Jeff Shaara has continued the legacy of his father through his prequel and sequel to Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, culminating a trilogy capturing the American Civil War, and has once again triumphed in that era with A Chain of Thunder.
Things look bleak for the men in blue as they try and try again to capture the city of Vicksburg on the banks of the Mississippi River. An operation spearheaded by Ulysses S. Grant, their last attempt begins from May of 1862 and ends in July of 1863. However, a silver lining comes with a cloud; the Confederates’ refusal to surrender led to months of living in caves to hide from artillery fire, eventually surviving on even rats as their food supplies dwindled to nonexistence.
Southern civilians lie trapped in their city, sheltering the beaten Confederate troops and hiding from daily artillery fire. Soldiers at the back of the line itch to break out their rifles and muskets against the rebels. Men on both sides die by the hands of forever anonymous executors. The Union is running out of patience. The Confederacy is running out of food. It is a truly traumatizing time for the people of Vicksburg, when starvation overcomes them, fear and anger guide their minds, and they are forever haunted by the booming of the repetitive artillery, by the sound of the chain of thunder.
What makes Shaara stand out is his writing style in telling this account, in which he adapts the limited third-person perspective of actual historical figures and describes their experiences. Such familiar faces include Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, as well as Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton from the Confederates. Private Fritz Bauer gives us a window to the common troops who serve Grant and Sherman on the front lines of the battle, while Lucy Spence details the cruel lives of the civilians trapped in the city during the siege and the horrors of the medical tents. Shaara delves into the characteristics of the men and women, promoting them from the two-dimensional legends you read about in history class to walking and talking men with human emotions and reactions, strained by the pressures of war.
Shaara also does not conform these people or the other characters to the archetypal labels of good and bad. You might find yourself sympathizing with Pemberton and his struggles despite him being a Confederate based on his background and his true virtues. You might realize that you despise Sylvanus Cadwallader for his encouragement of the notion of Grant being drunk often, although he sides with the Union. Union General John McClernand attracts the reader’s dislike for his arrogance and defiance, and Confederate Colonel Waddy demonstrates an admirable unwavering loyalty to Pemberton.
A Chain of Thunder also addresses other themes other than war and the carnage and devastation resulting from it, reaching realistic concepts that defined actual people: the measures that people will resort to survive or save others, the odd difference between the interactions between enemies during battle and during truce, and the generosity or brutality coming from the winning side.
For all the history lovers, A Chain of Thunder is a truly captivating story that leaves you experiencing an array of emotions: sadness, shock, anger, confusion, and joy. It’s a novel, not nonfiction, but it still paints an accurate picture of events and life in this time and location.