Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'A Chain of Thunder': Jeff Shaara Continues His 'Western War' Series With the Siege of Vicksburg

One hundred fifty years ago this summer  there were two major turning points in the two-year old Civil War: Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Gettysburg was fought from July 1-3, 1863 and the siege of Vicksburg ended on  Independence Day, July 4, 1863, with the surrender of Confederate forces commanded by Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton.

Both battles were important, perhaps signaling what Winston Churchill called in reference to World War II, "the end of the beginning," but the defeat of Gen. Robert E. Lee by Major Gen. George G. Meade at Gettysburg, Penn. has long gotten more ink than the considerably longer siege of Vicksburg. 

 One thing I didn't know: John Clifford Pemberton (1814-1881) was a Yankee by birth, a Pennsylvanian married to a Southerner, who cast his fate with the Confederate army, the mirror image of native Virginian Gen. George H. Thomas, "The Rock of Chickamauga" who stayed loyal to the Union side. Pemberton graduated from West Point in 1837 and, like many of the Civil War generals, was a veteran of the Mexican War. 

Continuing the series that began with last year's "A Blaze of Glory", the story of Shiloh (my review: Jeff Shaara returns to chronicle another chapter in the war that killed or wounded more people than all the other wars fought by Americans, the Civil War.

 In "A Chain of Thunder: A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg" (Ballantine Books, 592 pages, 14 maps, $28.00), the action shifts to Vicksburg, dubbed the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” because it controlled navigation on the Mississippi River, most of which was in Yankee hands.

The defeat of the rebels at Vicksburg decided for all time the fate of Major Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, as well as that of  Gen. William T. Sherman -- and all but sealed the fate of the rebel cause.

 In May 1863, after months of hard and bitter combat, Union troops under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant at long last successfully cross the Mississippi River. They force the remnants of Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s army to retreat to Vicksburg, burning the bridges over the Big Black River in its path. In a preview of things to come the next year in Georgia, much of Jackson, Mississippi's capital, was torched.

 After sustaining heavy casualties in two failed assaults against the rebels, Union soldiers are losing confidence and morale is low. Grant reluctantly decides to lay siege to the city, trapping soldiers and civilians alike inside an iron ring of Federal entrenchments. Six weeks later, the starving and destitute Southerners finally surrender, yielding command of the Mississippi River to the Union forces on July 4—Independence Day.

 As he did in "A Blaze of Glory" and previous books, Shaara masterfully weaves in the stories of civilians, like 19-year-old Lucy Spence of Vicksburg and her friends and young German-American Pvt. Fritz Bauer of Milwaukee, and his fellow soldiers, who were also in "A Blaze of Glory."

 If you've read about the static trench warfare of World War I, much of the narrative of "A Chain of Thunder" will remind you of those grim accounts, with the dead stacked up on the battlefield, often for days at a time in the steamy Mississippi summer. The portrayal of the residents of Vicksburg burrowing into the hillsides to escape the shelling are unforgettable.

 On one side stand the emerging legend Grant, his irascible second  Sherman, and the youthful “grunt” Private Fritz Bauer from Milwaukee, Wis.; on the other, the Confederate commanders Pemberton and Joseph Johnston, as well as nineteen-year-old Lucy Spence, a civilian doing her best to survive in the besieged city.  

"A Chain of Thunder" is historical fiction with a sound basis in fact at its best. I recommend it without reservation.


About the Author

Jeff Shaara is the New York Times bestselling author of A Blaze of Glory, The Final Storm, No Less Than Victory, The Steel Wave, The Rising Tide, To the Last Man, The Glorious Cause, Rise to Rebellion, and Gone for Soldiers, as well as Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure — two novels that complete the Civil War trilogy that began with his father’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classic, The Killer Angels. Shaara was born into a family of Italian immigrants in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, and graduated from Florida State University. He lives again in Tallahassee.