Jacob’s Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the Civil War

Written by Donald McCaig
Review by John R. Vallely

The American Civil War has always served as an irresistible magnet for fictional accounts of families struggling with questions of basic survival in a landscape torn asunder. Jacob’s Ladder invites the reader to examine war’s horror and uncertainty through the eyes of the Gatewood family of Stratford Plantation, Virginia.

The pre-war plantation is where the reader first encounters young Duncan Gatewood and his equally young and innocent lover, a light-skinned slave named Maggie. The two fall in love and Maggie soon gives birth to a son. Duncan’s father is thrown into a rage at this (an attitude which clashes with a great deal of historical literature on white male relations with slave women) and sells Maggie and baby while sending Duncan off to Virginia Military Institute.

This unsettled domestic life is shortly interrupted by the Civil War. Duncan and his brother-in-law, the delightfully named Catesby Byrd, both join Robert E. Lee’s army. The two men experience battle in all of its horrors. Duncan loses an arm and Catesby, deeply affected by the savagery that was war in Virginia’s Wilderness Campaign of 1864, kills himself. Jesse, a young Gatewood slave madly in love with Maggie, seizes his chance and escapes to freedom. Jesse then follows the path of Duncan and Catesby by joining the army, in his case an all-black regiment in the Union forces. Adding to the drama, Maggie marries a daring blockade runner, joins him on his adventures, and passes herself to others as a white woman.

The tale begins and ends with a now very old Maggie narrating her life story to uncomprehending residents on a world on the cusp of Hitler’s war. Still in love with the Duncan of long ago, she sees her son Jacob as his living spirit. Gracefully written by a talented craftsman and one of the better-researched novels I’ve seen in some time, the tale of Maggie and Duncan awaits new readers.