The Smoke at Dawn: My Review

The Smoke at Dawn Book Cover“The Smoke at Dawn” is the third novel by Jeff Shaara focusing on the campaigns fought in the Western Theater of operations during America’s Civil War. It picks up in the summer of 1863. The fall of Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the South, has given the Union Army complete control of the Mississippi River, setting the stage for the Army of the Cumberland under the leadership of William Rosecrans to capture the crucial railroad hub in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Temporarily victorious, Rosecrans over extends the Federal forces under his command and suffers a disastrous defeat at Chickamauga Creek. He is relieved by President Lincoln and replaced by Ulysses Simpson Grant who must now come to the relief of Rosecrans’ forces besieged at Chattanooga by Confederate General Braxton Bragg.

Much of Shaara’s book focuses on the battles at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, and the commanders and common soldiers who fought there. In addition to generals Grant and Sherman, George Thomas emerges as the primary force behind the eventual Union victory. Self-effacing, deliberate in his preparations and actions, he will be criticized by his more famous contemporaries for his attention to detail that, while successful, doesn’t allow for a rapid advance against the enemy.

The dynamics of strategies, tactics, and leadership are also central to understanding the Confederate defeat at Chattanooga. Braxton Bragg sees no failing in himself, yet his subordinate commanders have little respect for their leader and even less loyalty. They petition Jefferson Davis for his removal. Bragg, of course, sees everything through the lens of a conspiracy against him and places blame for every failure on someone else, notably General James Longstreet who he believes is responsible for the criticisms against him. He will order Longstreet to Knoxville, removing a thorn in his side but significantly weakening his own army.

In contrast to the disastrous lack of leadership by Bragg, Patrick Cleburne will be recognized for his extraordinary defense against Sherman’s troops. He will be blindsided by Bragg’s capitulation and by his orders to abandon the ground that his soldiers have so tenaciously defended. Instructed to cover the Confederates’ withdrawal, his men will act as the army’s rear guard tasked with holding off any pursuit by the victorious Yankees.

“The Smoke at Dawn” was meant to be the cornerstone of a three part series by Jeff Shaara. But like the war, another chapter was yet to be written in Atlanta, Georgia. That story is told in his companion book, “The Fateful Lightening.”

I’ve previously expressed my admiration for Jeff Shaara’s work; he is my favorite Civil War author. If this four-star review reflects a somewhat less glowing critique, it is probably because I’ve tried to accomplish a re-reading of this tetralogy in too short a time frame. Just as the war would extend over four bloody years, Shaara released each of his four books a year apart. That spacing allows the reader a fuller understanding of the momentous historical events that transpired as well as a better appreciation of the detailed research that went into each installment.

Author: maxknight73

Retired Army Officer and Counterintelligence Specialist. Currently living in San Antonio, Texas with his wife Gray. Cancer survivor. Avid history buff and writer.

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