The Smoke at Dawn: A Novel of the Civil War (Civil War, Western Theatre #3), by Jeff Shaara

Eight stars

In penning this penultimate novel in his Western Theatre tetralogy as it relates to the US Civil War, Shaara continues to dazzle and enthral readers with his attention to detail. As the previous novel ended, Grant’s siege on Vicksburg, Mississippi proved fruitful in keeping the Confederates at bay, isolating them and forcing a massive retreat. In its aftermath, General Ulysses Grant left to fight off in Louisiana and, as the reader learns through the narrative, was injured after an equine mishap. However, the War Department saw much left to do and summoned the general to head towards Tennessee, where Chattanooga awaited in the Fall of 1863. Grant surrounded himself with his admired colleague, General William T. Sherman, as they faced down the Confederates, headed by General Braxton Bragg. Grant and Bragg had a history, years before, and this chance to face off against one another proved a highly-anticipated opportunity to utilise the military prowess both felt they possessed, each fighting for a cause they believed was faultless. Bragg found himself utilising the admirable skills of General Patrick Cleburne, Irish blood flowing through his veins but Confederate sympathies in his heart. Bragg and Cleburne sought to outmanoeuvre Sherman and Grant, using the Tennessee fells and fields to their advantage, as Shaara recounts the story of the battle through the eyes of his most trusted military leaders. However, as is common in his series, the story is best told by those in the trenches and on the field of battle, where the reader can turn to Fritz “Dutchie” Bauer. This Union soldier had a coming of age in this novel, moving away from the volunteer that he was upon signing up in Wisconsin and seeking to be an enlisted soldier. This move is not only to diminish the pain of having no family left, but also to prove a point to himself and his friend, Sam Willis, his superior. Bauer’s heartfelt passion for the Union and decision to place himself in a life of military service was further solidified as he grew more accustomed to the life of a soldier. The reader will have seen his progression and maturation throughout the series, only to see Bauer suffer a great loss on the battlefield followed soon thereafter by one of a personal nature. Bauer’s suffering is felt deeply by the reader, though the narrative continues on, allowing the Union to drive Bragg and Cleburne back, after the Confederates almost toppled the Union forces with deceptive military plotting. This push of Confederate forces back towards Georgia sets up what is sure to be the most captivating final instalment of the series, and which will put Sherman on the map as he controls the entire Union Army in the West. Grant, a victory secured, is summoned to Washington and offered control of the entire Union force, hoping to cut Robert E. Lee off once and for all, as Jefferson Davis watches his successes disintegrate with each passing day. Shaara offers readers a wonderful depiction of the ongoing fighting and personalises the pains and victories, through the eyes of many men (sorry, no Lucy Spence-type female characters this time around). Brilliant and well-worth the effort invested for the attentive and curious reader alike.

Those who have followed my reviews of the tetralogy will know that I thoroughly enjoy all that Shaara has to say. This series is of particular interest, as it puts the reader in the minds of a number of well- and lesser-known figures to tell the stories of the Civil War that are not as well broadcast in history texts. I admit that I am still not entirely able to wrap myself in the narrative, more because I struggle with the intense battle descriptions, but the gist of the story is not lost on me. Shaara’s writing is both informative and highly intense, exemplifying his research abilities and how he chooses to communicate this in his fiction writing. Keeping some of the key characters from the series (Grant and Bauer) he offers readers some continuity while also a fresh flavour with the addition of new and powerful voices (Bragg and Cleburne), as if more ‘villains’ were needed for the reader to dislike, but also appreciate. The numerous narrative perspectives offer readers a personal insight into the story, rather than an omnipresent storyteller who can only peer down and subject the reader to detached sentiments. Shaara has prided himself on being able to pull the reader in and does so effortlessly in this recounting. With one novel left, there is still much to do, but building up characters effectively keeps the reader wanting to see what is to come, even if the inevitable outcome has been inculcated into at least some of the readers who paid attention in history class. I cannot wait to see what twists and turns Shaara has to offer, though ending the series will come with mixed emotions.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara for bringing the reader to the front lines of another poignant battle in the Western Theatre. I can truly say I am learning much about all aspects of the War and its intricate pieces that make up the greater whole.