When the Civil War began, some people found themselves living where they disagreed with others politically and morally. Tennessee was one of those places. When the state voted to secede June 8, 1861, over 100,000 Tennesseans voted to join the Confederacy, but 47,000 – most of whom lived in eastern Tennessee – voted to remain in the Union.
“East Tennessee was quite different; very hilly and mountainous, there were few slaves there and few large farms or plantations,” said author Michael P. Rucker. “The public was very much inclined toward the Union.”
“Edmund Winchester Rucker was assigned there in 1862 … to maintain martial law,” the author said. His duties included punishing those caught burning bridges, punishing civilians known as “bushwhackers” who took potshots at Confederate soldiers and officers, and forcing into service locals who did not want to join the Confederacy.
“Col. Rucker called this the meanest and ‘damnest’ job a soldier ever had to do,” said Rucker. “I certainly think it was. … That’s where the title came from.”
The author, a Virginia native, discovered that he has a shared ancestor with Col. Rucker, which helped inspire his 15-year research and writing of the colonel’s first published biography.
“Col. Rucker’s great-grandfather is my common ancestor,” Rucker said. “People were constantly asking me if I was related to the Rucker of Fort Rucker, Alabama – so I started looking into it and found this amazing individual with all kinds of experiences during the war, and then after the war he became one of the most important founders of Birmingham.”
Edmund Rucker was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1835. As a teenager, he began working as a railroad surveyor, where he developed engineering skills that he used as Memphis’ city engineer in the 1850s.
Rucker enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army, but quickly rose through the ranks with his surveying and engineering experience.
“His first job was to supervise the construction of the forts along the Mississippi River, north of Memphis,” the author said. Following construction, Edmund Rucker volunteered to man the first fort that the Union would encounter as it tried to take control of the Mississippi River. “With only half of his guns able to reach the Union gunboats, they never got past him and had to go around,” Michael Rucker said. “That started his reputation of being a very significant officer.”
Rucker is recognized for participating in important battles, such as the Battle of Chickamauga and the Chattanooga Campaign, and for his support of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry Corps, including in the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads in Mississippi.
In 1864, during the Battle of Nashville, Rucker was injured (which would later require amputation of his left arm) and captured. He was imprisoned in Ohio but was released during a prisoner exchange brokered by Forrest. Rucker was with Forrest when he surrendered in Gainesville (in rural Sumter County, Alabama) on May 9, 1865.
Following the war, Rucker returned to his railroad roots, and he and Forrest became business partners. After successfully constructing a railroad in Arkansas, they sought to build one from Selma to Memphis, but only reached as far as Marion before funding ran out.
“There was a Great Depression in 1873 that started with railroad building, which was being overbuilt,” Rucker said. “Forrest could not get additional funding and died soon after.”
“Rucker stayed on the job, and held onto his stock,” Rucker continued. “When the depression ended, he sold it and made enough money to go into business.”
He moved to Birmingham in 1882 and was vice president at American Coal Co., Sloss Iron and Steel Co., and the Alabama National Bank of Birmingham. Rucker died April 13, 1924, and was buried in Birmingham’s historic Oak Hill Cemetery.
Fort Rucker, in Dale County, was named in his honor in 1942.
“I think that because of his excellent war record, he was considered a really good leader, along with the Birmingham history is why he was so well-remembered,” Rucker said.
“The Meanest and Damnest Job” is an extensively researched biography of the complex and interesting life led by Edmund Rucker, at a time of significant change in the South and Birmingham, specifically. More about the colonel’s life, including his wartime experience and civilian accomplishments, is in the book at NewSouth Books or at MikeRuckerBooks.com, which features Rucker’s full writing repertoire.