A Chain of Thunder
© 2013 Jeff Shaara
‘Twas at the Seige of Vicksburg,
Of Vicksburg, of Vicksburg,
‘Twas at the Seige of Vicksburg,
When the Parrott shells were whistlin’ through the air…
July 4th, 1863 was an unfortunate day for the Confederate States of America. Even as Robert E. Lee limped away from the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, where some of his finest, long-victorious troops were butchered and turned away, General John Pemberton was preparing to surrender the City of Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant. With it, the Mississippi river would be controlled entirely by the Federal army, and the western rebelling states cut off from the rest of the south. Chain of Thunder is the story of the battles and the siege that led to that surrender, the story of the fall of Vicksburg as told through the generals and soldiers of both armies…and usually for for Shaara, through the eyes of a civilian woman. The follow-up to Blaze of Glory, which covered Shiloh, it’s second in Jeff Shaara’s new Civil War trilogy, covering the western theater.
Although I generally expect a good tale from Shaara, a novel about Vicksburg gave me pause; how exciting can reading about one army waiting for a city to grow tired of starving be? After a slow start, though, Chain of Thunder proves a worthy sequel. The book is not entirely about the siege; Shaara covers both armies as they maneuver and fight in a series of skirmishes around Mississippi, as the Federal army moves doggedly toward Vicksburg and the Confederates try time and again to thwart their progress. The skirmishes are all one-sided, in part because the rebels are cursed by a divided command: Pemberton, commanding on the ground, is subjected to opposing orders from Jefferson Davis and General Johnson, Pemberton’s superior. But whereas Jefferson has given Pemberton a general order (“Defend Vicksburg at all costs”) and leaves the decision up to him how to do it, Johnson insists on trying to command the battle from long-distant Tennessee. Not only does Pemberton have to figure out whose orders to obey, but his own subordinates have opinions of their own, and by golly if Pemberton isn’t going to do what they think is best, they’ll take their troops and go home. Pemberton had the misfortune to be born a Yankee, and is thus regarded by all of the characters as suspect. His wife may be a southern belle, and he may claim to be fighting for her honor and defense, but the only people south of the Mason-Dixon who believe him are her and Jefferson Davis.
Once the rebels are pushed back to Vicksburg itself, the tempo changes; the city is a fortress, and not even Grant can take it. He thus digs in for a siege while anxiously looking behind him in case Johnson wanders in with another army. Pemberton’s only hope is the possible arrival of Johnson, and it is that hope that prompts him to try to endure the siege. The action doesn’t disappear during these long weeks of waiting: in addition to scenes from the home front through a young society lady turned nurse (think of an orphaned Scarlett O’Hara, but considerably more pleasant), readers are treated to a duel of sharpshooters. Chain of Thunder is less dominated by combat than Blaze of Glory; instead, Shaara follows up on the stories of his characters as introduced in the Shiloh novel; the conflict between Johnson, Pemberton, and Davis, for instance, and the evolution of William Sherman’s total-war thinking. The book defends the characters of both Pemberton (dismissed as an faithless incompetent) and Grant (regarded as a sometimes drunkard) while making a few attacks of its own, like unexpected swipe at the modern anti-vaccine movement. I found it rather enjoyable on the whole.
Oh, well will we remember
Tough mule meat, June sans November,
And the minie-balls that whistled through the air!
(“Twas at the Siege of Vicksburg”, ACW song performed by Bobby Horton.)
The Most Glorious Fourth