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WV Book Team: Villain? Hero? True tale ‘Bridge Burner’ has it all

“Bridge Burner: The Full and Factual Story of Dr. William Parks Rucker, Slave-Owning Union Partisan,” by Michael P. Rucker; West Virginia Book Co.; 292 pages; $29.95.

Bill Clements worked at a bookstore for eight years, then starting publishing and distributing books about West Virginia in 1995, as the owner and operator of the West Virginia Book Co.

“Back in the early ’90s, people would always be asking us for books about the state, and many times we would have to explain that such a book did not exist. Eventually I decided to start publishing books and have been going strong for 18 years now,” he said.

“We only publish six or eight books a year, and they all have strong connections to the state. From Civil War to ghost stories to tour guides, general history, coffee table books and cookbooks, we have published them.”

In that capacity, Clements said, he is constantly reading and evaluating manuscripts.

“I don’t really have a favorite genre but always love working with the amazing photos of Steve Shaluta and the quirky upbeat humor and passion of tour guide writer, Jeanne Mozier (perhaps best known for her West Virginia travel book “Way Out in West Virginia”). (Note: Mozier has just joined the WV Travel Team. Look for exciting reports from her travels in the pages of the Life & Style section in the coming weeks.)

“All of the books we have published are like kids to me, from the first one in 1995, which was a folklore of herbs, to “A Song for West Virginia,” the one coming out in a few weeks commemorating the poem that the poet laureate, Marc Harshman, wrote for the state Sesquicentennial last year,” Clements said.

For his first review, Clements chose a Civil War tale — complete with a sordid family drama unlike any you have ever read before.

* * *

“Bridge Burner: The Full and Factual Story of Dr. William Parks Rucker, Slave-Owning Union Partisan,” by Michael P. Rucker; West Virginia Book Co.; 292 pages; $29.95.

By Bill Clements

WV Book Team

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Most books on the Civil War focus on major military battles or well-known military or political leaders. This book, however, is about an obscure doctor, William Parks Rucker, who was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, and managed to capture headlines and become universally despised in his home state while being highly respected in West Virginia.

Since the author has the same last name as the historical figure, I wrongly assumed this would be a rather dry and perhaps whitewashed history of William Rucker.

I was pleasantly proven wrong.

The book is written in an accessible style and easily held my interest.

The shear number of adventures and almost implausible exploits Rucker led make the book a good read for fans of the Civil war and general readers alike.

Dr. Rucker was very outspoken, which easily offended those around him. Besides being a doctor, he was a gambler, pharmacist, tax assessor, tavern owner and general wheeler and dealer.

His authority to take inventory of people’s property proved invaluable knowledge when the war started, as he routinely tipped Union authorities on where to seize valuable horses and equipment from Southern supporters.

Countless lawsuits were filed both by him and against him throughout his life.

It seems Dr. Rucker was destined to a life of controversy and it appears he thrived on it.

During the early months of the Civil War, Rucker managed to become one of the most despised individuals in the South — and a hero to those who supported the Union.

He was a slave owner who fiercely opposed the Confederacy.

His initial act to antagonize Southern supporters was to stab to death a man who challenged his outspoken support for the Union.

Following that incident, he led Union troops to burn an important bridge of the Virginia Central Railroad.

Shortly thereafter, he was captured in Summersville by Confederate cavalry led by the audacious spy Nancy Hart. There ensued an emotional argument between Virginia Gov. John Letcher and the Confederate authorities as to which had the right to place him on trial — and hang him.

In the meantime, President Abraham Lincoln personally authorized placing a Confederate surgeon “in close confinement” as a hostage in the event Rucker was harmed or executed.

More than a hundred years later, when the author, Michael Rucker, was growing up, Dr. William Rucker was always referred to by family members as a black sheep and a scoundrel.

In spite of his poor reputation, Mike Rucker became fascinated and painstakingly researched his distant relative.

Every time he thought he was about finished, more people stepped forward to provide new leads, and before he knew it, eight years working on the book had passed.

When I asked him about his relationship to William, Mike said, “A number of people have asked me if I am a descendant of Dr. Rucker; our common ancestor is his great-grandfather — so we are not so close.”

During his 15 months of imprisonment, Rucker became the focus of the most acrimonious prisoner exchange problem between the Union and the Confederacy.

There are 64 entries in the Official Records of the Rebellion concerning the difficulties of his exchange — more than that of any other prisoner of war.

He was moved about to 10 different jails and prisons to prevent the Union Army from attempting to release him. He finally escaped and after a harrowing flight to safety reached the Union encampment at Gauley Bridge.

In Charleston he enlisted in the Union Army with the rank of major and became aide-de-camp to Gen. George Crook. His first official duty was as a scout to lead the burning of another bridge — the important New River Bridge of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.

The extreme fervor of this volatile era of U.S. history is dramatically revealed in the remarkable life of this obsessed individual.

Dr. Rucker’s postwar involvements were equally remarkable and varied. Among other things, he became a lawyer in Lewisburg and defended the man who murdered Zona Heaster Shue in a case widely known as the Greenbrier Ghost trial.

He also assisted his former slave, Charlotte Scott, in establishing the first monument to Abraham Lincoln: the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.

This book shows the remarkable life of an unusual man who stuck to his convictions his entire life.

Every detail of William Rucker’s life is researched exhaustively and footnoted and documented for the Civil War scholar, yet is interesting enough to be enjoyed by all.

Author Mike Rucker lived in Charleston as a boy and delivered The Charleston Gazette. He now lives in Peoria, Illinois, with his wife, Harriet.

The book is available locally at Taylor Books and West Virginia Marketplace at the Capitol Market, and from the West Virginia Book Co. for $29.95 plus $4.50 shipping. (West Virginia residents add $1.80 sales tax.) Orders can be placed at 304-342-1848 or www.wvbookco.com.

Bill Clements is the owner and operator of the West Virginia Book Co.