55 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2013
Jeff Shaara has returned to the Civil War with this second novel of what has evolved into a four part series following the campaigns in the west. A Chain of Thunder takes us through the build-up and conclusion of the Siege of Vicksburg, one of the most important victories for the Union forces. Unfortunately, the simultaneous victory at Gettysburg overshadows it. With this novel, Shaara hopes to change that.
We follow Grant, Sherman, and Bauer--all characters from A Blaze of Glory--for the Union, and Pemberton and Lucy Spence for the Confederates. Unlike his previous Civil War novels, Shaara has taken a practice he developed in his WWI and WWII novels and given us the perspective of the front line fighter. And for the first time in any of his novels, he includes a civilian as one of his primary characters. Lucy Spence is one of the many citizens of Vicksburg, and her experiences are gripping and powerful.
Fans of military fiction should read this, for we learn of Grant's brilliant campaign in Mississippi. Students of the Civil War should read this to better understand that there was more to the war that what happened in the east. Fans of good fiction should read it for its gripping story. That's what Shaara focuses on. Though he writes true history, his purpose is to draw out the human drama.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2013
In 2011, the United States began commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Reenactments and memorial events have taken place across the north and south, and bookstores have seen a major influx of everything from battlefield picture books to shelf-busting quantities of biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, abolitionist John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Fiction has seen its share of work as well, but none as anticipated as A CHAIN OF THUNDER by Jeff Shaara.
It is April 1863, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant is eager to capture the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy" --- the key city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Union forces already control the Mississippi River to the north and have seized New Orleans. Taking Vicksburg allows them complete and unmolested access to the river, securing the western theater and allowing for ease of movement for troops, munitions and food lines. It also cripples the Confederacy. The problem is taking the city. Grant has already been repulsed once before, and coupled with the debacle at Shiloh the year prior, there are those in Washington and in the field who are maneuvering to have him removed from command.
William T. Sherman and James B. McPherson remain loyal and tenacious companions, but General McClernand has a penchant for stopping his marches to make speeches about the glorious successes of his men. Grant is growing weary of McClernand's vanity, as is Sherman. He believes that McClernand is working in concert with Charles Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War who has been sent to "observe" Grant's command. He also believes that Sylvanus Cadwallader, a newspaper reporter allowed in Grant's camp, is part of the plot to have Grant removed.
As if the drama with these men were not enough, the contempt between Confederate Generals John Pemberton and Joe Johnston exceeds the Union squabbles. Pemberton is frustrated that Johnston has taken the majority of the cavalry and utilized them --- unnecessarily --- in Tennessee in support of Braxton Bragg. Meanwhile, Union cavalry led by Benjamin Grierson has been destroying rail lines and communications lines, and has evaded capture at every turn. Without cavalry, Pemberton is blind to the movements of Grant's forces. He believes that Grierson is a distraction, keeping forces focused on his meddlesome raids while Grant places Sherman and his other men in a position to strike at Vicksburg.
Johnston thinks that the raids are nothing but a cavalry having a bit of fun and amounts to nothing substantial. He continually ignores Pemberton's requests for cavalry and troop supports at Vicksburg. Like much of the Confederate force in Mississippi, he does not trust Pemberton, who is a Pennsylvania man, a northerner, which makes him suspect.
As the two men squabble back and forth in couriered messages, Grant marches on the capital city of Jackson. Johnston, who has a considerably smaller force, flees and allows it to fall into Union hands. Grant, however, cares not for Jackson, and his men begin the march on the prime target of Vicksburg. Pemberton, reluctantly following the command of Johnston, is marching toward Jackson and is overrun by the superior forces of Grant. Confident that his original plan to protect Vicksburg was correct, he makes a quick retreat, and his engineers begin a furious construction of defenses.
Following two days of impatient frontal assaults, Grant understands that such a plan will not work. Against his true wishes, he lays out his plan to "starve them out," and begins the great siege that will lead to the collapse of the Confederacy in the Western Theater.
With A CHAIN OF THUNDER, Shaara once again walks a beautiful line between historian and storyteller. As always, he relies on actual diaries and letters of the principal players, lending a true authenticity to the individual voices. Of note, especially, are Lieutenant General John Pemberton and Vicksburg civilian Lucy Spence.
Pemberton has long taken the blame for "selling" Vicksburg to the Union. Shaara was able to utilize Pemberton's long-lost memoir, which never saw publication until 1999, and his view is in stark contrast to the condemning and often cited memoir of his adversary, Joe Johnston. A CHAIN OF THUNDER shows Pemberton as a man loyal to his Confederate cause despite his northern upbringing, constantly troubled by the disrespect shown by his subordinates. Commands are ignored, his station is diminished, and coupled with his sometimes damaging inability to make a decision, his command is eroded up to and including the moment of surrender to Grant on July 4, 1863.
Lucy Spence represents a whole new area for Shaara --- the non-combatant. While he always incorporates an everyman for readers to connect with on the battlefield (here it is Private Fritz "Dutchie" Bauer, carried over from A BLAZE OF GLORY), Lucy marks the first time he has utilized a character caught in the crossfire. Lucy is a 19-year-old resident of Vicksburg, an orphan who experiences the great horrors of war firsthand. Living in caves with a neighbor in order to avoid the bombardment by the Union gunboats, Lucy undertakes to do her part and steps in as a nurse, seeing for herself the gruesome cost of war. Through her, readers experience the increased hardships of the general population of a city under siege, and see her go from an immature and innocent girl who longs for a Louisiana Lieutenant after a dance at a ball, to a young woman shaken by inhumanity. Her ultimate reconnection with that Lieutenant is poignant.
Shaara, quite simply, never fails to deliver a powerful and engrossing tale. The history is real without the dryness of simple nonfiction telling. Opening A CHAIN OF THUNDER is to step into the spring and summer of 1863, and to experience the war in the heat and the sweat and the blood. The writing is picturesque and vibrant, and you can see Grant and Sherman standing together in the rain, chewing unlit cigars as they fume over their failures.
The book hits shelves at the perfect time, for the events of the Siege of Vicksburg are now being commemorated as they reach their 150th year exactly as the book is placed on store shelves. On another note, Shaara has also decided that this current Civil War trilogy is to be expanded to four books. The more the merrier.
In 1986, the US Army Field Manual on Operations lauded Grant's siege of Vicksburg as "the most brilliant campaign ever fought on American soil." This brilliant and valuable victory was overlooked on July 4, 1863, for off in a little town known as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee was retreating in defeat. Now is the perfect time to settle down, take up A CHAIN OF THUNDER, and experience the greatest stepping stone in the career of Ulysses S. Grant, ending on what William T. Sherman would call "The best Fourth of July since 1776."
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Jeffrey Shaara has written a number of historical novels focusing on warfare--from the Revolutionary War through World War II. He adopts the approach that his father used so well in "Killer Angels," an historical novel of the battle of Gettysburg. The methods? Select a number of historical characters, from generals to foot soldiers to civilians, to whomever brings a point of view to the story that reveals something about the battle.
Here, the focus is the siege of Vicksburg. The characters? A young woman resident of Vicksburg, giving us a civilian's eye view of the harshness of the conflict on ordinary people. John Pemberton, commander of the Confederate forces at Vicksburg. Fritz Bauer, a Union foot soldier, who gives a soldier's eye view of the siege. Then, Generals Sherman and Grant. By adopting this method, as noted, we get a sense of the many facets of the battle. Lucy Spence's travails, including serving as a nurse in Confederate hospitals, gives a sense of the horrors of the operating room. Her interaction with civilians captures the dire straits facing ordinary citizens of Vicksburg. From Pemberton and Grant and Sherman, we get a larger view as to what is transpiring.
The novel begins on April 16th, recording the movement of Union ships along the Mississippi as they passed under the guns of Vicksburg. This began Grant's remarkable lightning movements leading to the siege. The last entry is on July 6, 1863, as Bauer reflects on the end of the battle. His story began with the first novel from the West authored by Shaara--on the deadly fight at Shiloh. The Confederates, ironically, surrenders on July 4th, after the troops had run so low on food, ammunition, and so on that their doom was obvious.
A nice addition to Shaara's oeuvre. Sometimes, the multi-viewpoint approach loses its power, but it works pretty well here.
38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2013
To a great extent, the historical coverage of Civil War battles east of the Appalachian Mountains has over-shadowed the activities in the Mississippi Basin. Jeff Shaara has gone to some effort to correct this imbalance in a trilogy of historical novels. This book is the second volume in that set.
There are two ways that fiction and history can be merged. The first is to augment the history by adding a fictional patina and the other is essentially the reverse, to write fiction using a historical setting. The purpose of the first is to recreate a past `now' in order to give a visceral depth to an often unemotional historical account. The purpose of the second is purely literary. This book falls into the first category.
Shaara recounts Grant's campaign to control the banks of the Mississippi River by eliminating Vicksburg as a Confederate citadel impeding river traffic. The author attempts to put a human touch (or should I say `inhuman touch') to that campaign by describing it from the perspective of a selection of participants, both North and South. Each chapter is from a particular point of view and bias.
The earlier part of the book covers the movement of forces as Grant encircles the Confederate forces centered on Vicksburg and drives a wedge between that city and Jackson, Mississippi and points east where forces under Joe Johnston pose a threat. Two fictional characters, Lucy Spence, a Vicksburg resident and Union Private Bauer are introduced to provide a conduit for information from their perspective. The later and principle part of the book describes the siege of Vicksburg, the frustration of Union forces unable to breech the city's defenses and the suffering of the defenders and citizens as food stocks are depleted and constant bombardment reduce the city to ruin.
The first part dissatisfied me. The characters, both fictional and true, came across as caricatures and stick figures. Grant, Sherman and Pemberton were without depth and Lucy Spence and Bauer were less than adeptly integrated into the narrative. Maps did provide structure but mainly depicted the position and movement of Corps, so detail was unduly coarse.
Only when the siege was established and operations stagnated does Shaara hit his stride; Lucy's character gels as she matures from girlhood to blood stained starving nurse tending the wounded and Bauer's compassion increasingly tempers his military detachment. The deprivation endured by the besieged is vividly described but does not overwhelm the historical accuracy of the siege tactics actually employed, both offensive and defensive. If I were to surmise about the assembly of the book, I would guess that the early `stage setting' was a late addition and was inadequately infused with Shaara's passion.
A problem I sometimes have with historical fiction is that I cannot always discern the dividing line between history and fiction. This book, unfortunately, greatly blurs that line. Is Lucy real or fiction? By inclusion in the `Afterword', I would assume that she was real; perhaps Lucy McRae identified in the Sources and Acknowledgment section? That is of interest but not determinative. Did Grant intercept Johnston to and from Pemberton messages and either merely use the intelligence or actually interject false orders in order to lead one or the other into a trap? That is of historical interest.
My overall assessment of the book: Above mediocre but less than I expected.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Those familiar with Jeff Shaara's works know that he has carved out a niche for himself in the historical fiction genre, offering his readers books about Americans at war that are neither entirely fiction nor non-fiction. Shaara's research has made his books a fountain of valuable information that provides the less-than-scholarly reader with a good understanding of events without getting bogged down in the minutiae of an in-depth history.
Some of his books rank among my favorite works of historical fiction. Chief among those are the two books based on the American Revolution; 'Rise to Rebellion' and 'The Glorious Cause'.
'A Chain of Thunder', unfortunately, isn't one of Shaara's best works. In his defense it is difficult to write a fast-paced, engaging story about a months-long siege where the main activities are sniping, trench-digging and starvation.
One thing that did fascinate me was Shaara's description of the Confederate commander, Pennsylvania-born General John C. Pemberton, and the difficulties he faced as a Yankee in earning the trust of his own officers.
The bottom line is that this book is moves more slowly than most of the author's other books. The characters aren't as engaging and the story of a siege tends to be as grueling and tedious as a siege itself. That said, those familiar with Shaara's work will likely get what they expect if they choose to read it. I give this three stars for the research and historical diligence.
* The review copy of this book was obtained from the publisher via the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 2013
I mostly read non-fiction history, but I do enjoy novels from time to time, and Jeff Shaara is one of the best historical novelists writing today. Shaara's gripping tales follow the facts surrounding his Civil War settings as much as possible, never taking too much license with the story. His fictionalized dialogue of well known figures like Grant and Sherman are remarkably close to how I had imagined them from my studies. It's easy to see that he studies his subjects meticulously. I love the way he focusses on common people as well as the leading figures. He crafts the dialogue of even the more common characters in his books from careful study of the journals and memoirs of people who were actually there.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2014
Shaara has triumphed in portraying the fog, the carnage, and the politics of war in one of the epic battles of the Civil War from the perspective of the commanders, the front line soldier, and the civilians. Vicksburg was a key strategic position for the Confederates, overlooking the Mississippi River that served as the life's blood of supply for desperately needed resources and trade goods for the South. Its loss, as much as any other position of strength, spelled the ultimate doom for the Cause. There is no doubt that the industrial might of the Union ultimately was responsible for the defeat of the Confederacy, but the inability of the South to hold this strategically important position only hastened the inevitable.
Shaara subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, illustrates what happens when personalities and politics come into conflict. Johnston's enmity toward Pemberton along with his own vainglorious pursuits, let slip the opportunity to turn Grant's flank and save Vicksburg from defeat. Likewise, Pemberton's indecision and lack of courage to act upon his own convictions led to the ultimate disaster.
Grant and Sherman, on the other hand, suffered no such inconsistencies in conviction and were able to set aside politics to get the job done. Lee once said, "To be a good soldier, you must love the army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love." Grant had no illusions about ordering multiple ill-fated assaults that cost a disproportionate number Union lives, but that also cost the defenders of Vicksburg. Sieges are about attrition. Attrition of lives, attrition of supplies, and attrition of the will to continue the fight. Without support, the besieged almost always lose, the civilians suffering the consequences of diminishing food supplies and other necessities right along with the defending soldiers.
A Chain of Thunder is a tale told well at all levels, from Command to the civilian population. It is a great read, and I highly recommend it to the casual reader as well as any student of the Civil War, or any student of strategy and tactics.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Egos and the failure of the Confederate Western High Command.
In his newest historical novel, A chain of Thunder, Jeff Shaara continues his excellent series on the Western theater of the American Civil War. Unlike the Confederate East, where Robert E. Lee had firm control, the Western theater was a hodgepodge of mediocre Confederate Commanders who let their unrestrained egos rule the day. Johnston, Pemberton, Bragg and finally Hood self-destructed Confederate forces in the West through non-coordination of forces, unwieldy strategies, failed tactics, mismanaged logistics, and most of all unrestrained egos. The debacle of the Vicksburg campaign highlighted how the overblown egos of both Generals Pemberton and Johnston led to a siege of Vicksburg that should never have happened and sealed the Confederate fate in the West.
Mr. Shaara does an adequate job of describing not only the military campaign but also the suffering of the civilians during the Siege of Vicksburg from May18-July 4, 1863. His contrasting of Generals Grant and Pemberton leadership styles portends the ultimate failure of the Confederate cause. Although the magnificent fighting spirit of the Southern solider never waned, their Command leadership squandered their heroic efforts. As Mr. Shaara points out, the squabbling between Generals Pemberton and Johnston doomed the Southern cause at Vicksburg and lost the Mississippi to the South.
Mr. Shaara's character development of all actual and fictional characters was superb. As the second novel in a 4 part series it will be very interesting to see how he continues to develop the fictional characters.
No gratuitous sex, language or violence. All trademarks of Jeff Shaara novels.
Strong recommend. Disclaimer: I enjoy sagas immensely--especially the historical fiction kind. So my recommendation is skewed. Still, Mr. Shaara is a master storyteller in the historical fiction genre. Sure, he gets a few minor things questionably wrong, but overall he has done his homework and his books display this. Looking forward to his next Civil War novel which I'm told will be about the Chattanooga theater: Do I hear a Confederate victory at Chickamauga in the works?? And can Patrick Cleburne, my favorite General, be making an appearance? Hope so! Enjoy, Mr. Shaara is a master!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2013
This is the second of a trilogy about the Civil War in the West. After reading the previous book, "A Blaze of Glory" about the battle of Shiloh, I couldn't wait for this one to come out. Now I can't wait for the last installment about the battle for Atlanta. Consistency is the greatest feature that the author Jeff Shaara can give his reader. The minor details, the emotions, the politics and the personalities are key elements that go into making these books great by Shaara. They are written in an omnipresent view with the reader inside the minds of U.S. Grant, the Union commander, General John Pemberton the Confederate commander, Fritz Bauer, a common Union foot soldier from Wisconsin, and Lucy Spence, a civilian from the city of Vicksburg. If you want to know history and find it usually boring to read about facts and figures, than this book will counter that. All of Shaara's books are historical fiction - meaning they are based on actual people and facts, the only reason they are found in fiction section, is because of his style of writing. All the details you need to know about a war or battle are there in the pages, they are only presented in a manner that makes them very entertaining. If there is one criticism about the book it is whereas the battles like Shiloh or Gettysburg tend to give a lot of action, the siege of Vicksburg is just a waiting game and does not lend itself to plenty of action. I feel that the part of a civilian Lucy Spence makes up for that. Lucy is young and strong-willed surrounded by men and becomes a nurse to aid at the hospitals. She is nothing like a Southern Belle you would expect. The town's people have an opinion about a young single woman living all alone and during a siege there are more views. She is a great character that actually lived through the battle. Shaara does it again with "A Chain of Thunder" great book, very entertaining for any history buff. Now I can't wait for the final book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2014
Jeff Shaara has written a number of books, all focusing on wars or specific battles, usually involving the Civil War. The subject of this work is the Siege of Vicksburg and the various skirmishes and strategies leading up to it. The action in this piece of historical fiction flows up on his earlier novel, A Blaze of Glory, which detailed the Battle of Shiloh.
Shaara tells the story through the eyes of several characters, from commanding generals to front line troops (and in this case, a young woman inhabitant of Vicksburg), a device first used so successfully by his father Michael Shaara in Killer Angels, a dramatized look at the Battle of Gettysburg and one of the best books I’ve ever read. Sadly, the father overshadows the son, and though this is a good summary of the events leading up to and through the Siege of Vicksburg, it pales in comparison to Killer Angels (possibly, in part, because the Battle of Gettysburg provides a richer cast of characters and events).
Nevertheless, it is a good history lesson for those interested in Civil War history or some of the major characters active in the western theater of the war.