Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

SURRY OF EAGLE’S-NEST remains of interest primarily as a romanticized version of John Esten Cooke’s firsthand experiences as a Confederate officer during the Civil War—an ordeal that ranged from participation in the First Manassas to the final surrender at Appomattox Court House. While Cooke served primarily as a staff officer with J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry, he numbered Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and other high-ranking Confederates among his personal acquaintances. Cooke published military biographies of Jackson (1863 and 1866) and of Lee (1871).

On the whole, SURRY OF EAGLE’S-NEST, a product of six weeks’ work, is an uneven attempt to blend historical fact and fiction. The novel climaxes with a romanticized account of Stonewall Jackson’s death in 1863, and, in its historical aspects, the novel draws upon the author’s earlier military biographies of Jackson (just as MOHUN, 1869, the sequel to SURRY OF EAGLE’S-NEST, parallels Cooke’s later biography of Robert E. Lee). In SURRY OF EAGLE’S-NEST, Cooke merely combined the fictional trappings of conventional historical romance with real wartime events and experiences. The highly melodramatic aspects of the novel, particularly the purely Gothic subplot of the antagonists Mordaunt and Fenwick and the often confusing integration of historical and fictional characters, render the work less satisfactory than The Virginia Comedians (1854), Cooke’s most successful historical romance. Cooke’s idealization of antebellum Southern society and his acceptance of the myth of Cavalier origins of the Virginia aristocracy are also more prevalent in SURRY OF EAGLE’S-NEST than in his previous work. The novel was one of the earliest and most important contributions to the myth of the “Lost Cause” in the postwar South.

The novel, first published in 1866, found a receptive audience among celebrants of the “Lost Cause,” and it has remained one of the most popular of Cooke’s historical romances. Along with MOHUN, SURRY OF EAGLE’S-NEST ranks as the best of Cooke’s war novels, but neither possesses the unity or literary quality earlier achieved in THE VIRGINIA COMEDIANS.