Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh

By Jeff Shaara

After authoring novels on the American Revolution, the Mexican War, World War I, and World War II, Jeff Shaara has found his way back to the conflict that launched his literary career, the American Civil War.  After penning a prequel and a sequel to his father, Michael Sharra’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Killer Angels,” Mr. Shaara now begins a new Civil War trilogy with “A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh.”

Shaara in “A Blaze of Glory” maintains the tried-and-true format of his and his father’s previous novels: using multiple characters and points of view, to give his reader a more-or-less balanced narrative of the Battle of Shiloh.  Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman, Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss and Private Fritz Bauer of the 16th Wisconsin Infantry are the primary characters on the side of the Union.  Their Confederate counterparts are General Albert Sidney Johnston, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris and Lieutenant James Seeley of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate Cavalry.

“A Blaze of Glory” begins in late February of 1862 with the building up the Confederate forces at Corinth, Mississippi, where the Mobile & Ohio Railroad intersects with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad; and that of the Union forces some twenty-two miles to the northeast at Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee River.  Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Army of Tennessee has been assigned to hold there until joined by Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.  Once the two Federal Armies have united only then are they to launch an attack on the vital Confederate hub at Corinth.  Aware of the impending danger of two Federal armies bearing down upon his forces, Johnston determines to launch his Army of Mississippi a surprise attack and defeat Grant’s army at Pittsburg Landing  before Buell’s joins with it.

Thus with all of his chess pieces set into place Mr. Shaara’s narrative, switching between the Union and Confederate armies, gradually picks up steam as the Confederate army, slowed by weather delays and muddy roads, nears the Union camps at Pittsburg Landing.  For those educated on the battle and its controversies, Mr. Shaara covers familiar ground: the surprise, or lack thereof, of the Confederate attack, the positioning of the camps (specifically those of the new, little trained regiments), the changing battle plans of the Confederate Army and who authored them, the death of Albert Sidney Johnston and the ascension of P. G. T. Beauregard as his successor, the “Hornet’s Nest,” Beauregard’s decision to withdraw the Confederate troops out of range of the Union guns on the evening of the first day of the battle and Lew Wallace’s late arrival onto the battlefield.

Mr. Shaara places particular credit to Prentiss’ delaying action at the “Hornet’s Nest” for the eventual success of the Union army on the second day of the battle, giving Grant enough time to form a stronger line, reinforced by the timely arrival of Buell’s army at the river landing.  I suspect this was done for dramatic purposes, as modern scholarship currently places more importance on Sherman’s fighting at the crossroads near Shiloh Church.

The book’s thirty-seven chapters are spread almost equally between the two opposing armies; 19 chapters for the Union and 18 chapters for their Confederate opposition.  Albert Sidney Johnston is the most featured character in the novel with 10 chapters, followed by Sherman and Bauer both with 8, Seeley at 5, Harris with 3, Grant, commander of the Union forces, strangely with only 2 and Prentiss with 1.

The novel is thoroughly researched, Mr. Shaara states in that he uses only original sources from people who were there.  It is well written and easy and enjoyable read.  Whether you are an advanced student of the Civil War or a casual reader of novels you will be entertained, and might just learn a little something along the way.

“A Blaze of Glory” is the first in a new Civil War trilogy, authored by Jeff Shaara, covering events in the war’s western theater.  The second volume of the series, “A Chain of Thunder: A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg,” will be released May 21, 2013.  The third volume in the trilogy will focus on Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Carolina Campaign.

ISBN 978-0345527356, Ballantine Books, © 20012, Hardcover, 464 pages, Maps, $28.00.  To purchase this book click HERE.

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