The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of the Civil War (Civil War, Western Theatre #4), by Jeff Shaara

Eight stars

Shaara’s history-rich tetralogy has finally come to an end with the most exciting novel saved for last. After taking the reader through numerous campaigns in the lesser-known Western Theatre of the American Civil War, Shaara has been able to bring closure to the bloody battles and military chess-play between leaders on both sides. In this novel, the focus shifts away from General Ulysses S. Grant, whose presence has been a key aspect of the previous novels. Instead, Grant has been called to Washington to help oversee the entire Union Army, leaving General William T. Sherman to take control of the Army in the West. Successful in Tennessee, Sherman looks to push further south and make his way down to Georgia, into the far reaches of the Deep South. While marching with his men, Sherman witnesses some of the plantations and settlements abandoned by landowners but still filled with those labelled as ‘slaves’. Seeing some of the remnants of the Confederate attempts to block the way, Sherman must make key decisions for those left behind to hide in their houses or cast a glance at barren fields. Have these people been forced to back the Secessionist Ways or will the Union soldiers be attacked when least they expect it? While Sherman has decided to take any foodstuffs left and torch all houses of Confederate supporters, his men go a little further, pillaging and raping the locals, particularly the recently released slave women. The mentality is that these people ought to be thankful for being freed and anything Unionists want, they ought to have. Shaara forces Sherman to face this, on occasion, though there is little glee in having to come to terms with these ideas and this offers a less than pristine view of the ‘conquering saviours’. Shaara also introduces the reader to Franklin, a former slave who wishes to join the Union cause. A man with gumption and ideals, Franklin chooses to march with the men, though Sherman refuses to offer him the full rights of a Union soldier, at least for the time being. This is a true time of enlightenment, for Sherman and the entire Union cause. They have fought to free the slaves, left themselves bloodied on the battlefield to protect the views of Lincoln. However, when it comes time to offer equality or a parallel mindset, many are still stuck in the pre-War views, that these ‘darkies’ are surely not smart enough to engage with equally, let alone serve alongside other Union soldiers. On the other side of the fight, Generals William Hardee and Joseph Johnston offered up the best possible fight in a war that was slowly slipping away. Shaara insinuates that the Confederates had lost their trust in Braxton Bragg and sought a leader in the area who could repel Sherman and save what territory they called their own. Alas, Sherman’s force and tactical abilities proved too much for Hardee in particular, though Johnston spurred his subordinate on with vigour and determination. The game of cat and mouse soon ended, with Grant squeezing out the final hoorah by forcing Robert E. Lee to lay down his arms in Virginia as Sherman marches through the Carolinas, en route to join with the rest of the Union forces. However, the story does not end there, even if Shaara does not pen its continuation. He insists that there is much yet to do, mending relationships and proverbial fences in a country that was not only lightly cicatrised by differing sentiments. Fundamental thought processes had to be shifted and those who were enemies had to either be accepted back into the fold or banished. President Johnson could not simply call for the incarceration of all Confederates, or accept their mass exodus from American soil. It is this unwritten next chapter (or volume) that will prove to be highly difficult for a country seeking to clean up its mess and return to the world scene. A wonderful final volume of the tetralogy that offers Shaara a chance not only to tie up some loose ends, but keep the reader pining for more.

That Jeff Shaara is a master storyteller is not a debate I wish to have here, as I have made my sentiments clear throughout these four novels. Nor am I willing to dispute that Shaara’s historical fiction writing is superior to much that I have read to date. Shaara presents strong arguments that he admits to coaxing from historical texts, letters, and field journals, all of which breathe life into events that may not have made it into general history texts in secondary schools. While there is limited time to offer his arguments, Shaara does so effectively and from numerous vantage points. As I have said in earlier reviews, Shaara could just as easily allowed his stories to flow from an omnipresent narrator or from the points of view of those leading the charge, but he does not. Shaara seeks to offer both sides their chance to narrate key events, from generals down to civilians. The impact that this war had on the entire populace is not lost and the characters chosen to narrate offer a more thorough story than could be told otherwise. The attentive reader will see in this volume the banter between Franklin and the Union soldiers, the scolding they offer him for being a former slave, but it also rises up the ranks and the likes of General Sherman must come to terms with the underlying reasons for this war, outside of bringing in rebellious states back into the Union. These are powerful themes woven into the fabric of this story and must be said, lest they are forgotten and the reader brushes them aside. Additionally, while not as strongly presented in this volume, General Ulysses S. Grant had made numerous asides that some of the men on the other side of the battlefield were at one time brethren in other battles, particularly down in Mexico. It brings the ‘brothers fighting brothers’ phrase a new meaning and forces the reader to take a step back, realising how rooted this war was for America. Then again, as a Canadian, I should likely not spout off too much about its importance and stick to my own literary commentary. 

Kudos, Mr. Shaara for finishing the tetralogy on such a resounding note. I am eager to dive into your account of the Korean War, surely filled with new and slightly more modern characters who will still keep the reader enthralled throughout that conflict.