Book Review – The Smoke at Dawn by Jeff Shaara

9780345527417_p0_v3_s260x420I was hoping to get to Jeff Shaara’s The Smoke at Dawn in time for it to be a preview, but I didn’t get as much reading done while I was on vacation as I planned. The third novel in his Civil War series focusing on the war’s Western theater, The Smoke at Dawn covers the weeks following the Union’s defeat at Chickamauga and the long stand up leading through the Chattanooga Campaign.

In the months following the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, both sides are struggling to rebuild their armies. The Confederates are desperate for a victory to restore morale while the Union needs to keep up with their momentum. The rebels win at Chickamauga but there are some among the Confederate army’s generals who think the victory could have been far more decisive and damaging to the Union army if General Bragg had pursued the faltering Union General Rosecrans a little further.

In the weeks following Chickamauga, there’s a lot of shuffling on both sides as far as who’s in charge of which parts of the armies. Bragg’s paranoia threatens the Confederacy’s superior position overlooking the besieged Union troops in Chattanooga. Meanwhile, Grant has officially been made head of the Union Army and he must shuffle his own generals around, his favoritism for Sherman ruffling a few feathers.

In novels about the Civil War, so many of them focus on the big name battles from those first few years, most of which were in the Eastern theater. Since Gettysburg has come to be seen as the turning point, there seems to be little attention paid to those campaigns that followed, the last two years of war condensed as novelists hurry their characters along to the war’s conclusion and reconstruction. This might also be because so many of the battles in the Western theater were drawn out, comprised of sieges and waiting each other out more than flashy physical confrontations.

Shaara does an amazing job of covering the weeks of minor maneuvers, the shuffling of troops and staff, during which few guns were fired, each side feeling the other out, calculating the next move before the battle finally takes place. While he captures the technical side of these weeks, what keeps the reader engaged in these chapters is the psychological depth he provides the characters. There tends to be some, if not familiarity, at least name recognition for the historically significant figures along with the little things you might remember about them from high school history classes. Shaara brings them to life in a way that humanizes them, most notably through their prominent flaws. In true Shaara style, The Smoke at Dawn’s narrative is shared by several figures on both sides of the war and ranging in rank from a Union private through the generals in charge, allowing a broad spectrum of perspectives and views of the campaign as it unfolds.

The other great thing about Shaara’s Civil War series is that you can take them together or individually. You don’t need to read them in order to follow what’s going on. The Smoke at Dawn is the third in this new series and I was able to thoroughly enjoy it without having read either A Blaze of Glory or A Chain of Thunder (I’m still on the waiting list at my library). I hope that he continues with this series because I’d love to read his novelization on Sherman’s march through Georgia. While I wait to see what his next novel will be, I’ll just have to settle for reading my way through those works of his I haven’t made it through yet (enough to keep me busy for quite a while).

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