Jeff Shaara is perhaps best known for his novels “Gods and Generals” (1996) and “The Last Full Measure” (1998), which were the bookends to his father Michael Shaara's 1974 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the Battle of Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels.”
Shaara went on to write novels set in the Mexican-American War, the American Revolution, World War I and recently a quadrilogy of novels set in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. Shaara returns to his Civil War roots with his latest novel, “A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh.”
“A Blaze of Glory” begins in early 1862 as the Confederate States of America has experienced a series of defeats in the western theater. Forts Henry and Donelson have just fallen to the Union army under the command of Ulysses S. Grant, and Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston is desperately trying to secure the interior of the Confederacy.
He decides to attack the federal position at Pittsburgh Landing near the Old Shiloh Church in southern Tennessee in what is intended to be a large-scale spoiling attack. Such an assault, if successful, would also force the Union to fall back and abandon much of Tennessee to the Confederacy. The attack initially goes as planned with the Union army taken completely by surprise, but by the second morning Grant's forces are reinforced and begin to rally.
Shaara is a brilliant historical novelist whose ability to transport the reader to the battlefield is unmatched. One can taste the gunpowder and blood in the air and, just like his characters, can be overwhelmed by the fear and horrors of war. Shaara pulls no punches, never romanticizing the conflict, and manages to create a wonderful, horrifying, human narrative of the battle. He is particularly skilled in his portraits of historical figures like Grant, Johnston and William T. Sherman.
Shaara describes the desperate first morning of the Confederate attack from the viewpoint of a Union soldier:
“The screams were close and manic, rebel troops lunging straight into the blue line, while to one side, another battle line rose up from the ravine there, a surge of bayonets pouring hard into Allen's left flank. The orders came in hot shouts, but to the men in blue who had tried to stand tall, to hold their ground, the orders meant nothing at all. The weight that came over them crushed and dissolved the blue line .”
“A Blaze of Glory” is a fine addition to Civil War literature and may be Shaara's best work since “The Last Full Measure.” Shaara has announced that “A Blaze of Glory” is the beginning of a new trilogy of novels that detail the fighting in the western theater, a cause for celebration given this book's achievement.
A minor disappointment to Utah readers, however, is that Shaara only mentions the Utah War in passing. Johnston had led the expedition to the Salt Lake Valley in 1857, only five years before the events in the novel. One would have hoped such an important episode in the general's career would have been given more room in these pages, if only as a memory. Perhaps one day Shaara will author a novel set during that historic conflict.
"A Blaze of Gory" contains realistic battlefield violence, but no foul language or other adult themes.
Cody K. Carlson has a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. EMAIL: [email protected]