The Smoke at Dawn: A Novel of the Civil War
It is September 1863. The Union forces have been riding the crest of a wave after the glorious victories at both Gettysburg and Vicksburg, but that is coming undone under hesitant leadership in the Eastern Theater and with the defeat of General Rosecrans at the Battle of Chickamauga. With a soft retreat back towards Chattanooga, Tennessee, Rosecrans tries to devise a plan to fortify the city and feed his men while the Confederates under the command of General Braxton Bragg pursue with little intent.
Bragg is having a devil of a time with his own subordinates, particularly Nathan Bedford Forrest and General James Longstreet. In fact, the majority of his men have begun to doubt his worthiness as a leader in light of his inability to aggressively engage Rosecrans and defeat him. Instead, his attentions are turned inward, looking to ferret out the ne'er-do-wells and exact as much revenge upon them as his station will allow. One thing in his favor, however, is that Confederate President Jefferson Davis is firmly supportive.
No such support exists for Union General Rosecrans, however. His men and the horses and livestock are starving. Confederate cavalry have raided his supply lines. While he is planning action, he does not take any, which leaves him sitting in a tenuous position. Further West, after continuing a string of successes, General Ulysses S. Grant has been met by the Secretary of War and offered command of all forces of the Western Theater.
"THE SMOKE AT DAWN is a beautifully written novel about a battle usually ignored.... Shaara once again elevates history from mere rote fact to explosive and engaging drama."
Accepting the position, Grant removes Rosecrans, promotes General George Thomas, and secures the position of Commander of the Army of the Tennessee for his trusted companion, General George T. Sherman. Sherman begins to march his men towards Chattanooga, but he is a broken man. His nine-year-old son, Willie, contracted typhoid fever and died in Memphis while the family was visiting. Willie was Sherman's personal favorite of all of his children; the loss of his boy would haunt him for the rest of his life, and he would repeatedly place the blame on himself. He throws himself into his charge with the ghost of his son lingering in his heart.
It is under these conditions that Jeff Shaara once again brings us face to face with the individuals and the brutal violence of the Civil War in his exemplary novel, THE SMOKE AT DAWN. Being the third installment of his most recent series, one illustrating the oft-overlooked conflicts of the Western Theater, Shaara delivers into the hands of readers another beautifully evocative book, one that details the blood and the brawn of the armies engaged in combat at Chattanooga and also brings the individual men to the fore.
History is replete with larger-than-life heroes --- generals who ride tall on great steeds and who direct men to their deaths in order to secure victory. Rarely in those histories are the lives and words and thoughts of those men used in conjunction with battlefield facts and figures to tell a story. Shaara, however, is a master at just such a task, weaving the lives and personal situations of the men into the arc of the tale so that, in addition to the action on the page, you glean an understanding into how and why decisions may have been made.
Through his use of researched notes, letters, diaries and memoirs, Shaara delivers the horrors of war in full color. The blood, the grime and the sickness are all on display here, and the effects they leave are harrowing. He also casts light on the webs of discord that wrap around both sides engaged in the conflict --- the constant infighting, the distrust, the hesitation, the failures in judgment. What Shaara makes blatantly clear is that the battle at Chattanooga, and the larger war in effect, is not merely dashes of blue and gray on a map, a simple clash of armies. It is, rather, a story of men, and how each choice made by them, under pressures great and small, factor into the shifting fog of history as it is being written.
As with his previous installments, Shaara brings us the heavy hitters, the men of history: Grant, Sherman, Bragg, Thomas, Forrest and Longstreet. He reduces them from revered statues to mere men, laying their thoughts, words, ideas, plans, decisions and indecisions on every page. And as we've grown accustomed, Shaara's everyman, Wisconsin soldier Fritz "Dutchie" Bauer, makes his way through the story, the common man like us who is the touchstone for readers in seeing the war from the field, through the eyes of a simple man.
THE SMOKE AT DAWN is a beautifully written novel about a battle usually ignored. The historical details and the personal examinations fuse perfectly --- with the raw power of the battle meshed hand-in-hand with the inner struggle of the men who determine the fates of others and of nations. Shaara once again elevates history from mere rote fact to explosive and engaging drama.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on June 13, 2014