A Chain of Thunder: My Review

A Chain of Thunder Book CoverJeff Shaara continues his Civil War narrative with the second book in a series focused on the pivotal battles and campaigns fought on the Western Front. Book One, “A Blaze of Glory,” chronicled the Battle of Shiloh, a confrontation that resulted in the combined loss of over 23,000 lives.

Both sides will claim victory. However, as Book Two begins, Federal forces have been replenished while Confederate manpower continues to steadily diminish. After months of combat the Union Army under Major General Ulysses S. Grant has gained the upper hand forcing Confederate forces under Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton to retreat. The next pivotal engagement will take place at Vicksburg, Mississippi, the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.”

As he always does, Shaara recreates the strategies and tactics of both armies. He lets the reader inside the minds of leaders whose names we all know. But, unlike most authors, he actually gets inside the psyches and egos of these generals, letting us understand the hopes, fears, personal animosities, friendships, and political pressures that determined their decisions and the eventual outcome of the war.

These insights are fascinating studies in leadership. However, it is his descriptions of common soldiers and their contributions that truly anchor our understanding of what it was like during the war. Their suffering is gut wrenching, as is their devotion to duty. Many had no inkling of the horrors they would face or what their reactions would be. Some rose to heroics, others fled the field. All fought not out of any great hatred of their adversary, but for the love and respect of the men around them.

One such individual is Private Fritz “Dutchie” Bauer of Wisconsin. Bauer knows the disgrace of courage lost. At Shiloh he loses his to the unending waves of Confederate soldiers that almost succeed in breaking him and the entire Union Army. Somehow, however, he and his fellow comrades in blue regroup to turn the tide, their baptism of fire turning them into veterans. Bauer transforms from a scared raw recruit into a soldier. He comes to believe in fate, that nowhere is safe on a battlefield, that good men die simply because their time has come. If God has decided your destiny, there is no reason to succumb to fear. The fear is constant, but controllable. At Vicksburg he again survives two failed assaults against the city’s fortifications before the decision comes to lay siege and starve the Confederates into submission. Bauer becomes a sharpshooter, patiently picking off any defenders unfortunate or foolish enough to expose themselves from behind the barriers.

The brutality of war is not limited to soldiers. Civilians are also tragically caught up in any conflict. Credit Shaara with his depiction of the citizens of Vicksburg forced to leave their genteel lifestyles, abandoning their mansions to huddle inside caves, trapped by the constant bombardment of Federal artillery, witnesses to the slaughter, and participants in the hunger that will in the end bring Vicksburg to its knees.

To tell their story he focuses on nineteen year old Lucy Spence. She endures starvation but volunteers as a nurse. While many only gripe about their circumstances, she tries to comfort men whose bodies have been ripped apart by cannon and musket balls. Initially scorned because she has no experience as a nurse and must also bear the malicious comments of her neighbors who believe that a decent Southern woman has no place among soldiers, she eventually wins both admiration and respect.

“A Chain of Thunder” is Shaara at his best! He makes us experience the siege by voicing all aspects of the battle and the experience of all participants. And, he also recreates another pivotal moment in history. The fall of Vicksburg will reverberate throughout the South, dealing a monumental blow to the Confederacy by cutting off the Mississippi River as a vital artery for transport of troops and supplies.

Witness to History

A Blaze of Glory Book CoverA recent broadcast on CBS Sunday Morning, entitled “Witness Trees,” caused me to once again reflect on this nation’s Civil War and the tremendous cost in human lives that became the price to preserve our Union.

There are, of course, no living veterans or immediate descendants of that conflict. However, there are trees, some over two hundred years old, that existed at the time and managed to survive the monumental clashes between Confederate and Federal forces. At Gettysburg alone over seven million musket and cannon balls were fired over a three day period. One image from the broadcast was a tree trunk embedded with munitions. It vividly brought to mind the horrors faced by the men who fought on both sides. If a tree could be so riddled and scarred by these shells, you can only imagine the carnage that was dealt to the human body.

Because of the show I returned to my favorite Civil War author, Jeff Shaara, and began re-reading his trilogy on the Western Theater campaigns. It begins with his recreation of one of the war’s bloodiest engagements that took place at Shiloh Church in southwestern Tennessee. There were over 23,000 combined casualties.

Shaara’s meticulous research recreates the battle “with a stunning you-are-there immediacy.” You get inside the minds of key commanders on both sides, their strategies, and their crucial decisions (often flawed) that result in both victory and defeat, but more importantly, unprecedented loss of American lives.

It is those lives, the thoughts and voices of the ordinary soldiers, that are the strength of Jeff Shaara’s prose. It is his ability to find the humanity in war that elevates his work and makes us rethink what it is to be so dedicated to a cause that you are willing to give “the last full measure of devotion” towards its achievement.

Modern society has distanced itself from the motivations that turned father against son, brother against brother. It doesn’t endeavor to view life through their eyes. It judges the past by today’s standards. Today veneration of anyone who wore the grey uniform stirs national controversy. However, as a soldier, I cannot help but admire the bravery of all combatants regardless of their allegiance.

Both sides claimed victory at Shiloh, but while Union forces will continue to grow to almost one hundred thousand troops, Southern forces dwindle to one-fifth that number. Though the war will continue, it has been said that “after Shiloh, the South never smiled again.”

 

The Captive Boy: Promo, Review, and Giveaway

THE CAPTIVE BOY
by
JULIA ROBB
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Date of Publication: December 20, 2015
Number of Pages: 170Scroll down for the giveaway!

Colonel Mac McKenna’s Fourth Cavalry recaptures white captive August Shiltz from the Comanche, only to find August is determined to return to the Indians. McKenna attempts to civilize August to nineteenth century American standards and becomes the boy’s foster father. But when August kills another boy in a fight, McKenna rejects him, and August escapes from Fort Richards (Texas). When war with the Comanche breaks out, McKenna discovers August is a war leader – and his greatest enemy.




PRAISE FOR THE CAPTIVE BOY:

“THE CAPTIVE BOY by Julia Robb is a story told in a unique way – through journal entries by several different characters, and a novel within the novel. Robb is masterful in her depiction of each character, bringing to life an intriguing tale of the Old West.”
 Writer’s Digest competition judge

“It will capture you and keep you engaged from the beginning all the way through the end and also give you insights into the difficulties faced by those who fought on both sides of the Indian Wars in Texas after the Civil War. Buy this book. You will not be disappointed.”
— Steve Mathisen

“Ms. Robb’s research is evident on every page. Without becoming bogged down in detail, she employs just enough of it to paint an accurate picture of a dangerous and unforgiving time.”

— Samuel L. Robinson

CLICK TO PURCHASE

CHECK OUT THE TRAILER!


Review
One of the many hardships endured by settlers along the Texas frontier was the abduction of their children by the Comanche. The Captive Boy by Julia Robb looks at the emotional toll and tragic consequences of these abductions in the story of one such captive.
The author uses the perspectives of different characters in the book to advance the plot. This approach is simultaneously the strength and lure of the story as well as a challenge to readers to funnel the multiple points of view into a cohesive body of work. Each of the character’s accounts is presented as either a memoir, a journal entry, or even a novel within the novel, which certainly adds to the story’s authenticity, however it also means that the writing styles vary from first to third person and the sequencing of events is not always chronological.
The fictional anthology alternates between the memoirs of Joseph Finley Grant, “With the Fourth Cavalry in Texas,” published as a serial in 1899, “On the Frontier with McKenna,” published in 1878 by Major Sam Brennan, the journal of Dr. Rufus Champ covering 1870-1874, and an Untitled Novel, discovered at West Point, author unknown.
Just as there are alternating viewpoints, there are multiple subplots – the violent confrontations between Native Americans, settlers and soldiers; acts of torture and brutality perpetrated by both sides; murder, suicide, and frontier justice; as well as the  hidden agendas, tested loyalties, and romantic relationships that threaten both friendships and military careers. At the heart of the the story, however, is the relationship between August Shiltz and Colonel Theodore McKenna.
Captured at age nine, August is adopted into the Comanche tribe as the son of a war chief and isn’t returned to white society until five years later. By this time he has accepted his new identity and lifestyle, but Colonel McKenna is determined to make him forget his former life as an Indian. He becomes a surrogate father to the boy and almost succeeds before fate intervenes. After another officer’s son bullies and even physically attacks August, he retaliates by killing his tormentor which leads McKenna to denounce August as a savage. The boy escapes and returns to the Comanche where he will become a warrior and enact his vengeance. The climactic ending plays out in the context of the Indian Wars.
As someone who has researched and written about this period in Texas history, I lobbied for the opportunity to read and review this book. I devoured it in a few nights, but confess to some trepidation writing this critique. Certainly the style is unique. It’s as if the reader is pouring through actual historical documents rather than reading a novel. Since each account is dissimilar in its presentation, the whole doesn’t come together until the very end.
Initially I found this style distracting, but credit Julia Robb with forging a detailed, historically accurate portrait of the Texas frontier, and a poignant tale of psychological trauma and self-discovery. 
Julia grew up on the lower Great Plains of Texas, eventually became a reporter, and lived in every corner of the Lone Star State, from the Rio Grande to the East Texas swamps. She couldn’t shake images and experiences and began writing them down.

A priest once disappeared on the Mexican border and that inspired parts of Saint of the Burning Heart. She discovered a hypnotic seducer, who she turned into Ray Cortez, the bad guy in Del Norte. Reading about child Comanche captives and their fates made her want to write about a cavalry colonel who attempts to heal a rescued boy, and that turned into The Captive Boy. Finally, what happens to a man who is in love with another man, in a time and place where the only answer is death? That became Scalp Mountain.
————————————-
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JUNE 19-28, 2018

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6/19/18
Book Trailer
6/19/18
BONUS POST
6/20/18
Review
6/21/18
Author Interview
6/22/18
Guest Post
6/23/18
Review
6/24/18
Excerpt 1
6/25/18
Excerpt 2
6/26/18
Review
6/27/18
Top 8 List
6/28/18
Review
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Pecos Bill: Fact or Fiction?

Pecos Bill is a character most often associated with American folklore; the tall tales, myths and legends about fictional and real individuals whose stories embodied the pioneer spirit and captured the imagination of the American public.

The author Edward S. O’Reilly first introduced the fictional Pecos Bill in the early 1900’s in stories written for “The Century Magazine,” a monthly periodical published in New York that promoted American nationalism through stories that emphasized such values as strength and courage in humorous exaggerated narratives. Pecos Bill was the personification of the western hero – orphaned as a baby during a trek westward with his family, raised by coyotes, ultimately stumbling on his true calling as the quintessential cowboy. Pecos Bill is credited with inventing calf roping and cattle branding and creation of the six-shooter.

His popularity was such that these stories were collected into a book, “The Saga of Pecos Bill,” published in 1923. Bill’s exaggerated exploits would also capture the imagination of Walt Disney who in 1948 introduced the character in an animated short that accompanied his movie “Melody Time.” Disney Studios would later make the short into a stand-alone film featuring Pecos Bill, his horse Widowmaker, and his lady-love, Slue-Foot Sue that aired on television in 1954 as one of Disney’s “Tall Tales” episodes.

The flesh and blood Pecos Bill was also larger than life. William Rufus Shafter weighed in at over 300 pounds. He was hardly the image of a career military officer, however, in July 1875, in command of the Tenth Cavalry, the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry, and both Tonkawa and Seminole Indian scouts, he mounted an expedition against the Apache that would last over six months, cover over 2,500 miles, and earn him his nickname.

In addition to the Apache, the terrain across the Llano Estacado in West Texas and in the Big Bend area of South Texas was both treacherous and unforgiving. Water, or the lack thereof, was just as much the enemy as the Plains Indians. The Buffalo Soldiers under his command were exhausted and dying not only from their human adversary but thirst. It was up to their commander to lead them to the Pecos River if they were to have any chance for survival.

The stretch of river wasn’t overflowing with water, but when you’re in possession of the only water source anywhere around, it looked like the oasis that it was. The men’s doubts and anger were forgotten. Many dismounted and abandoned their mounts;not a good idea since, left to their own devices, the horses also headed straight to the water where they would drink way too much and potentially harm themselves. Right now, the men didn’t care. Many dove head first into the water, shouting and carrying on like kids who’d just received their best gift ever. “Hurrah for Colonel Shafter,” went up the cry… only to be replaced by – “Hurrah for Pecos Bill. Hurrah for Pecos Bill! That’s his name now”… and it would be; William Rufus Shafter would carry the nickname for the rest of his life. – Excerpt from Palo Duro.

 

Bad Hand

 

From 1871-1874 Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie distinguished himself in military campaigns against the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache. He’d already made an indelible impression on General Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War by his valor, gallantry, and meritorious conduct in several seminal battles including Second Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Petersburg. Grant would describe him as “the Union Army’s most promising young officer,” and assign him to duty on the Texas frontier. The Southern Plains Indian tribes would give him the name Bad Hand for wounds sustained at the battle of Petersburg where he’d lost two fingers on his right hand.

Initially, Mackenzie commanded one of the all black regiments, the Forty-First Infantry, made up of freedmen and former slaves, commonly known today as Buffalo Soldiers. Their exemplary record of accomplishments under his leadership at a time when institutional racial prejudice still existed in the Army brought him to the attention of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman would re-assign him to Fort Richardson, Texas at the head of the 4th U.S. Cavalry, and task him with implementing Grant’s Quaker Peace Policy.

More than any policy, however, it would be Mackenzie’s tenacity against the Southern Plains Indians that led to their eventual defeat and subjugation. He would put an end (for a time) to the Apache raids against settlers along the Rio Grande by boldly crossing the border to attack their encampments at Remolino, Mexico. He would mount multiple expeditions into the previously unexplored Llano Estacado (Staked Plain,) each foray yielding new new information and tactics to be used against the Comanche and Kiowa, finally resulting in the decisive engagement against these tribes at Palo Duro Canyon September 28, 1874, and an end to the Red River War.

Ranald Mackenzie surveyed the burned encampments. All his efforts seemed to point to another campaign where he’d been unable to keep the Indians from escaping; another failure. He then looked toward the captured horses. Past experience told him he would be unable to keep the pony herd intact all the way back to friendly lines. The Indians would once again mount raids to recapture their mounts and the cycle of resistance and the so called “Red River War” would continue. Mackenzie had long since hardened himself against any pity for the enemy and now knew what was required of him. He ordered his Adjutant to drive the pony herd to Tule Canyon, to select fresh mounts for the troop and his Tonkawa Scouts, and to shoot all the remaining horses. – Excerpt from Palo Duro.

Read the book to learn more about the Plains Indian Wars, Ranald Mackenzie, and this gut wrenching decision!

 

 

 

69th Infantry Regiment

MAR 19 (1)

Many Irish and Scottish immigrants served in the Union Army during America’s Civil War. These soldiers proved themselves during every major campaign from the onset of the conflict in 1861 to the final surrender at Appomattox in 1865, but now faced a new enemy on the country’s western frontier. Their adversaries wore neither Yankee blue nor Confederate grey; they were the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho and the Apache.

Of the many immigrant units formed during the war,the most prominent was the 69th Infantry Regiment, one of five regiments comprising the Irish Brigade that fought for the Union. Renown for its courage and tenacity, it was always at the forefront of campaigns against the Confederacy suffering huge losses over the course of the war.

The number of dead and wounded led many to believe that Irish immigrants were being used as “cannon fodder.” Spearheading the Army of the Potomac’s advances resulted in casualties disproportionate to the rest of the service. By 1863 riots broke out in New York over new conscription laws that required the working-class to replenish the ranks. Irish immigrants felt that they were being forced to fight the “rich man’s war.” Federal troops would eventually be called in to quell the riots. However, while individual Irishmen would continue to serve, organized Irish participation on behalf of the Union effectively ended.

Those not killed, maimed, or ushered out of the Union Army at war’s end found themselves garrisoned in places like Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They formed the backbone of the troops tasked with subduing the Southern Plains Indians.

Sergeant Major [Timothy] O’Shannon was a big man and a stereotypical Irishman if ever there was one. He could be gruff if the situation required, invoking “Jesus, Joseph, and Mary” as the circumstances dictated, but he was also fair and genuinely caring when it came to the men. He was the counterpoint to [Colonel Ranald] Mackenzie’s demanding and uncompromising leadership style. The Sergeant Major had served with the Sixty-Ninth Regiment, the Irish Brigade, during the war and had seen action  at the Battle of First Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. As a result he and Mackenzie shared a mutual respect for one another that only survivors of the carnage they had witnessed over the course of the war could possibly forge or understand. This respect even ignored what should have been a natural impediment to working well together… O’Shannon’s Irish and Mackenzie’s Scottish heritage. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Texas Reads

My novel has been featured in the Texas Reads section of this week’s edition of Lone Star Literary Life, (Sunday, March 11th.)

Historical fiction: San Antonio author Max L. Knight covers a lot of colorful historical western characters and events in his novel, Palo Duro (Page Publishing, $16.50 paperback).

 Among them: Quanah Parker, Charles Goodnight, Billy Dixon, Ranald Mackenzie,  Geronimo, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and John Wesley Hardin.

“The characters that populate my book,” Knight writes, “are a composite of both real people and the products of my imagination… The dialogue, with very few exceptions, is strictly fictional but captures the essence of the events portrayed and the people involved.”

 “I’ve tried to portray the savage nature of the conflict between the Southern Plains Indians and white settlers, buffalo hunters, merchants and soldiers as evenly as possible without bias to either side, and I’ve tried to portray the difference between the lawman and the lawless as a fine line that was often crossed.”

 Readers of historical fiction will find much to savor in Knight’s novel.

For anyone unfamiliar with the online publication, Lone Star Literary Life is the best source of information for all things literary in the State of Texas. Its stated mission is “to connect Texas books and writers with those who want to discover them,” and they’ve certainly done this for me!

Each edition includes write-ups on authors and new book releases, bestseller lists, literary destinations and events including festivals, author appearances, readings and book signings, upcoming blog tours, biographies, author insights, news briefs, classified listings and so much more.

To read their full issue each week, be sure to check out their website.