Monday, October 12, 2015

The Fateful Lightning

The Fateful Lightning is the fourth and final book in Jeff Shaara’s story of the Civil War as it was fought in the American “west.”  The book, a detailed accounting of Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” follows three previous novels dedicated to the battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, respectively.  As in each of those books, Shaara tells his story by placing his readers into the boots of several key real-life characters from both sides of the tragic struggle.

As it should be, the book’s primary focus is on Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, the chief engineer behind the slash and burn ride that hastened the end of the war.  In addition to seeing the march from Sherman’s point of view, Shaara has his readers do the same from the points of view of two of Sherman’s adversaries: General William Joseph Hardee and Captain James Seeley, a Confederate cavalryman.  And, interestingly, the book’s fourth main character is a slave known throughout only as Franklin because the young man has never known another name to be directed his way.  (When first questioned by the Union officer who befriends him, Franklin is not even sure whether Franklin is a first or a last name – all he knows is that it is his only name.)

The Fateful Lightning begins on November 16, 1864 as Sherman starts to move his army out of Atlanta, a city that has been largely destroyed as a result of his assault on the city.  It ends on April 25, 1865 (seventeen days after Lee has surrendered his own army to Grant) in Raleigh, North Carolina, when Sherman receives the letter that will finally allow him to relax:  Confederate general Johnston’s surrender of the largest segment of the Confederate army still in the field.  From that moment, the American Civil War is effectively over.

Author Jeff Shaara
Sherman was a complicated man, one I have had mixed emotions about for a very long time.  With time, I have come to be an admirer of his military skills and his eventual willingness to wage “total war” on the South in order to end the fighting as quickly as possible.  But as a born and bred Southerner, I have long wished that Southern civilians had not suffered so greatly at his hands.  For that reason, I think that the real beauty of Jeff Shaara’s historical fiction is the way it humanizes historical figures, even to the degree that they become – be they sympathetic characters or more questionable ones – the real people they were, with all the weaknesses and doubts that the rest of us have to contend with in our own lives. 

I have read a lot of Civil War history in the last few decades, much of it associated with Sherman’s “march.”  But I can honestly say that after reading The Fateful Lightning, I have a better understanding of that famous campaign than I had coming in to the book.  At well over 600 pages in length, this one takes a while to absorb, but it is most definitely time well spent. 

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