Jeff Shaara on his new novel about the siege of Vicksburg: A Chain of Thunder
When you follow someone’s career for years, it’s hard not to develop your own impression of what that person is like. That becomes doubly so if you admire them too. When I learned that I’d be doing a phone interview with Jeff Shaara, I was both thrilled and nervous. Thrilled for the opportunity. Nervous because he’s one of the biggest names in American military fiction, with each of his ten novels spending time on the New York Times bestsellers list. I was also nervous with the understanding that my impressions of the man would either be confirmed or shattered. What I found in Shaara was a humble, eager, enthusiastic, and thoroughly friendly man. He not only emerged unscathed in my image, but became that much more worthy of my fandom.
A Chain of Thunder, his second in his Civil War series that covers the western campaigns, came out this May. Though it weighs in at a meaty 592 pages, each one is packed with Shaara at his best. It follows the siege of Vicksburg, from the campaigns that led to it and through its conclusion. As he has done with each of his novels, we get the story through the perspective of several individuals. On the Union side we have Grant, Sherman, and Bauer, each continuing from the first book, A Blaze of Glory. On the Confederate side we see the siege unfold through the eyes of General Pemberton and Lucy Spence.
The interview began with my wondering what has brought him back to the Civil War. He began there, but has since written about the American Revolution, the Mexican-American War, WWI, and WWII. What brought him back to his roots?
“Two reasons. One, the sesquicentennial has brought an enormous amount of attention, with reenactment groups, historians, and tourists, people coming to Gettysburg. Gettysburg typically gets about a million and a half people per year. This year they’re expecting 4 million. That’s quite a burst of renewed interest. The other reason is that I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten from people in Tennessee and Mississippi.” Those letters wrote of their frustration with how little attention the war west of the Appalachian Mountains gets. So he began researching those campaigns and hit upon the notion of writing about the Battle of Shiloh, which was the center piece of book one of his new series. “Of course I had heard of Shiloh. But even a lot of Civil War buffs don’t realize what happened there, how important it was to the outcome of the war. That got me excited.”
Shaara is often approached by educators and parents interested in using his novels to teach their students and children. That’s because one of Shaara’s hallmarks is his focus on the true story. None of his lead characters are fictional. The details are all true. Despite that, his novels always focus on the story, on the people. “I don’t write text books. I don’t like names, dates, places, facts, and figures, and so I wanted to find people. On the Union side I focused on the character of Sherman. What a great character! Of course a lot of people despise the man, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a great character.” From there it became a matter of mapping out Sherman’s course through the war, with all the men he fights with and against. “There’s another whole cast of characters that very few people write about, that very few people know about. It starts for me with the voices, with the people. If I can’t find interesting people to take you with me and get in their heads, it’s not going to be much of a story.”
When it comes to storytelling, one quality about his writing is how clean it is. I use that word with the understanding that these are bloody war novels. But it’s never gratuitous. Moreover, he steers clear of vulgar language and sexual content. “I began to hear from teachers who were using my books to teach 15-16 year olds, and then I began to meet their parents, at places like Gettysburg, where people would ask me this question, ‘is your book appropriate for my child?’ It’s not that I’m clean, it’s not that I’m sanitized. It’s this: if I can’t tell you a good story without having to resort to that kind of shock value, I’m not a very good writer. Foul language and sex don’t add anything to the story. In some ways it takes away from the story, because it becomes a distraction to the reader. I think some writers make the mistake of thinking that the more graphic they are the more visceral the story, and the better they’ll reach the audience. To me that’s like pounding the audience over the head and insulting their intelligence.”
One thing that struck me time and again during the interview is how often Shaara uses the words horror, horrifying, horrible, etc. He pulls no punches when it comes to the details of combat. He just doesn’t revel in it. War stories are his passion, because of the human drama. With that in mind, I came back to why he feels the story of the siege of Vicksburg needs to be told.
“First of all, I feel bad for the people of Vicksburg, the park rangers and so forth. This July is their 150th too. Vicksburg and Gettysburg take place at exactly the same time. Vicksburg falls to Grant’s forces, and thirty thousand Confederate soldiers surrender to him on July 4th, 1863. The day before, was Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Gettysburg is within a 100 miles of the major media centers of the East, whether it’s Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Richmond. Vicksburg is sort of out in the middle of nowhere. So, where do you think all the newspapermen are? They’re in Gettysburg. I maintain, and I’ll debate this with anyone, that what happened at Vicksburg was in many ways more important than what happened at Gettysburg. I think a lot of people don’t realize that. Now, that’s no insult to Gettysburg. I’m in Gettysburg right now. I spend a lot of time here. I love it here. But historically what happens at Vicksburg I think is very often overlooked. And not only that, it’s a good story.”
The story of Vicksburg is compelling. It’s made all the more so by Shaara’s decision to include the narrative of a civilian for the first time in any of his novels. She’s a young woman named Lucy Spence, a citizen of Vicksburg. I asked him how he came to choose her. “I have four diaries or memoirs of women in Vicksburg during the siege. I have the accounts of what it was like living in a cave, what is was like eating rat stew— they called it squirrel stew for the sake of the euphemism. And what it was like eating the mules. And of course the shelling. The shelling is the source of the title of the book, the thunder aspect, because there was shelling every single day. These people have to endure that. It wasn’t safe to be in your own home. All of that, combined, that’s a big part of the story. It’s not just about soldiers shooting at each other. There’s a lot more to it.”
I mentioned earlier that he keeps his books clean. Again, with the understanding that this is a war novel. Lucy Spence’s experience among the wounded Confederate soldiers is anything but clean. It’s grueling. “I really struggled with that. I don’t like to go there just to be graphic, or just because I can. But in this case, when you’ve got a girl who’s fairly innocent and suddenly finds herself in that setting, in that situation, with her hands deep inside of young men, that is something that needed to be brought to the story.” Lucy’s character arc is striking, as is her development throughout the novel.
So is the story of Bauer and Willis, both frontline soldiers fighting for the Union. In his earlier books the story is told from the top down, focusing on the generals. But when he got to WWI, he “realized the generals are now ten miles behind the front lines. To tell the story from just the generals’ points of view is not much of a story. I realized I needed to use that guy out there. I needed the grunt, the guy out there with the rifle in his hands.” In returning to the Civil War, he made the same call. “First of all, I wanted to make this series different from the first trilogy. I didn’t want people to think I was just going back and rehashing the same story, just putting it in a different location. It is very different to look at the point of view of the kid with the musket in his hands, looking at someone with a bayonet and telling that story. You used to struggle to find firsthand accounts. But now I can go online and in a week I have a research library. People have discovered letters in the attic, and a lot of that has been published. That’s where the characters come from. The relationship between the Bauer and Willis is really something that’s one of those things I can’t explain.
“Sometimes the story just sort of goes in its own direction. That’s what I call—I hate to sound mystical or anything, because I’m not—it’s what I call the magic. It’s the fun of writing, when the characters take me somewhere. I know historically they’re over here, they’re doing this, this happens on such and such a date. But then when I get into it, things happen that I don’t expect, and they go in different directions. I’ve done the research, and I know about what happened, and about the specific event, but how that gets incorporated into the story, and how the relationship develops between the men happens by itself. I know that sounds weird. But I think anybody who has done any writing understands that there are those moments when the story is telling itself. I will go back the next day and look at what I wrote yesterday, and not remember writing it. Wow, where did this come from? That’s the magic, and that’s the fun of writing.”
But beyond the magic, Shaara is out to tell a true story. “How I portray the story is accurate historically, and that’s really important to me. Because if I play games with that kind of thing, if I create things that didn’t really exist, such as personalities and relationships, my book loses credibility, and deserves to. Yes, it’s a novel, because there’s dialogue and you’re in the heads of the characters, and that has to be called fiction, but I’m trying to give as accurate an account as I can.”
The accuracy of his stories is paramount to Shaara. So much so that he’s keen to set the record straight when it needs it. One of these issues is the debate over whether or not Grant was ever drunk while on duty. The primary source we have of Grant’s drunkenness comes from Cadwallader, a newspaper reporter on the scene at Vicksburg. Shaara is eager to take up Grant’s defense. “I’m sorry, but there’s not a single piece of evidence anywhere that Grant was ever drunk on the battlefield, ever. And I’m proud to say it. And Charles Dana tosses that out, and of course Sherman tosses that out. But when Cadwallader’s book is published in the mid 1950s, after everybody’s dead, some people embrace that. But Grant is not this buffoon drunkard who’s always falling over himself. He’s just not. People ask me, who’s the greatest general of the war? Well, that’s mine right there, Ulysses Grant. It’s really important for me to get that right, to make sure I’m accurate.”
In A Chain of Thunder we are given moments of quietude, moments that play out the drama with their surreal nature. We see this in Bauer’s interactions with Southerners whose plantations he has to scour for supplies. We also see it when cease-fires are called so both sides can collect their casualties, or at night at the picket lines. I asked him about those interactions between soldiers from opposite sides.
“First of all, you hand a kid a musket, you send him out on the parade ground, you teach him all this stuff, then you put him in battle. Bauer’s in Shiloh, which is a horrific experience, he’s looking at the enemy killing his friends, he’s looking at the man he’s killing, suddenly they’re out there [during a cease fire], ‘Hey you’ve got a newspaper, I’ve got tobacco, here’s coffee,’ and they’re chatting. It’s a fairly common thing the more the war goes on. I’m doing research for the new book, which is on Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain, and there it’s even more pronounced, the pickets actually arrange a truce—the officers aren’t even involved. They just decide, you don’t shoot at me, I’m not going to shoot at you, and by the way I’ve got some coffee. They go out literally every night and have these conversations. By late 1863, the officers start to look the other way. Think of everything that’s happened up to that point, a lot of the soldiers are saying this has gone on long enough, we’re done with this. They’re looking at the guy across from them, and they’re tired of this, we’ve seen too much of it. And the veterans, people like Bauer and Willis, they begin to see that this is someone else’s idea, not theirs. It is surreal. But it’s accurate. It’s true. It’s also human.”
Historical research always unearths gems like that. I asked what other surprises he came across. “That’s what’s fun about the research. For instance, I didn’t know just what the civilians had gone through. When I wrote about the battle of Fredericksburg, the civilians leave. Robert E. Lee tells them to get out, and they do. Civilians don’t even play a role there. At Vicksburg, they’re given the opportunity to leave, and they don’t. They think they’re impregnable.”
Another surprise was the brilliance of Grant’s campaign. “We have always heard that the Germans invented the blitzkrieg—it’s a German word and all that. No, actually Grant invented the blitzkrieg, though they didn’t call it that. What Grant does in Mississippi, in crossing the Mississippi, in the battle of Raymond, and going into Jackson and on Champion Hill and Big Black River, that’s remarkable. Generals and military people all over the world after the Civil War refer to that. They refer to it at West Point. It’s one of the most remarkable campaigns ever waged. That was a huge surprise to me.”
Other surprises await the reader at the end of each novel, where Shaara tells what happens to the characters after the close of the story, assuming the character isn’t going to appear in the next book. I asked him if there were surprises in the afterwards he researched. “From both the North and South a lot of the generals and the engineers and some of the senior people ended up serving in foreign militaries. One went to Romania, one went to Turkey. Many end up in Egypt. Once the Civil War is over in this country, we’re pretty much done with war for a while. There are the Indian wars that happen out west in the 1870s, but pretty much in this country we don’t have a war again until the Spanish-American War, which is thirty five years later. A lot of these guys were career soldiers left with very little to do. So when someone from Egypt or wherever it might be approaches them, they jump at the opportunity, because that’s what they’re good at. Just look at what happens to Stonewall Jackson and Grant in the 1850s when they leave the army. They can’t handle it. They can’t handle peace. Jackson is the best example of that. He’s miserable. Imagine after the Civil War, Jackson would have been one of those people who, had he lived, would have jumped at the chance to do something in the military. It sounds odd, when you first read it, surreal. Egypt? But yeah, the opportunity was there, and they jumped at it.”
When A Blaze of Glory first came out, it was described as book one of a trilogy focusing on the war in the west. But now, with this second novel, we find that the series is four books long. “I began looking at the third of the trilogy and realized that it’s Sherman from Atlanta through the March to the Sea. Now, to me, the March is a terrific story, but it’s not the whole story. I wanted to go through the Carolinas, the end of the war with Joe Johnston. That was always going to be the final book of the series. Then I realized I’m skipping all of Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, and the approach to Atlanta. I was also skipping Chickamauga, and Nashville, and Franklin, and all of that, but that’s five books. I can’t do all of that. People are going to get mad at me, and I’ve learned to live with that. But there’s too much history there to skip. I can’t just take Sherman from Vicksburg and plant him in Atlanta without talking about how he got there.”
I’m always eager to learn what an author wants his readers to get out of his book, what his purpose was in writing it. Shaara’s purpose is true to the best of storytellers. “Something my father taught his creative writing students at Florida State is that if you’re going to do anything like this, tell a good story. It has to start with that. At the end of the day I want you to feel something. These are people. This is us. This is our story. It is emotional, and it is something I hope will stick with you.”
It is something that will stick with you. I’ve come to a better understanding of so many historical figures because of Shaara’s work. I’ve learned details and character qualities that just don’t come out in textbook accounts of the wars. I can recall vivid scenes from each of his novels, each a scene that will stick with me. The fact that I close each book with a better understanding of the historical narrative is just a side benefit.
Posted by Richard Lee