Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Smoke at Dawn

The Smoke at Dawn
© 2014 Jeff Shaara
528 pages

The bells of the South in 1863 rang death knells, not peals of joyous victory. In July, on the same day that Lee's army suffered a staggering loss at Gettysburg,  General Grant of the Union army took possession of Vicksburg, and within it gained complete command of the Mississippi river. The South fractured and its strength wasted, the Confederates needed a fresh triumph. In November, General Braxton Bragg commanding rebel forces in Tennessee thought he might be the man to deliver it. After routing a Union army, he cornered them in Chattanooga, where he hoped a quick siege would see their surrender and regain the South its lost momentum.  The Smoke at Dawn is the story of the Chattanooga Campaign, of armies stumbling in the night through battlefields that soar into the sky.  It's also the tale of commanding personalities, of men set at odds even against their comrades. The third book in Shaara's new Civil War series is a third triumph for the author -- and General Grant. 

Like Shaara's other works, The Smoke at Dawn is a swiftly-moving narrative composed largely of the thoughts and conversations of generals commanding the battle. This combined with more conventional narration is highly effective at putting the reader into the generals' position without being rambling.  Many of the characters are familiar names; Grant, Longstreet, and Sherman among them.  The greatest maneuvers and best battlefield performances, however, are put on by generals who fame has ignored.  The focus on the generals from across the field give the reader a strategic understanding of what is happening, allowing witness of the way the armies wrangled around one another, attempting to control supply lines or use the river to land by stealth and deliver devastating stealth attacks. The river puts the generals in the curious place of sometimes being closer to their foes than their friends;   Generals Thomas and Grant, commanding, can view Burnside's own headquarters  from their own positions.   

As in his more recent work, Shaara also employs a few infantrymen to deliver combat scenes; the most notable here is Fritz Bauer, a Wisconsin orphan who would be alone in the world were it not for his best friend Willis. When Willis leaves the volunteers for the regular army, Bauer follows suit, and their course through the campaign gives not only plentiful action scenes, but the realization that soldiers often fought not for ideals but for their comrades. The book as a whole is steeped in the power of human relationships;  the obstinate and autocratic Braxton Bragg's contemptuous attitude toward his subordinates withers away his own army's effectiveness.  He earns no one's trust save Jefferson Davis', spending the entire battle fighting with his own officers and  once sending an entire corps away just to be delivered from a potential threat to his authority. Between Bauer's devotion and Bragg's contempt is the happy medium of rivalry,  most prominently Sherman's running duel with his equally highly effective Confederate counterpart. Despite Sherman's reputation and Grant's high esteem of him,  Sherman can't seem to best Patrick Cleburne.  For all of Bragg's discipline and Sherman's speed, however, ultimately the battle's upset is decided by unpredictable forces -- like a diversionary force that advances further than planned, attempting to avoid being slaughtered by artillery, and results in routing  an entire army. 

Readers of Civil War fiction will find The Smoke at Dawn most attractive. The fourth book in Shaara's series will concern the Fall of Atlanta.

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