During the early months of the Civil War Dr. (and later Major) William Parks Rucker managed to become one of the most despised individuals in the South – and a hero to those who supported the Union. He was a slave owner who fiercely opposed the Confederacy. His initial act to antagonize Southern supporters was to stab to death a man who challenged his outspoken support for the Union. Following that incident he led Union troops to burn the Cowpasture River Bridge of the Virginia Central Railroad.
Shortly thereafter he was captured in Summersville, West Virginia, by Confederate cavalry led by the audacious spy Nancy Hart. There ensued an emotional argument between Virginia Governor John Letcher and the Confederate authorities as to which had the right to place him on trial – and hang him. In the meantime, President Lincoln personally authorized placing a Confederate surgeon “in close confinement” as a hostage in the event Rucker was harmed or executed.
During his 15 months of imprisonment Rucker became the focus of the most acrimonious prisoner exchange problem between the Union and the Confederacy. There are sixty-four entries in the Official Records of the Rebellion concerning the difficulties of his exchange – more than that of any other prisoner-of-war.
He was moved about to ten different jails and prisons to prevent the Union Army from releasing him. He finally escaped and after a harrowing flight to safety reached the Union encampment at Gauley Bridge. As aide-de-camp to General George Crook his first official duty was as a scout to lead the burning of another bridge – the important New River Bridge of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.
His experiences after the war were equally adventurous. He became a lawyer in Lewisburg, West Virginia and defended the accused murderers in both the famous Greenbrier Ghost case and the case against the son of Nancy Hart who had led Union troops to his capture during the war. He assisted his former slave, Charlotte Scott, in establishing the first monument to Abraham Lincoln – the Emancipation Memorial.
Rucker’s experiences make for a volume that maintains one’s interest right up until his death.