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AN EXCITING NOVEL ABOUT A LITTLE KNOWN CIVIL WAR CAMPAIGN
on May 2, 2012
This is the fourth novel by Shaara that I've reviewed, one for a journal and three on Amazon. I've read his father's The Killer Angels and all but one of Jeff Shaara's war novels, and generally have enjoyed them. Some are better than others (especially Gone for Soldiers, 2000, which is about the Mexican War), but all are good reads. That's what this book is -a good read, which will appeal to the legion of devotees of Civil War battles. It's the first in a projected trilogy of novels about the neglected Civil War campaigns in the West.
The battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) was the first major battle in the West. As horrific as the Battle of Bull Run (July 1861) was in the East, with sixty thousand combatants and five thousand casualties, it pales in scale beside Shiloh -100,000 soldiers faced off against each other there and 24,000 of them paid the price in death or injury. But the politicians and reporters were in the East, not the West, and no Matthew Brady or Alexander Gardner to record the devastation left by battle on film. In short, it's good to have this novelization of the campaign by Shaara, who has proven his competency in recording such battles. It reminds us both how important the campaign was and how fragile a triumph over defeat can be.
The campaign produced its heroes. When the rebel commander, Albert Sidney Johnson, was wounded, he didn't realize how serious his injury was and bled to death on the battlefield. His subordinate, the arrogant, self-centered Pierre Beauregard, replaced him and made absolutely the wrong decision, throwing away the victory that Johnson was on the verge of winning by ordering the rebel troops to stand down for the night and rest. What could have been a rout of the Federal Army was reversed. Fresh troops arrived to reinforce the battered Yankees and the Confederates were forced back, beginning a long, slow, painful retreat to more southerly lands. Federal generals Grant and Sherman come off well in this novel, as do many of the lesser known players in the conflict.
The novel's weaknesses are two: the two lesser characters -a Yankee foot soldier and a Confederate cavalry sergeant--come across as stock types more than flesh and blood and Shaara shifts narrative focus among too many characters: it's difficult to become invested in them. These are minor criticisms, though, in a generally successful novel that captures both the grand strategy of the battle, the confusions that derailed or transformed it, and the reality of on-the-ground combat with its many false starts and moments of terror.