Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"The Smoke at Dawn" -- A Review of Sorts

Jeff Shaara's latest project is a four-part series about the Western Theater of the Civil War. After books on Shiloh and Vicksburg, his latest book, The Smoke at Dawn, focuses on the battles for Chattanooga.

By my count, I've read eleven Shaara books, beginning with his father Michael's The Killer Angels, so you can put me down as a fan of the Shaara formula. He delves into memoirs, letters, and other sources to get a handle on the personalities of the participants and uses that to reconstruct historical events. If you're a fan of the formula, The Smoke at Dawn is more of the same.

The Shaara books have always given me a fuller understanding of the strategy and tactics of whatever war or battle the particular book is focused on. This book was the exception, not because of any lack on Shaara's part -- he does a fine job of explaining a very complex campaign -- but because I was already quite familiar with this particular subject.

The highest praise I can give The Smoke at Dawn is, with the exception of just a couple of scenes, I thought he was spot-on with his descriptions and reenactments. Anyone reading this book should come away with a good understanding of this complex campaign.

Just a few criticisms:

I was flabbergasted that Shaara began the book by reducing the Chickamauga Campaign to just a few paragraphs in the introduction. Understanding what happened at Chickamauga is key to understanding just why the Union's situation at Chattanooga in the fall of 1863 was so dire. A chapter with Thomas on Horseshoe Ridge with the Union army's destruction imminent would have made it a better book. But then again, delving more deeply into Chickamauga would have made a lengthy book much longer.

Also, I was surprised that such an exciting, interesting incident as Wheeler's raid on the Union supply line was barely mentioned, mainly as a device to show how panicky Rosecrans was long after Chickamauga. But then again, none of Shaara's main characters were present at the raid.

And on that subject, I thought Shaara did an excellent job of capturing the personalities of all the participants of the campaign with the exception of Rosecrans. I think he relied too much on the accounts of Rosecrans's detractors, portraying him as panicked, sort of shell-shocked long after Chickamauga, and not enough on others who were there. For a more measured account of Rosecrans's demeanor see Glenn Tucker's Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West. But then again, this is one of those debates that has gone on among historians ever since the battle. Shaara and I just come down on different sides of the debate.

In his book on Vicksburg, A Chain of Thunder, Shaara delved into the lives of the civilians that were caught up in the siege through the character of Lucy Spence. Surprisingly, Shaara almost completely ignored the civilians of Chattanooga, except for one character commenting on how destitute they looked and a somewhat humorous incident involving a fictional civilian selling fraudulent cartes de viste of Grant. A civilian character, such as the Rev. Thomas McCallie, would have enhanced the book.

I also thought the book suffered from a lack of maps, and the few maps he did include were rather poorly drawn and labeled. This was surprising because this is usually a strong point of any of Shaara's books.

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