REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. — Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a Nov. 10, 1942 speech in the House of Commons, after the British defeat of the German Afrika Corps under Field Marshal Rommel at El Alamein, Egypt.
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Civil War history buffs will argue endlessly about which campaigns represent the “beginning of the end”, in Churchill’s phrase, but I’ll go with Jeff Schaara’s unstated position so beautifully presented in his third new Civil War historical novel, “The Smoke at Dawn: A Novel of the Civil War” (Ballantine Books, 528 pages, $28.00).
This is the latest novel in the series that started with “A Blaze of Glory” in 2012 and continued with “A Chain of Thunder” in 2013. (For my review of Shaara’s “A Blaze of Glory,” about Shiloh:http://www.huntingtonnews.net/33668. For my review of “A Chain of Thunder” about the siege of Vicksburg: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/64494)
The defeat of the Confederates under Gen. Braxton Bragg in the greater Chattanooga, Tenn. area in November 1863 I think represents the beginning of the end for the Confederates, because it paved the way for the battle of Atlanta in 1864 and Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, which definitely signaled the virtual end of a war that killed or wounded more people than all the other wars fought by Americans.
There were many battles after Sherman captured Savannah, GA at the end of 1864, but nobody was under any illusions about the fate of the Confederates, after they were defeated at the battles of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga in November 1863.
Nobody I’ve encountered captures the reality of the war better than Jeff Shaara. who returns to the Civil War terrain he knows so well, with the novel covering the last great push of the Army of the Cumberland. This campaign — perhaps even more than the defeat of the Confederates under Gen. John Bell Hood at Franklin Tenn. at the end of November 1864 — sealed the fate of the Confederate forces. (For more about Hood, see my review of a new book about him: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/88501)
The Federal triumph at Vicksburg, in the summer of 1863, described so movingly in “A Chain of Thunder”, on the same day as the victory by Gen. George Meade over Gen. Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, has secured complete control of the Mississippi River from the Confederacy, cementing the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant. Farther east, the Federal army under the command of William Rosecrans captures the crucial rail hub at Chattanooga.
But “Rosy” is careless, and while pursuing the Confederates, the Federal forces are routed in north Georgia at Chickamauga Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River which winds through Chattanooga. Only the stand of forces commanded by Gen. George H. Thomas — “The Rock of Chicamauga” — prevents a complete rout of the Federals.
The Battle of Missionary Ridge
Retreating in a panic back to Chattanooga, Rosecrans is pursued by the Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg. Penned up, with their supply lines severed, the Federal army seems doomed to the same kind of defeat that plagued the Confederates at Vicksburg.
The tide turns when President Abraham Lincoln has seen enough of Rosecrans, replacing him with Gen. Ulysses Grant to command of the entire theater of the war (he would assume command of the entire Federal army the next year), and immediately replaces Rosecrans with George Thomas, a Virginian who stayed loyal to the oath he gave when he joined the army.
Grant gathers an enormous force, including armies commanded by Joseph Hooker and Grant’s friend, William T.”Cump” Sherman. Grant’s mission is clear: Break the Confederate siege and destroy Bragg’s army. Meanwhile, Bragg wages war as much with his own subordinates as he does with the Federals, creating dissension and disharmony in the Southern ranks, erasing the Confederate army’s superiority at exactly the wrong time. In many ways, Bragg was his own worst enemy.
Blending historical detail with vivid depictions of battle, Jeff Shaara immerses readers in the world of commanders and common soldiers, civilians and statesmen. From the Union side come the voices of Generals Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George Thomas—the vaunted “Rock of Chickamauga”—as well as that of young private Fritz “Dutchie” Bauer, from Milwaukee, along with his friend “Sammie” Willis, newly promoted to lieutenant.
Leading the Confederates are Generals Bragg, Patrick Cleburne, and James Longstreet, as well as the legendary cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest. “The Smoke at Dawn” vividly recreates the climactic months of the war in the West, when the fate of a divided nation truly hangs in the balance.
About the Author
Jeff Shaara is the New York Times bestselling author of “A Chain of Thunder”, “A Blaze of Glory”, “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 Gettysburg, PA.