By John Brightman Brock
Longtime Alabama political aide Skip Tucker, living in retirement in Montgomery, has written a Civil War thriller arguing that "friendly fire" didn't mortally wound Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in Chancellorsville, Va. in 1863. It was murder.
In writing Pale Blue Light, released in September, Tucker's historical fiction discusses Jackson's reputation for discipline, which at times was admired but more often reviled by students of the Virginia Military Institute professor. Jackson would later lead those same cadets in the field amid Rebel yells and the smoldering stench of cannon fire.
To reveal the silent crosshairs on Jackson, who some say was Robert E. Lee's most trusted general, Tucker presents a sinister plot between Northern agents and greedy power-brokers in the South, who aimed to covertly take down Jackson and the South to feed their coffers with federal greenbacks.
Written in believable detail, readers find themselves fighting alongside Jackson in a cause espoused by a diplomatic Lee and an idealistic President Jefferson Davis. The graphic narrative strides fast at times to a hard gallop, then straight up to the hellish front lines where thousands of soldiers drew strength from Jackson, as stark and unyielding as the monument that remains to this day in the woodlands where he was shot.
Tucker, 65, said writing his first novel was rewarding, bestowing his own sense of personal accomplishment, to unveil Jackson, the hero, and to bring light to the possibility - no matter how remote - that jealousy and greed could have played a hand in the actual shooting of Jackson, which dashed Southern hopes for victory.
Writing Pale Blue Light was a venture far different than Tucker's career of nearly three decades as former editor and assistant publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle, press secretary for gubernatorial hopefuls George McMillan and Charlie Graddick and assistant press secretary to Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom. After serving as Folsom's deputy press secretary until his defeat, Tucker decided he would stay in Montgomery rather than returnto Jasper, where he had worked in freelance public relations. In Montgomery, he was hired by former state Sen. Sid McDonald, chairman of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse (AVALA), in February of 1996 to work a six-week special session.
"I learned in that short time that the Alabama Court system had been shanghaied by the state's trial lawyers. I learned that trial lawyers rode the Alabama Supreme Court like a horse and milked it like a cow. I learned Alabama had a national and even international reputation as a trial lawyer paradise and a business person's nightmare. I learned that magazines like Forbes and Time had named Alabama the original "tort hell." It was not only unfair and a terrible example of injustice, it was killing Alabama's ability to attract industry," Tucker says.
A month later Tucker became director of AVALA. That six weeks turnedinto 15 years.
As an aside, through AVALA he met the vice president of the AmericanTort Reform Association, Lissa Astilla. She was doing on a nationalscale what Tucker did in Alabama. "We married in 2000," Tucker says."It's the one thing I can thank the trial lawyers for."
Writing it down
The book was based upon ideas that first came to Tucker in the late 1980s and early '90s, he said. He wrote the first draft in about six weeks, mostly in bed, long-hand, writing 12 hours a day or more. "I'd fall asleep over it, and wake up and start writing again." Then it took another six years to get it into readable form.
"When I wrote the thing, I had read 30 to 40 books about, as they say, 'The Recent Unpleasantness,' " Tucker says. "The war had been a passion of mine. Jackson became a hero to me. I wanted to explore his death and I wanted to present to people a living, breathing Jackson and a place beside him in the action," Tucker says. "I wanted readers to hear and feel the rage and pain of battle and to know the heroism on both sides of the conflict, and the war's glory and awfulness."
The novel begins with the innocence of antebellum turkey hunting in Alabama and fictional bird expert "Rabe Canon," who travels to Jackson's Virginia farm where a troublesome turkey, Old Scratch, needs killing. The relationship between VMI professor Jackson and Canon grew from the death of Old Scratch, a name that would be transferred to a war horse as a gift from a grateful Jackson to Canon, who would soon lead the Stonewall Brigade's famed Black Horse cavalry.
Tucker familiarizes readers with Jackson whose nickname was first aired as a tribute to his troop line, "standing like a stone wall" in the first battle of Manassas. Through Canon, who later fictitiously commands under Jackson, Tucker unveils a Jackson of fastidious ways, stern demeanor and captivating eccentricities - including a fondness for eating lemons. The general was a religious man, with a tactical genius that outsmarted federal opponents in every battle he fought in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Troops in some federal units were known to cheer Jackson's prowess as well, Tucker quipped in an interview about the book.
Tucker artfully adds color to the black and white historical versions of Jackson the perfectionist, and entices readers to follow the struggle of a hopeful South that begat Jackson, "the most determined man I've ever heard anything about," Tucker says. He grabs true accounts of the 300-strong Black Horse cavalry of the Stonewall Brigade, and places Canon in the lead horse charging toward federal lines - saber brandished in his right hand, a .50 caliber revolver in his left and leather reins between his teeth.
Midway through the book's 392 pages, premonitions of Jackson's death come unmercifully to Canon in terrible dreams. Readers are transported to Chancellorsville, Va., where they are immersed into the smoky yet moonlit night of May 2, 1863 where Jackson and several others were shot as they rode in a group of 19 Confederates performing reconnaissance after a major Southern victory.
Riding with Jackson that night, Canon became powerless to prevent history's climactic shooting, as Jackson later died of pneumonia after his arm was amputated. Strangely, seven of the riders were completely unscathed by the two rounds of fire, including Confederate Major Gen. A.P. Hill, who was riding much closer than Jackson to the guns that roared.
Following Jackson's death, Tucker straps in readers for a back-and forth ride of espionage with spies and gold, ships and 19th Century hot-air balloons in Canon's James Bond- styled mission to find those who plotted Jackson's demise and the Confederacy's end.
Tucker's premise is that Jackson's shooting was a money-soaked conspiracy involving jealous Southern colleges and Northern agents. This coalition plotted to remove the one chance the South had of winning a negotiated peace with a war-weary North and Abraham Lincoln. Without Jackson, Lee would face disaster at Gettysburg within weeks.
Tucker’s book contains accurate battle information, troop movements and skirmishes that students of the Civil War can follow like a silver ribbon of history. The captivating war imagery conjures up what could have been as if it were as real as the buttons on Jackson's uniform. "There are a lot of questions in my mind about that night in Chancellorsville. The odds are hugely against it," Tucker admits. "But there is that little niggling doubt and suspicion."
Tucker paints the field of fire that moonlit night with "pockets of Yankees everywhere." There still remains confusion about who fired first, the South's 18th North Carolina or the North's 124th New York. Tucker maintains it was the second round of fire that struck Jackson.
Lee, history relates, was able to quash arguments between his generals "except that thing between Jackson and A.P. Hill," who thought Jackson had held him back from advancing in the Southern war machine. Ironically, the unit that fired on Jackson "was Hill's North Carolina," Tucker said.
Tucker says he doesn't want to besmirch Hill, a recognized Confederate hero, "but who knows if one of them on the picket line wanted to shoot Stonewall Jackson? Stranger things have happened. A small but real possibility." Hill was on the receiving end of Jackson's discipline early in his career, and was punished by being made to walk behind the marching army. "He ordered Hill to do it, and Hill never forgave him," Tucker says.
"No one knows the exact identity of the soldier who fired the first shot and instigated the volley. If it were intentional, it would have been a result of either jealousy or revenge. It could have been one of Hill's men who knew Hill believed himself to be as good or better a general than Jackson, and who knew the bitterness between them."
Pale Blue Light is available from NewSouth Books, 334-834-3556;www.newsouthbooks.com. 978-1-60306-205-3. Trade cloth, 392 pages,$27.95. ebook ISBN: 978-1-60306-206-0. $9.99
More on Author Skip Tucker
- Getting the book published and having it well received is almost unbelievably gratifying and satisfying to Tucker. Nothing else professionally is close, except maybe:
- Taking over the Daily Mountain Eagle when it was a laughingstock in the profession and in two years turning (along with publisher Shelton Princeand news editor Mike Kilgore) into a newspaper recognized by peers as the winner of the General Excellence category. During his 10-year tenure, the Eagle won more newspaper association awards than any daily in the state.
- Twice a press secretary for Hon. Charlie Graddick, who he says is the best, most honest, most capable candidate he represented over a 20-year career in politics. Graddick also had the least personal agenda of politicians he worked with, Tucker says. Tucker does have plans for a sequel, he said, adding, "Lots of folks have asked for one, already. I have the rudiments of a plot in mind for it."
He has had speaking engagements to civic groups including one to the Confederate group the Prattville Dragoons. His two favorite book signings were at Lumpy's Wine Bar in the Sandestin resort and The Grand Hotel in Point Clear.