A Chain of Thunder: A Story of the Siege of Vicksburg (Civil War, Western Theatre #2), by Jeff Shaara

Eight stars

Shaara continues with his Civil War series with the second novel in the Western Theatre tetralogy. Shaara builds on the first novel’s focus on the Battle of Shiloh by turning things towards Mississippi and the vital city of Vicksburg, approximately a year after the aforementioned skirmish. Located on a key route (the Mississippi River) that serves the Confederate Army, General Pemberton seeks to protect this gem while awaiting more troops and instruction from superior. However, fresh from victory in Shiloh, Union Generals Grant and Sherman seek to push forward and overtake the region, thereby paralysing the Confederates in an attempt to stave off any momentum that might be tanking place further East. Shaara builds momentum up as all generals plot military manoeuvres surrounding the Siege of Vicksburg, which can only end with one army standing. A Confederate loss could commence a devastating domino effect that will reverberate across the South and bring Lincoln the impetus he needs to justify this war to the world. While Shaara offers wonderful troop and general perspectives in the narratives, he introduces a new voice to the war, that of the citizenry. Lucy Spence is a young woman from Vicksburg who has seen her city turned into a chaotic mess, filled both with grey-uniformed Confederates with the Union’s blue-uniformed troops filling the horizon. While she has been led to support the views of her southern brethren, Spence is enlisted as a civilian nurse and witnesses the horrors of war from the perspective of blood and gore, which differs greatly from the opening chapter, when things were still formal dinners and balls with the local soldiers. Spence sees war through the eyes of the civilians caught in the middle of fighting, but who suffer more, as the face a war of hunger and depravation, food becoming a commodity that only the Union can offer, which is stronger propaganda than any leaflet. Spence and other citizens of Vicksburg learn that their heroes who had been touting freedom from Washington’s grasp and the right to hold slaves cannot be trusted if they cannot keep their own people from starving during the campaign. It is this weaponless war that might turn the tides more than any cannon or musket. When the smoke clears, Vicksburg falls and Grant can forge onwards, seeking to curry additional favour with Washington as the Confederate Army is left to nurse their substantial wounds. A powerful second volume in Shaara’s latest Civil War series, sure to stir up significant emotions in the attentive reader.

I am a long-time fan of Shaara and his writing style that explore war from perspectives untapped by academics or many historical fiction writers. While I struggled immensely with finding a connection in the first novel, being somewhat more conscientious of what is going on has allowed me to pull more (still not all) from the narrative in this second piece. In reading this collection, I am reminded of the John Jakes trilogy, North and South. Perhaps my bias and memory will sway me as I say this, but Shaara appears to be taking a page from the Jakes book and not only writing from the perspective of a fictional soldier, but now choosing an outsider to speak about the civilian interpretation of war. While Shaara usually chooses to keep the war and battlefields as his settings for all characters, use of a civilian is very Jakesian and does add additional flavour to the story. He does postulate that many civilians were outside the sphere of the War and knew little more than which side they were supposed to support. Key choices or decisions did not impact their choice of sides in the entire affair. As he usually does, Shaara offers a veiled (though it is apparent throughout) commentary on the struggles of war for those on the battlefield as well, be it tactics, marching, or the horrific food on offer. Shaara brings the reader inside and behind the lines to exacerbate the negative side of fighting, while still injecting pride into the act. Strong and regionally-peppered dialogues allow the reader to feel in the midst of the action in both camps, while also learning of their individual struggles as soldiers try to put themselves in the boots of the other. Chapters chock-full of detail, development, and historical portrayals of the settings allow the reader to envelop themselves in all that Shaara has to offer. Dense in spots, Shaara does not water things down, which will require a dedicated and attentive effort. There is not enough praise that can be offered up for this wonderful style of writing, geared towards a target audience.
Kudos, Mr. Shaara for another wonderful novel. I am still trying to wrap my head around all that you have to present, but by pacing myself and paying particular attention, I have a much better idea of what happened in the lesser-known Western Theatre of America’s Civil War.