Ben Cleary, author of Searching for Stonewall Jackson, will be at the American Civil War Museum–Historic Tredegar next Thursday with Evans Hopkins at 6PM to discuss Cleary's book and how we represent and interpret history going forward. We caught up with Cleary and asked him about his work and his influences.
How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you? What inspired you to write this book?
I was teaching a creative writing class at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond back in the 1980s when I came across a book in the institution's library called "A Stillness at Appomattox." I opened it at random and started reading about events in my neighborhood. I asked an inmate, Evans Hopkins, if I could check out the book in his name. He urged me just to take it, which I did. My interest deepened later when I discovered that Stonewall Jackson had marched down the road in front of my house on his way to the Seven Days.
How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
During the time I was writing, the horrible events of Charleston and Charlottesville rocked the country. A topic I love, Confederate military history, became a pawn in the culture wars. The book is partially an attempt to move the
conversation beyond outrage into a more nuanced view of the past.
What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
That Jackson remained interesting. It took longer to write the book that it did to fight the war. I assumed I would be done with it all at the end. Not so. When I finished, Jackson was still enigmatic and fascinating, the war still full of colorful characters and relevant insights.
Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish?
"Stonewall" segues between past and present, biography and meditation. Instead of digging up new tidbits, I spent much of my research time going to battlefields and other sites, then trying to evoke that sense of place. I doubt there's much new material to uncover about Jackson. It's been said that a book about the Civil War has been published every day since Appomattox. I'd wager that a book on Jackson has been published every year.
What are some of your favorite books to recommend to others after they read yours, if they want to keep exploring the same (or similar) topics?
There are no short books on Jackson. Prepare yourself for a project with any reading you undertake. That being said, S. C. Gwynne's "Rebel Yell" is fast-paced, insightful, and comprehensive. Everything known about Jackson is included in James I. Robertson's "Stonewall Jackson", though I wish he had paid more attention to the inner man. For the war's present-day legacy, Tony Horowitz's "Confederates in the Attic" is colorful and lots of fun.