Thursday, June 28, 2012

New and Noteworthy Fiction---Blaze of Glory: Jeff Shaara Returns to the Civil War

Blaze of Glory:  A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh, Jeff Shaara, 464 pages, Ballantine Publishing, $28.00.

Wellington described The Battle of Waterloo as 'a close run thing.' The same can be said of the Battle of Shiloh [April 6-7, 1862]. Jeff Shaara's novel Blaze of Glory provides a memorable vision of that suspense filled campaign and battle.  Within these two days over 13,000 Federals were killed, wounded, captured or missing; Confederate loses were nearly 11,000 were killed, wounded, captured, and missing.  Current estimates are that 15% of those wounded later died of their wounds within 90 days.

Shaara's novel travels several paths to the April 6 and 7 battle, one of which begins in Nashville as the Confederates retreat during the third week of March from Tennessee's capital city. The first four chapters  offers the points of view of the Rebel cavalry covering a retreat and of the mind of military theater Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston. Audacious plans are formed during desperate times. Shaara then offers three chapters from the Federal point of view from the rank and file and from William T. Sherman, a division commander. In a similar way to Ralph Peters' recent novel Cain at Gettysburg, Shaara
creates compelling voices of German soldiers in the Federal army. Following the pattern of Shaara's previous  two Civil War novels and his novels of World War One and Two, he utilizes both actual historic characters and invented characters.

Quickly and somewhat too broadly Shaara covers a lot of ground to get both armies to the battlefield; at times the novel approaches a comprehensiveness that may be found in historians' work on the battle.  Yet, Shaara supplies the remarkable details of soldiers' marching during all types of weather and all hours of the day.  The weather is wet, the roads are muddy, and the foliage is thick. At times confusion reigns along the battle's front and rear. His remarkable scenes include of the initial discovery by the Federals of the Confederate surprise-at-dawn assault,  Sherman's wounding, the looting of the Union camps by Rebels, and the muzzle-too-muzzle gunfights at The Sunken Road, The Hornet's Nest, The Peach Orchard.

Historic and compelling Confederate characters include, among several others,  Tennessee governor Isham Harris who became an aide to Johnston and a witness to his battlefield death, and  general and hero of Fort Sumter and the Battle of Bull Run, Pierre Bureaugard who is sick and exhausted even before the battle begins. Federal generals Ulysses Grant, William Sherman, Don Carlos Buell and several others collide in competition for glory during the campaign. Shaara does not neglect the failure of commanders with their battle plans and with their lack of battle experience. He counters them with the heroism and courage of the rank and file soldiers who also lacked of battle experience. Both sides are shocked and disheartened by the carnage of 24,000 killed, wounded and missing within 48 hours.  Among the dead were the Confederate western theater commander Albert Sidney Johnston who is at the battlefront encouraging a brigade when a bullet clipped an artery behind his knee and he bleeds to death.

Shaara offers a retelling of Nathan Bedford Forrest's wounding and his taking of a hostage at the Battle of Fallen Timbers soon after April 7. This story  is a part of the Forrest biography lore but appears to have no actual eyewitnesses. Yet it works well as a finale in the novel. Those readers who enjoy fiction with a Civil War setting are well served by A Blaze of Glory. Shaara provides a sustained glimpse of Johnson's relationship with his headquarters' hostess while the he has Johnson reflecting upon his memories of his wife  Eliza, their children and their large Texas plantation, China Grove. Additionally, Shaara offers descripitons  of the Federal soldiers fond  memories of their ethnic German families and communities. Blaze of Glory is a fine novel of civilians at war, generals in over-their-head, and of southwestern Tennessee terrain that is transformed from a remote frontier to a close and mortal hell. 

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