The staff at The Margaret Mitchell House was extraordinarily helpful amidst their preparations for Don McCaig‚s appearance at "Bohemian Night." We thank all concerned.

Links:
Jacob‚s Ladder is published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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