Review of “A Chain of Thunder“ by Jeff Shaara

This fictionalized account of the 1863 Civil War Siege of Vicksburg has good and bad points.

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On the good side, well, it’s the Civil War. You’ve got such great characters in Grant and Sherman, and Vicksburg was a truly momentous victory for the North, arguably more so than Gettysburg, which occurred at the same time. Vicksburg gave the North the control of the Mississippi – absolutely critical, although Gettysburg provided an unparalleled psychological boost. But in any event, both are exciting and inspirational stories. (Jeff Shaara’s father, Michael Shaara, won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels.)

Shaara chooses to tell the story of the Siege of Vicksburg by alternating among five main points of view: Northern Generals Sherman and Grant, Northern soldier Fritz Bauer, Southern General Pemberton , and a young female civilian in Vicksburg, Lucy Spence. The inclusion of a common soldier and a common citizen is a welcome addition to the usual Civil War stories that focus on the generals.

William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman

Vicksburg was notable for so many reasons. One of the most important was the generalship of the Southern forces by John C. Pemberton. Pemberton was a Pennsylvania graduate of West Point who chose to support the South. He was also apparently a good friend of President Jefferson Davis, which, in addition to his northern birth, put him at odds with Joseph Johnston, who was in command of the entire Department of the West, and therefore Pemberton’s superior. Johnson could be said to be the sixth main character of this story, even though he was largely invisible (just like in real life….) Johnson, to paraphrase Civil War expert James McPherson, was Davis’s McClellan. He was loathe to bring his army to battle, but Davis couldn’t get rid of him for political reasons, just as Lincoln had difficulty firing McClellan.

Joe Johnston

Joe Johnston

At Vicksburg, Pemberton repeatedly wired Johnston for help, and Johnston repeatedly denied it to him. Then, after Pemberton’s surrender (unfortunately for Pemberton made on July 4), Johnston used his southern credentials and popularity to smear Pemberton, blaming him for what happened, and making sure he would never again be accepted as a commander.

Shaara does a good job of portraying Pemberton in a way that manages to get readers to feel undecided about him. He is shown as quite obnoxious, but still inspires sympathy. After all, he is trying his best to save Vicksburg, but no matter what he does, he is hated by the men for his northern origins. He reacts defensively and aggressively – which didn’t help his case much, although it may not have mattered to the Southerners even if he had not. It is also clear that Johnston bears a large part of the blame for the loss of Vicksburg. And of course, to some extent, up against the likes of Grant and a vastly superior supply train, it is probable victory was inevitable no matter what anyone did. (And to this end, Johnston may have been correct in refusing to sacrifice his men for a lost cause, but he didn’t have any problem sacrificing Pemberton and his men.) My only complaint about the depiction of Pemberton is that Shaara endlessly rehearses Pemberton’s anger over the lack of trust and respect given to him. Some serious editing would have helped.

John Pemberton

John Pemberton

I was a bit perplexed over the relationship between the fictional soldiers, Private Fritz Bauer and his supposed good friend, Lieutenant Sam Willis. Willis consistently treats Bauer contemptuously. It didn’t make sense to me. And Bauer is another character who goes on a bit too much and too long about his feelings during this engagement. It is certainly useful to show us war from the point of view of the soldiers: the fear, the comaraderie, the long hours of inaction and boredom, and the brief highs afforded by engagement. But again, it just got very repetitive.

In fact, almost all of the characters got repetitive and therefore boring, even Sherman. We don’t need more than one monologue to make the point about the nature their concerns.

Lucy Spense, 19, is a composite character made by Shaara who drew upon four different diaries of Vicksburg female civilians. Her observations about the horror and terror and hunger of the siege were interesting, but her story was a bit mysterious as well. Her mother was dead, her father had abandoned her a long time ago, and she was a Southern Belle who didn’t work; how did she support herself? How did she feed and clothe herself and maintain her house? This was never explained. In his Afterword, Shaara includes a paragraph about Spense (and some of the other fictional characters) in which he tells what befell the main actors at Vicksburg after the surrender. I did not feel the Afterword was an appropriate place to mix fiction and non-fiction, at least not without acknowledging which was which.

Vicksburg after the surrender

Vicksburg after the surrender

Moving on to more positive observations, the battle summaries are good, and although the paper form of the book includes a number of maps showing troop movements, the text was sufficiently illuminating that I was able to follow the action without seeing them, since I listened to this book on audio.

Shaara also gave a huge amount of exposure and credit to the engineers on both sides, another aspect of battles not often discussed, but one particularly critical during a siege. Shaara shows in detail the outstanding job each side did working with shovels and trenches to maximize the effectiveness of weapons and artillery, and minimize the dangers from the other side.

Evaluation: It has to be said that with material like the siege of Vicksburg, it’s pretty hard not to make a pretty good story out of it. I would have liked to see some editing of the long interior monologues of some of the characters, but it was still an enjoyable story.

Rating:  3.5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Narrator Paul Michael is an actor, and he adopts different voices not only for each of the main characters but for a number of others in the book who play smaller roles. He does a fine job with the northern men, but I thought he fell short with the voices of Southern men and of the women. I think it is so much better when an audio production uses at least one member of each gender to tackle a number of mixed roles like this.

Published unabridged on 18 CDs (22 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2013

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