- The Meanest and “Damnest” Job: The Civil War Experiences and Civilian History of Colonel Edmund Winchester Rucker by Michael P. Rucker
Edmund Winchester Rucker (1835–1924) was an archetype of a specific kind of Old/New South man: ambitious, adaptable, capable, and successful—a man on the make. As such, he is worthy of detailed examination.
Born into a respectable family near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1835, Rucker manifested an abiding ambition, venturing to Nashville just shy of the tender age of eighteen to better his prospects. Largely self-educated, Rucker landed a job building the Tennessee and Alabama Railroad, acquiring skills and experience as a surveyor. He parlayed these into another railroad construction job, and, when that project failed financially, he moved to Memphis, where he served as a city surveyor and studied engineering. When the Civil War began, Rucker was in his mid-twenties and a founding partner in an engineering concern.
Rucker seems not to have questioned too deeply the issue of secession. For him, the Civil War probably represented opportunity. Having made a promising start to his career, Rucker secured an initial officer appointment as an engineer; he later served in both the artillery and the cavalry. His Civil War activities included supervising construction of Confederate defenses at Columbus, Kentucky; commanding Rucker’s Redan as captain of artillery at Island No. 10; and suppressing dissent in East Tennessee. He spent the balance of the war in charge of cavalry units, most famously, perhaps, with Nathan Bedford Forrest at the battle of Brices Cross Roads. Rucker’s war ended in the aftermath of the battle of Nashville, where he was wounded and captured while covering the Confederate retreat.
After the war, Rucker worked initially on several railroad startups, often with Forrest. In 1880 Rucker relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, where he fortuitously teamed up with James Withers Sloss, one of the city’s earliest boosters. Rucker played a major role in industrializing the city, serving in senior leadership roles for a seemingly endless list of companies.
Michael P. Rucker’s treatment aptly outlines precisely what the title of the book suggests: “the Civil War Experiences and Civilian History” of his distant relative. The thirty-six brief chapters march through Edmund Rucker’s life with clear and direct prose. The strongest portion of the book deals with Rucker’s Civil War service, which makes up fully 90 percent of the whole book. If Edmund Winchester Rucker was there, Michael Rucker describes it and more besides. As such, the author provides a decidedly individual and interesting view of operations in the western theater.
This is not, however, a biography. Here the author was limited by the sources available to him—namely, a cache of personal papers. Consequently, while the timeline of Edmund Rucker’s life emerges, the man himself remains a mystery, as his voice is largely absent. Clearly, he was ambitious and capable, but did he support the Confederate cause because he was personally committed to it or because it offered a pathway to advancement? So, too, are readers left to wonder about the nature of Rucker’s friendship with Forrest. That they were committed to each other and cooperated in business after the war is obvious, but did their [End Page 479] friendship lead to political cooperation as well? These questions and others linger. Finally, the author’s brief recounting of Rucker’s immensely interesting and significant postwar career serves only to whet the appetite for more.
In sum, this book calls attention to an underexamined but noteworthy figure in the history of the Civil War and New South eras. However, those hoping to learn more about what made a man who successfully straddled the Old and New Souths tick will have to look elsewhere.