PITMAN, N.J. – History has been the life’s work of local author Mark R. Brewer. Not only did he teach history for 31 years at Williamstown Middle School, Gloucester County College, and Rowan University, but when he was not teaching, he spent time researching and writing about history.
In his new book, For Virginia, Brewer takes an exhaustive look at the Civil War from the perspectives of five major personalities: John Wilkes Booth, Thomas J. Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Edmund Ruffin, and James Ewell Brown Stuart.
Brewer takes history out of the academic history book and gives us a raw glance at a dark period in our country’s history. While describing Colonel JEB Stuart, for example, Brewer depicts a disheveled Stuart and tells us that he “was a far cry from the dashing knight-errant of the history books.”
For Virginia is a far cry from plain textbook history; it is a book that relies on good, strong storytelling.
What prompted you to write this book?
It has been germinating with me since the 1980s, when I learned that all five of the main figures in the book show up at Harper’s Ferry during or shortly after John Brown’s raid. I thought it would make an interesting tale to introduce them there and follow their individual stories through the war.
Why Civil War? Why Virginia?
As I mention in my introduction, my dad took my brothers and me to Gettysburg during the 100th anniversary of the battle in 1963 when I was eight. I have been fascinated by the war ever since. Four of the five main characters were Virginians, and John Wilkes Booth, though born in Maryland, loves Virginia. Late in the war, when it is becoming apparent that the South is losing, Booth is walking in Washington D.C. with his brother Junius. John suddenly stopped and turned his gaze South. “Virginia—Virginia,” he cried, tears streaming down his face. All five characters were motivated by their love of the Old Dominion.
The book is quite exhaustive in its information. How long did it take you to research and write the book?
I mentioned that I had begun writing it in the 1980s. In November of 2016, I returned to it, starting from scratch, but using some of the paragraphs and sentences I had written previously. I finished it on February 9, 2018. (I keep a journal.) I researched it as I went, and I used only books that I own. I confess that I did buy a few books to help me along as I wrote it, but the great majority of them are in my library. It was such a fun process that I looked forward each morning to getting back to it.
You mention in the introduction that many of the stories in the book were what you used in your classroom teaching history. How did teaching affect your writing about history?
I knew the tale of these five men early in my career, and I used their experiences to teach much of the war. I did it so many times over thirty-one years that I found myself using the same tales and even the same sentences to tell the tales. The tales became engraved in my brain, and I incorporated much of what I said—words, phrases and sentences—into the book.
This is a long book, 766 pages to be exact, but is written in bite-sized vignettes that read more like fiction than non-fiction. Why did you choose this form of writing?
I honestly don’t remember it as a conscious choice. I began it in that style long ago. The vignettes, I think, add to the drama of this highly dramatic tale. I also believe they help to put the reader in the scene. And they allowed me to go from one man’s story to another’s rather easily. By the way, I hope that people realize that this is a work of history. Nothing is made up and all the quotes are genuine.
The book for the most part focuses on five historical figures. Do you have a favorite? Why?
It is Robert E. Lee. I love him. His status as underdog drew me to him when I was a boy. I came to admire his honesty, his humility, his faith, and his military skill. Make no mistake, Lee fought on the wrong side. But I believe that many of us, had we been in his position, would have done as he did. I also much admire how, once the war was lost, he let it go and moved on. There is a great scene involving him more than a year after the war. He was riding in the Shenandoah Valley and decided to visit a Confederate widow who lived nearby. She immediately pointed to a tree in her yard that had been damaged by Union artillery. What should I do, General Lee, she asked him. What should I do? “Cut it down, my dear madam, and forget it,” Lee replied. When asked to come to Gettysburg for the fifth anniversary of the battle to commemorate monuments, Lee refused. The war was over. Let it go.
What greater message do you want readers to walk away with after reading For Virginia? What is the message here for the 21st century?
The book has a remarkable cast of characters, some great, some good, some average, some almost evil. But they were all human, with weaknesses and foibles like the rest of us. They did their best during a horrific event. It was the price we had to pay to rid our country of slavery. Anyone who does not believe that slavery was the cause of the war does not really understand history.
As for today, some towns are voting to remove statues of Confederates. I wholly understand and support this. I also believe that the Confederate flag does not belong on state flags or on any public building or lands. The flag should be confined to history classrooms or reenactments. Having been adopted by groups like the KKK, the flag has become a racist symbol. It hurts people to see it. And we should not be taking actions that cause our own citizens pain. (It has been said that a true gentleman is one who does not knowingly or willingly cause another pain.) I also believe that Confederate statues on battlefields should be left there. They are a part of our history. They remind us of what we had to go through—750,000 dead—to end slavery. But that’s just my view.
Are there any South Jersey connections to the book?
Just one. On May 3, 1863, at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson’s corps, led by Jeb Stuart as Jackson had been wounded the evening before, attacked the 12th New Jersey regiment and inflicted tremendous casualties. Many of the men in the 12th were from Gloucester County. One family in Swedesboro lost, I believe, four sons that day. They regiment is mentioned in the book. But I would also point out that New Jersey, as a predominantly agrarian state in 1861, considered holding a secession convention, but, thankfully, decided not to. It was often referred to as “the northernmost southern state.” And we have a Confederate cemetery at Finn’s Point in Salem County where more than 2,400 Confederate soldiers were buried—they were prisoners of war held at Fort Delaware out in the river who died while incarcerated.
What is next?
I am working on a book with the working title of Moments in History. It looks at episodes in history, famous and obscure, and then examines the life of the main individual involved. Just yesterday, a friend of mine and I went and found the cave where Benjamin Lay lived during the last twenty-odd years of his life (he died in 1759). It’s in Abington, just outside of Philadelphia. Lay was a dwarf, standing only four feet tall, and he was a Quaker. He was also a radical who called on his fellow Quakers to stop practicing slavery. This was in the early eighteenth century. He was also a vegetarian who would not use any animal products—not even wool for clothes. Nor would he use any items that had been produced by slave labor. He was a friend of young Benjamin Franklin, and he was quite a character. But that is a tale for another time.
For Virginia is available from Amazon or Barnes and Noble’s website.