The Smoke at Dawn
Jeff Shaara wrote his first two Civil War books as a continuation of his late father Michael’s inspired Gettysburg novel, The Killer Angels. The book under review is the third of a projected set of four novels about the Western theater of the war, in this case the battles around Chattanooga. Each chapter is from the point of view of an individual, alternating between Confederate and Union generals and one Union sniper. By showing fragments of the whole picture, Shaara builds suspense, always difficult to sustain in historical fiction where the outcome is known. The conflict is most intense between officers on the same side, especially between Confederate commanding general the petty, paranoid Benjamin Bragg, and the subordinate he despises, the headstrong James Longstreet. On the Union side, the unassuming leadership of Ulysses Grant results in greater coordination, but the battle is ultimately won by rank and file troops like Fritz Bauer, a deadly sniper. Day by day accounts of troop movements, battles, and communications with Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln accumulate to give dramatic perspective.
All the characters are real people whose diaries and letters have been impressively researched and brilliantly combined. Normally I would contend that reading historical fiction to learn history is no more useful than reading mystery novels to understand homicide investigations, but the Shaara novels are an exception. They promote an understanding of the military history of America’s bloodiest war, the central event in United States history. Recommended.