In a way, the inspiration for Ben Cleary’s new book arrived more than 30 years ago in a most unexpected place: the library at the Virginia State Penitentiary.
Cleary was teaching a creative writing class at the old state pen on Spring Street in downtown Richmond. During a break, he took a copy of Bruce Catton’s “A Stillness at Appomattox” off the shelf and, as he thumbed through it, he noticed a reference to Totopotomoy Creek, which is not far from where he lives in Hanover County.
He asked a student in the class, Evans Hopkins, if he could borrow it.
“I told him to go ahead and take it,” Hopkins remembers with a laugh, noting he himself was an avid reader with “a penchant for relieving the library of its books,” squirreling away favorites in his cell.
Hopkins is a former Black Panther who later was released on parole, has gone on to a writing career of his own and counts Cleary as a close friend. He also recalls reminding Cleary he could bring the book back later.
Cleary never did.
“I think I’ve got it in the back,” said Cleary, whose new book is titled “Searching for Stonewall Jackson: A Quest for Legacy in a Divided America.” Cleary got up in the middle of our conversation and walked past me to another room in his home, soon returning with a well-worn paperback and a laugh as he handed me the prison library book. “Here’s the artifact.”
I offered an old-guy joke about how much the overdue fine must be at this point, but the truth is the book means a lot to Cleary, who talked about the episode as being evidence of “the library angel” — a serendipitous discovery of stumbling upon something wonderful you’re not even looking for.
That book led to his deep interest in the Civil War, which helped fill a void in his life created by the deaths of his mother and grandparents. “Stillness” led to subsequent readings of many other books and his ultimate fascination with Jackson, a complex character who, he later learned, had camped a mile away from his home in eastern Hanover and marched on the road in front of his house in 1862.
Another bit of serendipity intervened a few years ago.
A long-established freelance writer, Cleary wrote several pieces for The New York Times’ “Disunion” series during the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. His writing caught the eye of an editor who suggested he write a book about Jackson.
“It was a fairy tale thing,” said Cleary, 67, of his first book. “Instead of sending stuff over the transom, this editor asked me. It just doesn’t happen. I’ve been trying to write here and write there, and all of a sudden, in your 60s, a thunderbolt comes down and hits you. It’s amazing.”
The day he unpacked the first box of copies of “Searching for Stonewall Jackson” that arrived at his home and he held a book with his name on the cover? “A great moment,” he said.
In “Searching,” Cleary has taken a thoughtful, very personal approach to a politically delicate topic in the Civil War. He comes at it from the point of view of an interested observer, a historian trying to understand motivations and personalities and what it was like to live through those difficult times — not as a flag-waver or re-enactor or someone wishing to glorify “the Lost Cause.”
Among his past freelance writing credits, he was a scriptwriter and co-producer of a 1997 documentary, “The Forgotten Fourteen,” which tells the story of the 14 African American soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor for their roles in the 1864 Battle of New Market Heights outside Richmond.
“I am a lifelong Democrat,” he said. “I often joke that the Mechanicsville Local is going to run a story on me with the headline: ‘Democrat Found in Hanover County.’”
With all that has happened in recent times surrounding white supremacists and the proper place of monuments, among other issues (exacerbated by President Donald Trump having “poured gasoline on the nation’s smoldering fires of racism and division,” Cleary writes), he knows views have hardened about the Civil War.
He’s found it difficult to have reasonable conversations about the subject because “the Confederacy turned into a pawn in the culture wars while I was writing the book.”
“Most of the people I know on both sides … have made up their minds,” he said. “The complexities of history are lost in the roar of outrage from both sides.”
Which is a problem, he said, when you’re trying to understand “people in the past … in the context of their own time” against a backdrop of “mutual outrage.”
“You can’t be subtle when people are yelling,” he said.
But he’s trying anyway.
He finds Jackson an intriguing figure full of contrasts: a devout Christian who excelled at the business of killing; the founder of a Sunday school for enslaved blacks that encouraged literacy, but the owner of slaves; a man of intellect who spoke French and toured cultural sites of Europe but also a “world-class eccentric,” Cleary says, who walked around with one hand in the air to balance the blood in his body and thought pepper made his leg weak; a lousy professor who found his calling on the battlefield.
Cleary said “Snake” might have been a more appropriate nickname for the way he “appears out of nowhere and strikes and then disappears.”
For four years, Cleary followed in Jackson’s Civil War footsteps, walking battlefields in the heat and the cold and the rain. He even waded into the Potomac where the Confederates crossed into Maryland, to get a feel for what that was like (“Very sobering,” he said.) He wanted to understand what drew him to Jackson and, in a larger sense, to contemplate his own life as a white Southerner in the 21st century.
Cleary hopes the book “might shift the conversation just a little bit” to “a more nuanced view” of the war.
Over the years, Cleary has worked as a part-time teacher at the secondary and college level, as well as in the state correctional system, a seasonal ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park and a part-time journalist. He jokes that he was deep into the “gig economy” before it was cool.
He has written for newspapers, magazines and National Public Radio. He taught for a dozen years at the Virginia Department of Correctional Education, working mostly at the Beaumont Juvenile Justice Center in Powhatan County. The vast majority of his students were black, which, he said, made certain he would “never forget the legacy of slavery” — which, Cleary notes, caused the Civil War.
“Crime comes from poverty, basically,” he said, noting most of his students were poor. “If you have any kind of insight or imagination, that’s right there in front of you all the time.”
Hopkins said Cleary has been influential in his life, in part because of his teaching but more so because of his friendship. Cleary has been supportive of Hopkins’ work, including his well-received memoir, “Life After Life,” and Hopkins’ efforts to celebrate the life of his uncle, Gregory Hayes Swanson, the first African American admitted to the University of Virginia.
Hopkins said he doesn’t quite share the same view of the Civil War as his friend, but that Cleary’s writing of “Searching for Stonewall Jackson” is “an act of courage,” given the times.
“I think he humanizes Jackson and others who took part in the Civil War, and he sort of leaves it to us to find our own answers from there,” Hopkins said. “That‘s the work of a literary writer. He searches for meaning, and lets us take part in the search.”