Jack Lewis explores W.Va.’s secession in his first novel about his great-grandfather


Jack Lewis of Oriskany with his first historic novel, “Storm Coming.”

The Fincastle Library will host a book signing from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, July 22, for the new Civil War novel “Storm Coming” by local author Jack W. Lewis, who lives in Oriskany.

Although Lewis has four previous books to his credit, few people locally are familiar with them since most are engineering textbooks on topics like feedback control systems.

He hopes to achieve a larger readership with this one, his first work of general fiction, a historical novel focusing on the first year of the Civil War in Virginia.

“Storm Coming: A Novel of the Civil War in Western Virginia” tells the story of Lewis’s great-grandfather, Alexander Swaney, who joined the First Virginia Volunteer Cavalry in 1861.

But there’s a twist to this story. Although Lewis says he considered himself something of an expert in Civil War history, when he began his research for the novel and obtained the detailed military records of his great-grandfather, he was confused.

“Why did a southwest Pennsylvania farm boy join a Virginia cavalry regiment?” he asked. “As I looked deeper into the Official Records (OR) of the Civil War, I got even more confused, as I found there were two First Virginia Cavalry regiments, with different officers.”

As he discovered, one Virginia regiment, the one his great-grandfather joined, was loyal to the Union (and ultimately became the First West Virginia Volunteer Cavalry in 1863). The other one was, of course, Confederate.

“At first,” Lewis says, “I was interested in writing about my great-grandfather’s exploits later in the war, because he was Union General John Buford’s orderly at Gettysburg. But then I became totally fascinated by the early war in western Virginia, which led to West Virginia becoming a state in 1863.

“This is a complex and amazing tale, and I knew so little about it before I began the research for this book, despite growing up right next to the West Virginia border with Pennsylvania,” Lewis said. “I wanted to tell that story through the eyes of the characters who lived it.”

The main characters in “Storm Coming” are Alexander Swaney and a young Methodist pastor named Harrison Hagans, also a real person, who joined the First Virginia (loyal) Cavalry at the same time as Swaney, in 1861.

As Lewis points out, Virginia is the only state that lost territory in the Civil War— over a third of its territory— and how that came to pass is a gripping story involving many of those who later became the major players of the war, including Robert E. Lee, George McClellan and “Stonewall” Jackson, who are also characters in the novel.

All of them, along with many other famous military leaders, clashed in 1861 in the mountainous region that later became West Virginia.

“Not many people realize,” said Lewis, “that the first land battle of the war was fought in Philippi, West Virginia, which of course was Virginia at the time. Virginia actually had its own mini-civil war, as many of the western counties, especially the northwestern ones, fought to secede from Confederate Virginia— and it was a real slugfest.”

As he points out, loyalties were seriously divided, with towns and counties right next to each other seeing things completely differently. “It’s interesting to me that President Lincoln okayed the western counties of Virginia seceding from Virginia, but not the South seceding from the rest of the country,” he said. “It’s not entirely logical, and half of his cabinet opposed it.”

Botetourt County obviously didn’t make the cut into the new state, he said, but he points out that Botetourt, Craig, Alleghany and Bath counties were all proposed at one time or another to be included in West Virginia, as negotiations for exactly which counties would leave Virginia were carried out over a two-year period.

At the book signing on Saturday, July 22, Lewis will give a presentation, with visuals, on how the war in western Virginia proceeded in 1861, and how the political leaders in the northwestern counties ultimately won their “civil war” to secede from Virginia, which they had been trying to do for decades.

“Storm Coming: A Novel of the Civil War in Western Virginia” is priced at $15.95 for the print version.

Lewis, who just turned 80, plans to continue the story of Alexander Swaney’s wartime experiences in future novels. “I still want to write about Swaney at Gettysburg with Buford,” he said. “And I have a few ideas for more engineering books, too.”

The book is on Amazon and Barnes and Noble as both ebook and print (paperback) versions.

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