The Smoke at Dawn, by Jeff Shaara *****

thesmokeatdawnI hungered for this book! I am a great fan of Shaara’s work. I didn’t get the ARC, but Seattle Public Library came through. Had it not done so, this is one of the very few books for which I would have paid full jacket price.

Shaara writes historical fiction about American wars, sometimes in the form of trilogies, and here he wraps up a trilogy on the Western campaign of the American Civil War. The scenario: Rosecrans, the Union officer who heads the Army of the Cumberland, has had a strong victory followed by a stunning defeat. First he used brilliant gamesmanship and planning to attack and take Chattanooga; this went largely unnoticed by the press, which was beside itself, understandably, over the twin victories of Vicksburg and Gettsburg. But then, unfortunately, Rosecrans pushed his luck too far, getting his ass kicked and a lot of good men dead at Chickamauga. The result was that he ran like hell, dug himself in, and refused to go forth again. Unfortunately, the Confederate troops led by Braxton Bragg cornered him and he was besieged. When Grant was given overall command of armies in the west, he was asked to choose whether to keep Rosecrans in place, or send him packing and promote George Thomas. He chose the latter.

Shaara is generally brilliant at crafting character based upon the historical record. I found Bragg to be almost a caricature—and hell, for all I know, maybe he didn’t have many good characteristics from which to draw; I haven’t studied him much. Grant is portrayed with warmth in a way that sits right with me; the same holds true for Sherman. Thomas has always been something of an enigma, and he clearly is for Shaara also. Sherman and Grant both said in their memoirs that he was slow. (My own memory of Sherman’s is a letter to Grant in which he says, “We both know Thomas is a little slow,” and I sensed irony and understatement in his tone). Yet other historians swear that he was in fact misunderstood. Shaara gives him the benefit of the doubt while allowing for some ambiguity.

I read my copy digitally, and I was pleased at the way I was able to zoom important maps that made it much more possible to see what troops were moving where.

The most controversial aspect, judging from what other reviewers have said about this trilogy, is the creation of Bauer. When I have wanted to confer 4.5 stars on one of his novels in this series, I round up, and it is for Bauer that I do so. Bauer is the only character that is entirely fictional, but Shaara chose to create him to represent that nameless, faceless soldier who represented the vast number of those who bore the greatest burden. They didn’t become famous or have their belongings shown in museums. It’s rare to find a foot soldier’s whole story. Some kept journals, but these were often lost during a battle, scuttled during a hard march when everything non-essential got tossed on the road, or drenched in rain or during a river crossing. No journalist ever followed a humble private around to record his experiences and opinions. For his effort to include the every-man in spite of the flack he would endure from the purists among his readership, I give Shaara high marks.

Next up: Shaara will tackle Sherman’s march through Georgia, through the flames of Atlanta, to the sea. This is my favorite part of the whole thing, and I am excited as I look forward to reading it.

If you enjoy historical fiction based on the American Civil War, and especially if you do not harbor any cherished sentiments toward the dead lost “Cause”, you can’t go wrong with this one. Historical fiction at its best, from a master of the genre.

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