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.

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.”