When I originally heard that Jeff Shaara was writing a trilogy of books about the Western Theater, but that he intended to cover only Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, I was a bit put out that he was apparently skipping Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Chickamauga, I understood, since he planned to follow Grant and Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee rather than Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland. However, Chattanooga seemed too important to skip—yet apparently he was going to.
However, in 2014, much to my surprise, Shaara released The Smoke at Dawn, a novel about the battles for Chattanooga. His trilogy sprouted a fourth installment, right in the middle of his overall narrative arc—and it was an installment I welcomed.
I’ve had mixed reactions to Shaara’s writing in the past. I’m a big fan of his Mexican-American War novel, Gone for Soldiers, and I liked his rookie outing, Gods and Generals. But his Western books disappointed me a bit (see my reviews of A Blaze of Glory, his novel about Shiloh, and A Chain of Thunder, his novel about the siege of Vicksburg).
My first impression of The Smoke at Dawn mirrored that of Blaze of Glory: a slow start. But like the former novel, Smoke picked up steam—and much to my satisfaction, it picked up sooner. Once it did, it became a page-turner, and it ended strong.
I’ve always thought Shaara did a good job describing troop movements, and he continues to do so here. But where this book excels is in its action sequences. Of note: Cleburne’s defense against Sherman’s attacks at the northern tip of Missionary Ridge and the Army of the Cumberland’s assault up Missionary Ridge.
Shaara gives solid treatment to Grant and Sherman, but George Thomas comes across as probably the most interesting figure on the Union side. This is Shaara’s first opportunity to work with Thomas as a character, and in turn, those fresh eyes give readers some fresh things to think about.
On the Confederate side, Braxton Bragg—tough to admire on his own merits—is palpably peevish. The real man to watch, Patrick Cleburne, is the standout character in the entire book—not just because of his real-life exploits but because of Shaara’s excellent handling of him in the book.
For a book he didn’t originally intend to write, Chattanooga seemed to really agree with Jeff Shaara. The Smoke at Dawn was his best outing in the west thus far.
(I’ve yet to make it to Shaara’s final book in the series, The Fateful Lightning, which focuses on Sherman’s march. Lightning came out in the summer of 2015. At 640 pages, it’s the longest novel in the set. If you’ve read it, I’d be interested to hear what you thought.)