- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
My vote for the most quotable general of the Civil War goes to William Tecumseh Sherman. He was also a very good commander, as demonstrated in Jeff Shaara’s “A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh” (Ballantine Books, 464 pages), the first of a new trilogy by the bestselling novelist.
Shiloh, fought April 6 – 7, 1862 at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River near where Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama meet, brought together some of the best generals of the war: Ulysses S. Grant, fresh from his victory over the Confederates at Fort Donelson; Sherman, Don Carlos Buell, Lew Wallace, later to gain fame as the author of “Ben Hur”; another Union general, William H.L. Wallace (no relation to Lew), mortally wounded and dead at age 40 at Shiloh; Benjamin Prentiss, a native of Virginia, a non-West Pointer who fought the Mormons in Illinois and later fought in Mexico; (There’s no mention in the book of another native of Virginia, Union Gen. George H. Thomas, later “The Rock of Chicamauga”, who was instrumental in the capture of Corinth, Miss. in late May 1862. Thomas arrived at Shiloh on the second day, April 7, after the fighting was over.) Union “grunts” include Fritz “Dutchie” Bauer, of Milwaukee, a German-American private with the 16th Wisconsin Regiment, his buddy Samuel Willis, and several others.
The Confederate forces at Shiloh were commanded by Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, of Texas, who in 1861 commanded Federal forces in California, resigning his commission when Texas seceded from the Union. Born in 1803 in Kentucky, he was considered by many to be the best general in the Confederacy by President Jefferson Davis He was killed, possibly by a Confederate soldier, on the first day of the battle — the highest ranking officer killed on both sides of the 1861-1865 conflict that remains the bloodiest war in the nation’s history, with an estimated 620,000 deaths on both sides. In an irony of history, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was also killed by “friendly fire” the following year at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.
Other outstanding Confederate officers in Shaara’s book include P.G.T. Beauregard of Louisiana; Braxton Bragg, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and — representing the Confederate “grunts” — cavalry lieutenant James Seeley.
I particularly like how Shaara toggles between the actions of the generals on both sides, and the ghastly events of the war as experienced by the “grunts,”making the historical novel (with the emphasis on historical) well rounded. Even though Shaara advises the reader in his “To The Reader” to read historians Shelby Foote and Jim McPherson if you want a detailed history of the Battle of Shiloh, I think even those eminent historians would recommend “A Blaze of Glory” to the general reader.
Shaara includes twelve maps in his book; unfortunately the first map, on Page xxiii bears in the legend “Confederate Defensive Lines, January 1861”; it should be “January 1862”. I notified the publisher of this error and Shaara graciously acknowledged the error and thanked me; it will be corrected in future printings, he said.
The war wasn’t going well for the Confederacy in the Western Front in early 1862: After Confederate forces were defeated by Grant at Fort Donelson on Feb. 16, 1862, Johnston’s reputation suffered because he was accused of poor judgment in his choice of Brig. Gens. Lloyd Tilghman and John B. Floyd as commanders. Union Maj. General Don Carlos Buell captured the key city of Nashville, forcing the Confederates to abandon Tennessee and retreat to the railroad center of Corinth, Miss.
On his way to defeat the Confederate forces, Grant and his commanders set up a campground at Pittsburg Landing, anchored by a humble church called Shiloh. Sherman refuses to believe intelligence reports that Johnston will emerge from Corinth and attack the strategic encampment in force, which he does on April 6, 1862. Beauregard prematurely believes the rout of the Union forces resulted in a Confederate victory. On April 7 — reinforced by fresh troops led by Lew Wallace and Buell — Sherman and Grant are of a different opinion and they counterattack, forcing the Confederates to retreat to Corinth. In an afterword, Shaara describes the pursuit of the fleeing Confederate forces, as well as what happens to the major characters in the book.
“A Blaze of Glory” is a stunning achievement by an outstanding writer. I recommend it to anyone interested in the Civil War. It’s a vivid portrayal of the horrors of industrialized warfare, and it’s not for the faint of heart, with its graphic descriptions of killing and wounding.
About the Author
Jeff Shaara is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Final Storm”, “No Less Than Victory”, “The Steel Wave”, “The Rising Tide”, “To the Last Man”, “The Glorious Cause”, “Rise to Rebellion”, and “Gone for Soldiers”, as well as “Gods and Generals” and “The Last Full Measure” — two novels that complete the Civil War trilogy that began with his father’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classic, “The Killer Angels”. Shaara was born into a family of Italian immigrants in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, and graduated from Florida State University. He lives in Tallahassee. Website:www.JeffShaara.com.
Publisher’s website: www.ballantinebooks.com