In 2011, the United States began commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Reenactments and memorial events have taken place across the north and south, and bookstores have seen a major influx of everything from battlefield picture books to shelf-busting quantities of biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionist John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Fiction has seen its share of work as well, but none as anticipated as A CHAIN OF THUNDER by Jeff Shaara.
It is April 1863, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant is eager to capture the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy" --- the key city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Union forces already control the Mississippi River to the north and have seized New Orleans. Taking Vicksburg allows them complete and unmolested access to the river, securing the western theater and allowing for ease of movement for troops, munitions and food lines. It also cripples the Confederacy. The problem is taking the city. Grant has already been repulsed once before, and coupled with the debacle at Shiloh the year prior, there are those in Washington and in the field who are maneuvering to have him removed from command.
William T. Sherman and James B. McPherson remain loyal and tenacious companions, but General McClernand has a penchant for stopping his marches to make speeches about the glorious successes of his men. Grant is growing weary of McClernand's vanity, as is Sherman. He believes that McClernand is working in concert with Charles Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War who has been sent to "observe" Grant's command. He also believes that Sylvanus Cadwallader, a newspaper reporter allowed in Grant's camp, is part of the plot to have Grant removed.
"Opening A CHAIN OF THUNDER is to step into the spring and summer of 1863, and to experience the war in the heat and the sweat and the blood. The writing is picturesque and vibrant, and you can see Grant and Sherman standing together in the rain, chewing unlit cigars as they fume over their failures."
As if the drama with these men were not enough, the contempt between Confederate Generals John Pemberton and Joe Johnston exceeds the Union squabbles. Pemberton is frustrated that Johnston has taken the majority of the cavalry and utilized them --- unnecessarily --- in Tennessee in support of Braxton Bragg. Meanwhile, Union cavalry led by Benjamin Grierson has been destroying rail lines and communications lines, and has evaded capture at every turn. Without cavalry, Pemberton is blind to the movements of Grant's forces. He believes that Grierson is a distraction, keeping forces focused on his meddlesome raids while Grant places Sherman and his other men in a position to strike at Vicksburg.
Johnston thinks that the raids are nothing but a cavalry having a bit of fun and amounts to nothing substantial. He continually ignores Pemberton's requests for cavalry and troop supports at Vicksburg. Like much of the Confederate force in Mississippi, he does not trust Pemberton, who is a Pennsylvania man, a northerner, which makes him suspect.
As the two men squabble back and forth in couriered messages, Grant marches on the capital city of Jackson. Johnston, who has a considerably smaller force, flees and allows it to fall into Union hands. Grant, however, cares not for Jackson, and his men begin the march on the prime target of Vicksburg. Pemberton, reluctantly following the command of Johnston, is marching toward Jackson and is overrun by the superior forces of Grant. Confident that his original plan to protect Vicksburg was correct, he makes a quick retreat, and his engineers begin a furious construction of defenses.
Following two days of impatient frontal assaults, Grant understands that such a plan will not work. Against his true wishes, he lays out his plan to "starve them out," and begins the great siege that will lead to the collapse of the Confederacy in the Western Theater.
With A CHAIN OF THUNDER, Shaara once again walks a beautiful line between historian and storyteller. As always, he relies on actual diaries and letters of the principal players, lending a true authenticity to the individual voices. Of note, especially, are Lieutenant General John Pemberton and Vicksburg civilian Lucy Spence.
Pemberton has long taken the blame for "selling" Vicksburg to the Union. Shaara was able to utilize Pemberton's long-lost memoir, which never saw publication until 1999, and his view is in stark contrast to the condemning and often cited memoir of his adversary, Joe Johnston. A CHAIN OF THUNDER shows Pemberton as a man loyal to his Confederate cause despite his northern upbringing, constantly troubled by the disrespect shown by his subordinates. Commands are ignored, his station is diminished, and coupled with his sometimes damaging inability to make a decision, his command is eroded up to and including the moment of surrender to Grant on July 4, 1863.
Lucy Spence represents a whole new area for Shaara --- the non-combatant. While he always incorporates an everyman for readers to connect with on the battlefield (here it is Private Fritz "Dutchie" Bauer, carried over from A BLAZE OF GLORY), Lucy marks the first time he has utilized a character caught in the crossfire. Lucy is a 19-year-old resident of Vicksburg, an orphan who experiences the great horrors of war firsthand. Living in caves with a neighbor in order to avoid the bombardment by the Union gunboats, Lucy undertakes to do her part and steps in as a nurse, seeing for herself the gruesome cost of war. Through her, readers experience the increased hardships of the general population of a city under siege, and see her go from an immature and innocent girl who longs for a Louisiana Lieutenant after a dance at a ball, to a young woman shaken by inhumanity. Her ultimate reconnection with that Lieutenant is poignant.
Shaara, quite simply, never fails to deliver a powerful and engrossing tale. The history is real without the dryness of simple nonfiction telling. Opening A CHAIN OF THUNDER is to step into the spring and summer of 1863, and to experience the war in the heat and the sweat and the blood. The writing is picturesque and vibrant, and you can see Grant and Sherman standing together in the rain, chewing unlit cigars as they fume over their failures.
The book hits shelves at the perfect time, for the events of the Siege of Vicksburg are now being commemorated as they reach their 150th year exactly as the book is placed on store shelves. On another note, Shaara has also decided that this current Civil War trilogy is to be expanded to four books. The more the merrier.
In 1986, the US Army Field Manual on Operations lauded Grant's siege of Vicksburg as "the most brilliant campaign ever fought on American soil." This brilliant and valuable victory was overlooked on July 4, 1863, for off in a little town known as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee was retreating in defeat. Now is the perfect time to settle down, take up A CHAIN OF THUNDER, and experience the greatest stepping stone in the career of Ulysses S. Grant, ending on what William T. Sherman would call "The best Fourth of July since 1776."
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on May 24, 2013