Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War

Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War

4.8 6
by Donald McCaig
     
 

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Winner of the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction, the John Eston Cook Award, and the Boyd Military Novel Award: “One of the best Civil War novels . . . McCaig’s prose is gorgeous . . . stunning.”—Houston Chronicle
Duncan Gatewood, seventeen and heir to Gatewood Plantation, falls in love with Maggie, a mulatto

Overview

Winner of the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction, the John Eston Cook Award, and the Boyd Military Novel Award: “One of the best Civil War novels . . . McCaig’s prose is gorgeous . . . stunning.”—Houston Chronicle
Duncan Gatewood, seventeen and heir to Gatewood Plantation, falls in love with Maggie, a mulatto slave, who conceives a son, Jacob. Maggie and Jacob are sold south, and Duncan is packed off to the Virginia Military Institute—he will eventually fight for Robert E. Lee. Another Gatewood slave, Jesse—whose love for Maggie is unrequited—escapes to find her. Jesse finds his freedom and enlists in Mr. Lincoln’s army; in time he will confront his former masters.
In his award-winning novel of the interlocked lives of masters and slaves, Donald McCaig conjures a passionate and richly textured story in the heart of America’s greatest war.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Post
“A tale of courage, cowardice, death, life, growth, war, violence, redemption, and finally, love and compassion. . . . A gentle compelling story about such an ungentle time.”
People
“Captures the details of wartime Virginia with stunning force.”
People Magazine
“Captures the details of wartime Virginia with stunning force.”
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
The novel has . . .a paradoxically simultaneous distance and immediacy, as if we were looking at the distant past through a powerful telescope. . . .he manages to convey both the sweetness of antebellum plantation life and the horror of its peculiar institution.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Imagine a collaboration between Shelby Foote and Margaret Mitchell and you get some idea of the historical irony and passion that inform this fine literary novel, which captures the full sweep of the Civil War in Virginia. In 1934, a WPA writer interviewing 90-year-old Marguerite Omohundru, former Richmond bank president, uncovers the dark secrets of a prominent Virginia family. In 1857, 14-year-old Duncan Gatewood is disowned and sent off to VMI when his father, Samuel, discovers he has fallen in love with and impregnated Midge, a 13-year-old light-skinned slave. To prevent scandal, the girl and infant son, Jacob, are sold south by slave dealer Silas Omohundru, who eventually reclaims Midge from a Vicksburg brothel and marries her. But Midge (or Maggie) already has a black husband. When he runs away to look for her, the daughter of a neighboring white planter and her husband are sent to prison for giving him shelter. War breaks out, and these many oddly linked characters are flung apart and cross paths with various actual figures of the day. From the blockade-running at Wilmington and Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, they make their separate ways through the carnage. McCaig's portrayal of this moment succeeds not only as a splendid piece of writing but also as a searching indictment of inhumanities that still haunt the American soul.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393337105
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
12/07/2009
Pages:
528
Sales rank:
223,144
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

WINTERS WERE COLDER in those days; they remembered that. And the apples were smaller and tart and some of them so orangy they were more orange than red. And every plantation, even the poorest hardscrabble place, grew its own seed corn, so everyone's corn was different--some plump-eared, some long and narrow; some flourished on the wet clay ground beside the river, some did best on the dry limestone hills. The sermons were longer in those days; those Baptist preachers could get to rolling at daybreak and never miss a lick until suppertime. Nobody went hungry--at least not anybody anybody knew. There were plenty of chickens and hog meat, and what Master didn't provide, they could take out of the woods--possum and raccoon and squirrel.

    had been in those days, seventy years, and the young people who came around with their spanking new notebooks to ask questions came, often as not, from the big house up on the hill and bore the same names the old masters had.

    crossed into Maryland. She said they looked lean and dirty. She said they looked like wolves. Another remembered Confederate cavalrymen with dead horses' hooves slung around their horses' necks. She understood right away that they cut them off and kept them for their shoes and never forgot the way the bloody things bounced and spattered the living horses' necks.

    the day they hung John Brown because all the coloreds were locked up from dawn to dawn.

    their own beliefs about the war were so strong they found it hard to credit the memories of the ancient black people who'd lived through it. "How about Lincoln's inauguration? You remember when Lincoln became the President?"

   

    subdued and lost the white folks seemed. And they remembered Cox's snow.

    working at Edgeworth Plantation, the year after Cox's snow." Most of them had never learned to read or write and that was how they remembered things. They remembered that the apples were tart and people prayed longer in those days and they remembered Cox's snow.

The girl was tired and her feet hurt and she thought she might as well leave her pumps at home and buy a pair of shoes like nurse wore. The heat shimmered over the James River and the air was so thick it was like breathing through wet cloth. The family had gone to the mountains as they did every summer and she surely wished she was with them. She would have lain down flat in the pine needles and looked up through the trees to the pale blue sky and been happy.

    was awfully easy to understand why people called them stupid. Couldn't remember a thing. "Missy, that was a powerful time ago!" Except for the apples. Her last interview had insisted that the apples had been "the most tart I ever seed. "Now there was useful history--to a pomologist.

    elephant-back coupe, the sort of car salesmen drove. "Plenty of room for your samples," her brothers had joked, but it was a Chrysler Airflow, at least.

    thought a summer apart might give her some breathing room. When Uncle Harry told her about this writer's job with one of President Roosevelt's new "alphabet soup" agencies, she jumped at the chance. But was any job worth August in Richmond?

    scorched the back of her legs and would probably leave red marks--not that her interview subjects would notice or care. Her previous interview had taken place in a shotgun shack down the River Road in a room so powerfully "negroid" she'd sat beside the open window so she could breathe. The creature on the bed was so wizened and so swaddled in quilts she wouldn't have known its sex except for the name on her interview list. The woman had remembered apples. All she could talk about was apples.

    nothing to say?"

    about what happened on the plantations, why don't they ask the people who knew what was going on? Why inquire among the servants?" Daddy said it was scandal-mongering, just like that Scottsboro business.

    awful stories. Yes, they knew there were whippings and wicked goings-on, but those things went on at other plantations, no'm, never happened to me. Truth was, the girl's own Uncle Harry told more horrible stories than The coloreds did. Uncle Harry relished recounting tales of rapes and whippings and outright murders. But then, Uncle Harry had spent an awful lot of time up in New York.

    sun. Single-story unpainted clapboard buildings lined avenues broad enough for triumphal parades. So much of the city had been destroyed in the evacuation fire. Only here on Shockoe Hill had the grand old townhouses survived.

    in tinned meat juice--and the big white mansion Jefferson Davis had lived in. They'd wanted to tear it down but the Daughters of the Confederacy had stepped in and bought it. Fashion had abandoned Shockoe Hill decades ago, and most of the surviving mansions were rooming houses now.

    the tiny front yard of 376 Clay Street. The iron gate dragged as she pushed it open, the sidewalk was cracked, and weeds flourished at the verges. The porch was a pinched vestibule--wood, painted, gray--but she could see where they'd removed a wider, more generous veranda. The doorbell was encrusted with dried yellow paint, and she poked at it without confidence. The house felt like "nobody home" and she was surprised when the door opened.

    housedress.

    Marguerite?"

    the noontime glare. "Powerful hot today," she observed. "Powerful."

    are collecting recollections of negroes who were once slaves."

   

    intimate. "Marguerite's on my list. Apparently she has agreed to cooperate."

    room. I fetch Miss Marguerite. Don't you go stirrin' up no trouble."

    hallway. The rooms on both sides were closed off and the ball chairs shrouded in gray muslin. It was so cool goose bumps rose on her arms. At the back of the house she came into a long room facing the garden. The wide French doors stood open and the scent of climbing roses perfumed the air. A carpet of primroses bordered the brick path. The sun didn't penetrate the canopy of tremendous old trees, and the room--done in shades of pale blue--was cool and comfortable. Unlike the front of the house, this room was lived in. Maritime lithographs were grouped on the walls: feral blockade runners plowed through crashing seas, pursued by angry vessels whose decks were wreathed in cannon smoke. Magazines were stacked on the table beside a plump couch: chintz patterned in oversized flowers. Reading glasses of a severe old-fashioned style peeped beneath a clot of blue yarn in a wicker sewing basket.

    Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, quarterlies of modest size but rigorous typeface from university history departments. Perhaps her hostess was the wife of a retired professor--or his widow--made comfortable by family money. The girl rather looked forward to meeting her. Afterward, of course, she'd have to interview the subject: Kizzy, no doubt.

    do you want tea? She say she's having some."

    brim with icy tea. Perhaps a sprig of mint.

    loudest sounds that penetrated here were polite birdsongs from the garden. The perspiration dried on the girl's forehead and her underarms were unpleasantly sticky and she hoped she didn't know the hostess, that there was no family connection. It was one thing to traipse off for a bohemian summer interviewing negroes and quite another to do so in the presence of ones respectable connections.

    simply in a silk wrap. Both hands gripped a gnarled black walking stick which preceded her every step. Her hair was wispy and white. The knuckles that clasped the head of the stick had been thickened and twisted by arthritis. When the girl rose to her feet, the woman motioned impatiently for her to sit. Her skin was yellowish-gray, like medieval parchment, and the bones of her skull were visible just beneath the skin.

    tea. The thought of it brought fresh perspiration to the girl's brow.

    said. "During the War, coffee was scarce, but tea was practically unobtainable. We had our last cup of tea the week the Wild Darrell went down. After we fled Wilmington, there was nothing but sassafras." She arranged herself at the end of the couch and leaned her stout stick against the arm. "I am told the government is interviewing those who were once slaves. That is correct?"

    ex-slaves still alive are not always--well--compos mentis." She laughed. "Perhaps they don't wish to speak frankly to a ... a ... white person. We haven't always treated them with kindness, you know."

    something about that."

    plenty of cream into her tea.

    "And many others speak only negro patois. It is useful if you are a slave to have a language to which the masters do not have perfect access. There is some slight advantage to understanding them while they cannot understand you."

   

    appreciate its merits. After my son finished Harvard, he went west. Los Angeles, I intended him to stay in Richmond with the bank, but try and tell him anything. My grandson Joshua does something with the Los Angeles Water Authority. What do you know about water authorities?"

   

    day uncomfortable. Would that I did. Children, you know, can abide the most daunting cold. I fear my plumbing is clogged with scale. I dread the winter."

    consulted it, she felt newly important. "This tea is refreshing," she said. "Who would have thought it--hot tea on a hot day."

    purpose of your inquiry?"

    All through the South, WPA writers are conducting interviews. There are so few written records.

    this information, what does it propose doing with it?"

    of university quarterlies. "Was your husband an historian, by chance?"

   

    thought ... Might I ... Perhaps I could speak to Kizzy?"

    tells me I shan't survive much longer and I'm not certain I wish to. We've had a death in the family."

   

    birds sang their self-involved tunes. The woman's voice strengthened. "My family lives on the other coast and can no longer be hurt by the truth. When I read of your project, after due consideration, I wrote the Senator and asked to be included." She cleared her throat. "Would you ask Kizzy to bring me a glass of water? The other homes on this street are on municipal water, but we have always had our own well."

    negro depositors, our bank is not known as a negro bank. Virginia's negro banks failed to reopen after President Roosevelt's bank holiday, did you know that?"

   

    dismissed Kizzy, who seemed inclined to linger. She rubbed her high forehead. She said, "I became a woman the year of Cox's snow. I don't know how old I was, twelve or thirteen, I suppose, and when I had my first effusion, I mentioned it to no one. The whites believed that we primitives matured younger than white girls, and their theory was of economic benefit to them, since a negress's greatest value was her ability to bear children. We were bred as early and frequently as could be managed within the decencies of Christian convention...."

    suddenly nauseated. "Excuse me," the girl whispered. "Do I understand you correctly ...?"

    light-skinned, and of course my father, the Reverend Mitchell, was white. It is curious, is it not, that the lighter-skinned we are, the more anxious the dominant race is to mate with us. Those first white men to sleep with the dark-skinned daughters of Africa were such bold pioneers!" She raised her invisible eyebrows mockingly. "I suppose it is more agreeable to make love with creatures that closely resemble oneself. Narcissism is one of the South's notable frailties."

   

   

    believe, they pump from the James. I tell them I have lived beside the James for too many years to have any great desire to drink of it.

    continued through Sunday--the winter had been uncommonly mild and we had no reason to anticipate harsher weather. As I have told you, I had recently become a woman but was determined to conceal my new circumstances. I was a house servant, Mistress Abigail's personal servant, and intended to retain my position at any hazard. Mistress Abigail's children were grown, her daughter, Leona, married with two children of her own. Her son, Duncan, was her husband's confidant and favored companion, and I expect Miss Abigail was lonely. I was a clever child and unusually confident. I thought I was `the cat's pajamas.'" The old woman paused. "You young people still employ that expression, do you not?"

   

    roadster. I haven't seen a Stutz in some time. Do they still manufacture them?"

   

   

   

    had a gift for mimicry and could imitate the nuances of my employers' speech as well as my fellow servants' patois. I could read--a little--and later, Jesse Burns taught me sums. I was good at sums. My education"--she gestured at the periodicals--"has been irregular. Bits and scraps." She paused. "I suppose I know as much about those days as anyone. Mr. Freeman is forever after me to write something for the Historical Society, though he would be astonished, I imagine, at what I might say." She struck the edge of the coffee table with her tiny soundless hand. "Think of what I might have become given a fair chance at life!" She looked around the sunny room with angry satisfaction. "Still, I have made the best of whatever opportunities presented themselves. I did nothing to benefit myself. Nothing." Her age-spotted hand waved away that possibility. "Are you a Christian, my dear?"

    attended St. Paul's.

    while attending services at St. Paul's. Did you know that?"

    she added, "General Lee told my grandfather that the War was over and we must rebuild the South. That we should no longer discuss the War. In my family, we haven't."

    She held the cool water glass against her cheek. "As Miss Abigail's personal servant I slept in the loft over the kitchen house, beside the cook. In the cold months I banked my bed against the warm bricks of the kitchen chimney and slept snug as a dream. When the other coloreds went out into the fields for wheat harvest or cutting corn or the January threshing I remained indoors with Miss Abigail, Master Samuel's spinster sister, Kate, and Grandmother Gatewood, who retained great influence with her son. Her husband, Thomas Gatewood, died under a cloud, and mother and son spent their life overcoming the scandal. Lord, how the Gatewoods yearned to be ordinary!

    before they rose up in the morning. Oh, I was full of myself. Some afternoons, while Miss Abigail was taking her nap, I'd stand before her pier glass: I looked like white folks. I was learning to talk like white folks, and I was smarter than most white folks. From this I concluded that I was just like white folks, an error which later caused me much pain.

    followed by a stillborn baby. Then infant Samuel, who died before his second birthday. Duncan was next, and fourteen years later Miss Abigail had the twins. The twins were born dead, and the midwife said it was a miracle Miss Abigail didn't die from blood evil. She was desperately ill, and it was to care for her that I was brought up to the main house. The midwife said Miss Abigail's twin boys had been dead for days. Miss Abigail insisted on holding a boy--she may have been unconvinced of his death--and the skin slipped off his body like skin off a dead rabbit. They buried the twins in a single coffin, foot to foot, in the cemetery on the hill back of Stratford House. The colored burying place was behind the Quarters.

    day and Sister Kate did her level best to keep out of everybody's way, which was no simple task, since she shared a bedroom with Grandmother. It was no life of ease. Not for me. Not for any of them. Sister Kate watched over the servant babies when their mothers were out in the fields, Mistress Abigail sewed and knitted. When Grandmother Gatewood wasn't praying she was at the wheel or loom. Although she could buy ready-made cloth she swore by homespun for the servants. Miss Abigail's daughter, Leona, had made a good marriage to Catesby Byrd, a promising lawyer in Warm Springs, the county seat.

    a vice viewed more seriously then than it is today, when every grandmother sits down for her afternoon canasta. The courthouse cardplayers were not of the better class, and I believe Byrd failed to get an anticipated judgeship because of his associations. Though Stratford Plantation was a three-hour ride from Warm Springs, Catesby Byrd visited regularly and closeted himself with Samuel Gatewood.

    man, and his son, Duncan, followed him like a dog. Summer evenings the two would carry chairs out onto the porch roof and sit side by side while the father pointed at this or that and determined what work was to be accomplished on the morrow, the boy drinking in every word. Duncan wasn't clever, but he was one of those fortunate lads whose cleverness doesn't matter. He could shoot well enough, speak well enough, wrestle well enough, and he was brave. Virginia was filled with boys like him, but most were killed in the war.

    had to work for what they got. His perfect ears hid under his auburn curls like seashells. He was such a beautiful boy. Unblemished by life or sorrow or thought, he was so smooth it made you want to touch him." She cackled a dry cackle. "Certainly it made me want to touch him." Her smile was reminiscent. "His only evident knack was for horses, When he climbed onto the back of his mare, Gypsy, he and animal were transformed into a centaur. That ability to be one with animals is one sort of intelligence, I suppose.

    Miss Abigail's first-floor bedroom when the first flakes drilled past the windows. The snow was driving from the east instead of the customary west, and I expect I said something about it to Miss Abigail. From the start, it was a most unnatural storm."

    the swirling snowflakes of years ago. "They called me Midge in those days...."

The snow obscured the summit of Snowy Mountain and whitened the Jackson River Valley. It sifted into the village of SunRise, dusting the chapel and MacIver's forge. It swirled westward, softening the ruts in the stage road, enveloping Uther Botkin's modest homestead.

    the hames dangling in the horse barn were worn, they were recently oiled and each hung in its proper place. The dirt path from the house to the milking barn was neatly lined with stones, the interior of the springhouse freshly whitewashed. The house was small when Uther inherited it--one large room--but since he contained so much space within his own mind, he had not thought to enlarge his domicile. Thirteen years before, when Uther received news of his legacy, he was a sixty-five-year-old itinerant schoolmaster whose wealth consisted of a one-volume edition of Shakespeare, works of Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Paine, saddlebags to protect these books, and a mule which transported him and his capacious understanding to rural communities seeking to improve their young. Uther hadn't seen his Uncle William since childhood. Uncle William, a Presbyterian elder at SunRise Chapel, had his only son caught up in the "Businessman's Revival," which was subsequent to and only slightly less influential than the "Great Awakening" earlier in the century. These revivals emptied established congregations in favor of the Baptists, and Uncle William's son was among those who repented and was duly immersed. In their infrequent, dutiful correspondence, Uther and Uncle William had never touched upon religion. Doubtless Uncle William would have found his nephew's Deism as offensive as his son's vigorous evangelical Baptism, but Uncle William never thought to inquire. If a schoolmaster wasn't Presbyterian, what was he? Therefore, in his last will and testament, Uncle William bypassed his own issue in favor of his nephew, Uther.

    topsoil bordering Stratford Plantation. The property was conveyed with three milk cows, a team of horses, half a dozen sheep, and twice that many hogs. Chickens and guinea hens scratched in the dirt and roosted in trees. The barn's feed room contained basket beehives, scythes, wheat cradles, hay forks, and those small tools necessary to a plantation of modest size. Uther Botkin also inherited a servant: Jesse Burns. Jesse was ten years of age, already unusually strong.

    charges in arithmetic, geometry, spelling, rhetoric, and his special pleasure, history. The rapid changes sweeping the South greatly affected Uther's students. Sequential generations were invigorated by religious revivals, frightened by Nat Turner's uprising, and engrossed by the arguments of the Nullifiers. They admired John Calhoun over the nation's founders, Washington, Jefferson, and Adams.

   

    senator: "Duty is ours. Events belong to God."

   

    proposed marriage, and with his new wife perched on the mule he walked beside, made his way toward distant blue-tinged mountains.

    have wondered why his bride's family was so willing to match an eighteen-year-old maiden of good character with a man so much older whose prospects were entirely an attorney's letter promising a legacy of unknown value. A more experienced man than Uther might have noticed Martha's pallor, her frail arms, the telltale crimson spots of the consumptive in her cheeks, but Uther was a mental virgin as surely as he was a physical one, and in this instance, ignorance was bliss. The unlikely couple fell deeply in love. If either noticed the shabby condition of the one-room cabin where they spent their first nights of connubial joy before the fire, neither ever remarked on it.

    the south end of the barn canted alarmingly. Perhaps the chimney smoked and perhaps the team had been foaled in 1826, that sad year when Thomas Jefferson died. Uther Botkin had never been happier.

    pleasantly old-fashioned, and (if the whole truth be told) inconsequential, Uther and Martha were invited to balls at Warwick and Stratford. Mrs. Dinwiddie of Hidden Valley thought these considerations too nice, and neither the old schoolmaster nor his bride were ever invited to view "the finest balustrades west of the Blue Ridge."

    snub if it smacked him in the face. Martha, Uther, and the boy, Jesse: in the twilight of his life, Uther had found the family he'd always yearned for, and those who might have wished to humble him were deterred by the radiance of his countenance, his gentle speech, the unassuming nature of his learning. Why, certainly he would instruct the Gatewood children--most happy, most happy, your humble and most obedient servant, sir.

    the scrub brush from ten acres and fenced the pasture with chestnut rails exchanged by Samuel Gatewood for his children's education.

    Globe and early Danver tomatoes. She sang as she scrubbed Uther's Sunday shirt and his woolen socks. She sang all through her pregnancy. And six months after Baby Sallie was born, she sang no more.

    handkerchief in milk to give her suck. The boy, Jesse, did what heavy work got done.

    beans--the little family might have starved. If he hadn't brought in hay and grain, their few animals certainly would have. Next spring, Gatewood's servants plowed and planted the little garden. They completed the rail fence around the new pasture.

    indeterminate age in the back of his farm wagon. Samuel Gatewood announced that he was offering the woman for rent at half the usual terms, just forty dollars per annum, payable at Christmastide, plus a pair of good leather shoes to be supplied the woman annually. The woman, Gatewood averred, would make life easier on Botkin's plantation.

    and meant to emancipate Jesse Burns when the boy attained his majority.

    retained his slaves, all of whom were pledged against extensive debts and sold within a month of the great man's death. He noted, further, that Virginia laws had hardened and emancipation was not the simple matter it had once been. Master Botkin could pursue whatever course he desired, but the servant woman in the wagon, Opal by name, was barren and of a shrewish disposition, and if Botkin didn't wish to rent her, Gatewood intended to offer her for sale--the slave speculator Silas Omohundru being in the neighborhood. Uther's eyes toured his dirty cabin, the mound of unwashed clothing, yesterday's grease congealing in the frypan, his sleeping daughter, and the twelve-year-old boy his only helper. "I accept your generous offer, sir," Uther said.

    humble though it was.

    made me care to be fertile."

    the inherent awkwardness of this situation."

    good at it. You a hand with livestock?"

   

    schoolmaster but possessed more girth. "Then maybe we get along after all."

    instruction, and his son, Duncan, came too when he turned six, and Botkin's daughter, Sallie, toddled onto the porch to be with the others. On the porch in warm weather, by the fire in winter months, the children puzzled over their slates and calculated sums. Uther was a teacher again and knew it was for the last time.

    his horses in favor of learning. Leona prayed she was pretty but feared she might not be. She learned because the others learned. And, to Uther's unconcealed delight, little Sallie loved learning--especially natural philosophy. After Jesse finished morning chores, he joined them, and though he rarely volunteered a question, he was soon able to read. This peculiar school seemed perfectly natural because to Uther Botkin it was perfectly natural.

    doctor, who returned home that night late, and some said drunk, and froze to death when his horse and buggy stalled in snowdrifts a scant half mile from safety.

    table, she slurped tea cooling in a saucer. Uther was at the dry sink, washing his cup and bowl.

    the livestock work and cooked, he advanced his studies and tidied up. Uther never complained about her cooking, which he accepted as his lot. Every year at Christmastide after he paid rental to Samuel Gatewood, ceremoniously, Uther presented Opal with a pair of new shoes. The cabin wasn't exactly spotless, but was orderly enough. Sometimes a person looking to perch upon a chair or settee must needs remove an article of clothing, but Opal's dried herbs hung from the ceiling beams in cheerful confusion and along the cool back wall, farthest from the fire, dangled hams cured last November and onions braided into ropes.

    Sallie's task to keep them washed--and dull coals glowed in the fireplace.

   

    crocuses pop through the earth."

    the mountain. He shoo 'em into that lower lot, toss 'em some corn, keep 'em busy. I goin' to fetch the cows and the horses. The sheep can manage. They got their wool on 'em."

    by the woods fence corner."

    return."

    them hard. That gust continued down the valley, skimming the frozen ground, skittering ice crystals against the dead broom sedge, turning the stolid sheep's faces away from the storm.

    the valley the Jackson River had created, forming the alluvial subsoil that was Stratford's best cropland.

    original grant had been awarded to Samuel's grandfather (another Samuel) in 1768, but Thomas had tripled his family's holdings along the Jackson by purchase, exchange, and more imaginative means. Eighteenth-century surveyors had so muddled the original settlers' land grants and warrants that a determined man backed by a clever attorney (and Thomas Gatewood employed such a fellow) could claim land everyone thought had been granted years ago. Thomas Gatewood swore he didn't covet all the land in the county--only what was adjacent. The plantation he created was five thousand contiguous acres--the finest land between the Shenandoah Valley and the Tygart River Valley, three mountain ranges to the west. Alluvial fans at the foot of Snowy Mountain produced the plantation's fine oats. Although the river fields sometimes flooded in the spring, they grew fine wheat and better buckwheat, and the river never removed more topsoil than it deposited. Corn followed clover in the clay soils. A stone-lined millrace sliced through the river bend to power Stratford's overshot mill. Here, under Jack, Samuel Gatewood's excellent driver, fulltask hands ground corn, rolled oats, mashed sorghum, sawed logs, and, in winter months when no other work was available, crushed limestone rocks into particles fine enough to sweeten the croplands.

    wagon south to Millboro Springs, where the western ambitions of the Virginia Central Railroad had been checked by the impassable mountains.

    tall mill wheel and the growl of millstones were the living breath of Stratford Plantation. Day started when Jack the Driver opened the floodgate and stopped when he dropped the heavy gate into its slots again.

    mill. Next came two great barns, each bulging with feed. Between the barns and the great house were the Quarters, a narrow street lined with one-room log cabins, each with its own wattle-and-daub chimney, each with a garden plot behind. The house and its dependencies stood on a low rise, facing south.

    The kitchen house was connected to the main house by a covered passageway--the "hyphen."

    milked the cows, made the cheese, slopped the hogs, gathered eggs, killed and plucked chickens, and tended the kitchen garden. One very ancient servant, Agamemnon, had no assigned tasks, though he sometimes made up potions and salves. Middle-aged men and women worked the fields, and two gangs of timber cutters--"Rufus's gang" and "the old gang"--lived in the woods, visited weekly by Jack the Driver. House servants included Pompey, the houseman, a scullery girl, the cook, and Miss Abigail's personal servant, Midge, who looked out the window and shivered. "There's Master Duncan ridin' out. I expect he's goin' out to warn the woods gangs."

    to improve your speech, dear, you mustn't drop your 'g's."

   

    Midge, I feel a headache coming on. If you fetch a cool cloth, I shall lie back and you shall read to me. When you encounter a novel word, spell it for me."

    easier than reading. She had a knack for imitating speech, and last Christmas when Cousin Molly visited, Midge soon had Cousin's Molly's Tidewater drawl duplicated perfectly. The snow pelted the bedroom windows of Stratford House as the young Midge read aloud an account of a fancy dress ball in London, which, Godey's noted, Prince Albert had attended. A draft brushed the crystal pendants dangling from the lamps, and light sparkles danced across the veneered mahogany wardrobe and the settees commodious enough to seat three males shoulder to shoulder or one lady in hoops. Several treasured articles--Miss Abigail's dressing case, a hat box--rested on the stairs to the nursery on the second floor. These stairs were three-quarter-size, the latticework balustrades too close for a child to slip through. No child had used them since Duncan.

    Abigail Gatewood dressed carefully before passing through the parlor and across the hall to the dining room, where Pompey had her breakfast.

    invariably was, Miss Abigail was always surprised.

   

   

    before my father died. I don't care for it. Send boys up the mountain after the hogs. Toll them in with corn. We'll want the big barn prepared to receive the milk cows and horses. See to the partitions. We'll feed more than customary ration tonight. Send Franky through the Quarters. She must ensure all have sufficient meat, cornmeal, and beans. Many woodboxes are nearly empty. Set some hands to the slabwood pile--it may not burn long, but it burns hot. After the firewood is cut, close the millrace--I misdoubt we'll be milling tomorrow. If this storm is less severe than it appears to be, our precautions will appear foolish. but ..."

    better'n we do what's coming."

    doubtless that was because there was less to ready. By four o'clock, when falling snow was precipitating the night, Opal, Jesse, Sallie, and Uther were seated at the pine table with their hot cocoa and a stew warmed by the fire. There was a chicken in it, and potatoes and carrots, and it smelled rather wonderful, but that may have been due to their exertions and the snugness induced by wild weather outside their plank door.

    said, "Master Samuel, if you don't leave for the big house this minute, I believe you'll spend the night with me."

    blizzard. Samuel Gatewood trudged home through foot-deep snow, aware, suddenly, how weary he was.

    to stay, young Duncan hadn't. Emergencies pleasure young men, and at four o'clock, just as the Botkins were settling in, Duncan turned Gypsy's head back down the mountain. In the hollows and the west-facing ridges the horse could still find good footing and Duncan's eyes were young and sharp, and it wasn't until they reached the wheat bottom that Duncan lost track of everything. His hair was frozen, his eyelashes stuck to his face, the thick reins stiffened in his hands. Gypsy shifted her feet. Duncan's heart jumped and he could not seem to catch his breath. He waited until panic subsided before saying, in almost his normal voice, "Well, girl, I hope you know the way because I surely do not." He loosed the reins, gave Gypsy her head, and clucked. The horse stayed still for a moment before turning her head sharply left and proceeding. When she stopped of her own accord, Duncan dismounted to open the gate; a gate Duncan prayed opened into the lower barn pasture. When Gypsy stopped again, Duncan could see no better, but he heard animals inside the barn chewing and belching. A horse nickered, and Gypsy nickered back.

    tack room. Insulated by the hay floor overhead and heated by a dozen horses and as many milk cows, the barn was yeasty, a little moist, and warm enough that he couldn't see his breath. Duncan led Gypsy down the aisle to an empty stall and found rags to rub her down. When Duncan had Gypsy dry, fed, and watered, he leaned against the stall door, his knees shaking.

   

   

    hay, her feet dangling. "I ain't no devil," she said.

   

    "Weren't no cow lit it. Dark in this old barn. Rats and bats and goodness knows what-all else."

   

    long bones and elbows and taut skin. "Because your mama was afeared for you and ask me go to the barn and see is you back but you ain't so here I waits and when I sets to leave I can't see three feet through that snow, nary three feet. I don't want be in no smelly barn I want to be in the kitchen house in my warm bed."

   

    bed. Reckon she'll have it tonight. You get any supper?"

   

    old conjure man, Uncle Agamemnon, all of them. Cut up possum this mornin'. Be potatoes and carrots and cook's got a big onion ..."

   

    River Jordan or gettin' to the Promised Land? I was readin' Mistress Abigail about some fancy ball in London, maybe you like me talk 'bout that?"

   

   

    flashing eyes, so he turned to give Gypsy a pat. "She found the way home. Even when I couldn't see a darn--damn--thing, Gypsy found the way. Aren't horses amazing?"

    horses mighty amazin'." In a voice that sounded remarkably like his mother's, Midge said, "I cannot begin to name the amazements provided by our magnificent horses."

   

   

    "Still howling," he pronounced. "No telling how long this will continue."

    slightly and her eyes wouldn't stop flashing.

   

    ratty barn with no food and snow blowin' all around and lots to eat--"this time in Cousin Molly's cool Tidewater drawl--"were there merely a gentleman to provide it."

   

   

    her tail and passed manure and it fell plop plop to the floor and the two giggled. "Whew," Midge said, "What you feedin' that horse!"

   

    tension: friendlier.

   

    goose-pimpled.

   

    snuffled. She threw it down. "Now I don't smell no better than that horse," she wailed, and Duncan was rendered helpless by her tears. "Account of you, I'm cold and I'm hungry and now my face stink like horse sweat. You got any more notions, young Master?"

    me that," he said.

    block. At last she said, "You got any more of them rose petals?"

   

    but Midge wrinkled her nose. When she wrinkled her nose, her entire face became her wrinkled nose: nothing halfhearted.

    A torn gray-green buggy robe served for a coverlet. "You'll be warm here," he said.

    big stall. Might be room for two."

    was slipping through his fingers.

    out of doors was a howling white wilderness. They spoke a few words, but not many, because words would have led them where neither was ready to go. They fed and watered the animals and twice milked all the cows, and excepting what warm milk they drank, emptied their buckets out in the snow.

    on Stratford Planation, seven and eight feet where it drifted. Jack and a gang dug a path from the Quarters to the main house before digging to the barn, where they hoped to find Miss Abigail's young servant.

    through the loft door. On hands and knees Jack said, "That you there, Master Duncan? Praise the Lord! We powerful feared for you!"

   

What People are saying about this

"To honor the imagination, then, I have chosen to honor the facts. The soldiers' names are, whenever possible, the names of real confederates (and colored troops) present the day I write about. It snowed when I say it did and was a full moon on the night of the full moon. In general, I have gone a little beyond that place where history accompanied me."--Donald McCaig
Mary Lee Settle
This novel blocks out the protection of historic distance. It is astonishingly immediate. Its research is magnificent, but never untrue. It becomes the story of the war itself, how brutal it is, how courageous, how slowly and inexorably mad.
John Casey
Jacob's Ladder is an exciting historical novel...
George Garrett
Boldly capricious, blessed with a host of vivid and memorable characters, and a wealth of striking incredible events. Donald McCaig's powerful, compassionate story is deeply rooted in the real and living presence of Virginia, before, during, and after the Civil War. Jacob's Ladder is historical fiction at its finest...

Meet the Author

Donald McCaig, the author of Jacob’s Ladder, Rhett Butler’s People and Canaan. He and his wife, Anne, work a sheep farm in the western mountains of Virginia.

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Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
civilwargirl More than 1 year ago
Jacob's Ladder: A Novel of Virginia During the Civil War by Donald McCaig is hands down one of the best Civil War novels I have ever read. McCaig proves that a novelist can produce an historical accurate story while still maintaining all of the story's drama. This is the story of the residents of Strartford Plantation and its inhabitants white and black. McCaig is one of the few authors I have seen that can cover such a wide swath of characters, location, and time without losing sight of the plot. Despite being a novel about the Confederacy, McCaig never embraces in the Lost Cause myth instead we see a portrait of slavery in all it cruelty and how it morally destroyed the white southerns who benefited from chattel slavery.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was outstanding. I have read many novels about the civil war, in terms of marches and strategies, etc. However, I have read fewer novels about the human side to the war. In other words, how it affects real families, both black and white. This was a wonderfully detailed account of a family suffering and attempting to comprehend the loss of the only world they knew and understood. As we all know, many families both North and South suffered as a result of the sins of slavery. While it is only a book of fiction, one can imagine how many southern families of the time period were torn apart in a similar manner. A great book and hard to put down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great literature AND a good read! Authentic AND suspenseful! It's been my bedtime reading for 7 nights, and I've been tired every day because I keep reading and reading. . . well past midnight. These 7 nights I've lived in the 1860's. . . I love this novel. I'm 4/5ths of the way through it -- my heart wants an end to the waste of war, but I'll be sad to be done with the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey, wht are you wearing now? And are you a virgin?