Monday, July 30, 2012

A Blaze of Glory

A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh begins the new Jeff Shaara trilogy focusing on events of the Civil War’s Western Theater.  As fans of Shaara’s The Last Full Measure and his father’s The Killer Angels will attest, his return to the Civil War era is a welcome one.  I was particularly pleased to see that the new series begins with the Battle of Shiloh because of the number of hours I have spent walking that particular battlefield site over the years.   A Blaze of Glory leaves me with a better understanding of what happened during those two critical days in 1862 and, just as importantly, what might have happened if either army had been better prepared for the fight.  (My interest probably stems from the fact that my great-great grandfather was a member of the 18th Louisiana Infantry Brigade that suffered a forty percent casualty rate on the battle’s first day – him not among them.)

Shaara, as in his past historical novels, uses a range of characters (some real, some fictional) to tell his story.  This allows the author to offer insights into the personalities, motivations, jealousies, fears, doubts, and dreams that were carried to the field by all those soldiers on April 6-7, 1862.  All told, more than 100,000 men fought on this relatively small patch of ground and almost 24,000 of them are counted as casualties of Shiloh (although less than 4,000 actual deaths are included in the total).  The battle’s rotating points-of-view include those of Generals Grant, Sherman, Johnston, and Beauregard, along with those of a few lower-ranking officers and enlisted men.

Jeff Shaara
Caught by surprise at dawn on the first day of the battle, Union troops, as dusk approaches, have been driven as far as they can go without drowning themselves in the rain-swollen Tennessee River.  Unfortunately for the Confederacy, General Albert Sidney Johnston is dead (having bled to death from a leg wound he barely seemed to notice at the time) and has been replaced by his second-in-command, the more cautious General P.T.G. Beauregard.  The battle will turn on Beauregard’s decision to rest and reorganize his men for what he sees as a certain Union surrender requiring only a last surge on his part the next morning.  But the next morning, the reinforced Union army attacks first and the Confederates are the ones forced to concede the field to a victorious army.

One must remember, of course, that A Blaze of Glory is historical fiction and that Shaara uses the genre to speculate his way inside the heads of some of American history’s key players.  His books, however, are not some alternate history version of America’s past. Shaara does not change historical facts.  Rather, he uses his research and insight into the human condition to explain why things happened as they did.  Naturally, his speculation and interpretation of events can be disputed, but without a doubt, he has humanized the Civil War in a way that even the best history books are unable to match.  Shaara’s painless history lessons are so exciting that many of his readers will, I am certain, be compelled to pick up “real” history books for the first times in their lives.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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