The Saber and Scroll Journal is pleased to offer this book review as a preview to the spring/summer 2015 issue. APUS Professor Robert Smith reviewed Jeff Shaara's latest book, due to be published June 2, 2015:
The Fateful Lightening: A Novel of the Civil War.
There are those who think Jeff Shaara's books on the American Civil War are like sausage, that they are simply cranked out. As noted in Gone with the Wind, the response can only be “Fiddle-dee-dee!” for such an assertion shows that person has simply not read any of his works. It is easy to toss around words like masterful, but Shaara’s trilogy on the American Civil War in the West is a tour de force of an area generally—and blissfully—ignored, as it did not have Confederate General Robert E. Lee and it was not Gettysburg.
The Fateful Lightning begins with period after Union General William T. Sherman's occupation of Atlanta. Sherman’s capture of the city ended the immediate political crisis by ensuring Lincoln's reelection. However, Sherman realized there was also a political and military crisis to be faced, particularly with his commander, General Ulysses S. Grant bogged down around Petersburg, Virginia. Sherman, with his knowledge of the South, understood that for the war to end, the level of Southerners’ pain and suffering needed to be elevated. Shaara nicely allows us to see that Sherman's decision to march to the sea and to make Georgia howl was a decision of the highest strategic order; Sherman—as we see through the author's eye—wanted the war to be over but also knew he must become more brutal. The beauty of this new work is that a reader can appreciate it as stand-alone volume.
What makes The Fateful Lightning even more fascinating is that there are no large pitched battles, until the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina in March 1865. Instead, the astute story telling sweeps readers along with the Army as it marches to the sea, continuously out maneuvering and perplexing the thin forces of militia and Confederate Calvary attempting to stop the onslaught. Shaara’s Sherman is very earthy, very real, and human. As an armor officer, this reviewer has extensively read on Sherman—and this is Sherman. However, the reviewer’s most admired character was Confederate General William Hardee, who wrote the book Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics (1853-1855)—otherwise known as Hardee's Tactics—that officers on both sides of the struggle learned to master and employ. Seeing the war through his eyes invoked memories of the German officers in 1945 attempting to stem the Soviet steamroller, doing their duty, and knowing that nothing they do will produce victory.
Shaara has completed his American Civil War universe. Readers will see the war and its social implications through the life and experience of a slave freed from bondage by the Army and his promise of a new life. They will feel the depression and fatigue of the Confederate Calvary Captain, hoping his tired mounts, troops, and himself can survive the war while continuing to do their duty for a lost cause. They will feel the sweat, the stink, the smells, and the sounds of the Union Army on the March. Shaara's small asides about the complications and political challenges of the Confederacy to find good senior leadership due to Jefferson Davis’s pettiness is a cautionary tale for today’s era where politics has come to the forefront seemingly as a litmus test.
A small aside—this reviewer had hoped that Shaara would delve into the punch and counterpunch of Confederate General Joseph Johnston and Sherman battling through the Atlanta Campaign. It would have been very interesting to read his handling of that Fabian campaign, which lasted until the disastrous replacement of Johnston by General John Hood. Shaara's view on the political machinations surrounding that debacle, together with Jefferson Davis's limited options and ego—and how these played into the outcome—would have been masterful. However, that is simply a wish and that story is outside the scope of Shaara’s vision here. Ultimately, the success of the book, like those preceding it is this—this historian believes it feels like history. That is good enough, and coupled with it being a loving read, means it is a book to keep.
Review by Robert Smith, PhD.