Special Guest Book Review: A Blaze of Glory by Jeff Shaara

By David Bruce Smith

By Jeff Shaara
448 pp. Ballantine Books Trade Paperback

Within a year after the start of the Civil War, the cohesion within the Confederate army was wearing away. Defeats from the Union forces were on the upsurge; they were trounced at Fort Donelson, and overwhelmed in Fort Henry. Tennessee appeared to be lost, but the much-loved rebel commander-in-chief, General Albert Sidney Johnston, envisioned a decisive turnaround in Shiloh that would arrest his bad fortune, and assure the country of its destiny–as he saw it: a nation of slaveholders.

Jeff Shaara’s, A Blaze of Glory, is the first of a planned four-book series about the War Between the States, but this installment concentrates on the two-day battle at Shiloh in April of 1862. From a historical point of view it looks like a small assault, but the scope was wide. The most illustrious generals from each side participated: Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Don Carlos Buell from the North; Johnston, Pierre G. T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg from the South.

By then, Johnston’s soldiers were dejected, dehydrated from dysentery, and depressed, but he expected the victory-about-to-happen to jettison their doldrums:

“The army believed in bulk and speed and the least expensive fare that could be obtained, and the men suffered for it. Bauer had his share of the gripes well before they left Wisconsin, and it fueled his sympathy for any of the others who suffered from the dysentery, the most common ailment they had yet to endure…Even worse than the rations, the fresh water supplies had lasted only a day, and the volume of traffic on the river meant slow going for the enormous fleet of transports, supply boats, and the gunboats that protected them . . . ”

A year earlier, Johnston had commanded the Federal forces in California, but resigned the commission after Texas seceded. Jefferson Davis considered him to be the best general in his posse.

On April 6th Johnston, along with 30,000 troops, surprised Grant’s army. The general was not there—his horse had fallen on him two days earlier–but Sherman was. Stunned, he and his troops were shoved into a compromised position that seemed unalterable. The Confederates assumed victory, but then Johnston was killed by friendly fire; ironically, his bleeding could have been stopped by a tourniquet discovered—too late–in his pocket.

The presumptuous, swollen-headed Beauregard didn’t understand the intricacies of war; he discontinued the advance and claimed triumph without anticipating a retaliation, but Union reinforcements were on the way. Buell arrived before morning with a buttress of military might. On the second day Beauregard was outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and outfoxed. Fierce fighting continued, but the Confederates were beaten back by Sherman.

Shiloh was one of the bloodiest assaults in history. Twenty-three thousand men were killed and injured—mostly Union–and 2,000 were imprisoned by the Confederates. Grant was slandered by the press and public for his lousy leadership, and the large number of casualties. Although Lincoln refused to let him go, he was briefly demoted by his superior, General Henry Halleck.

Six generations separate the end of the Civil War to the present, but Shaara nimbly reopens those times, and achieves what a good writer must: to transport the reader back to those fields that were once filled with “unutterable horrors . . . of carnage.”

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