Jeff Shaara has turned Civil War novels into his own personal franchise. Ever since his dad, Michael, authored the remarkable Killer Angels re Gettysburg, then died not long after, his son has carried on the family business and made a big success of it. Blaze of Glory explores the in’s and out’s of the 1862 Battle of Shiloh, which takes its name from a crossroads church where the invading federals first set up their headquarters.
Blaze follows the same formula as the rest of these books I’ve read. We get scenes with the major generals, and we get scenes with Captains and Lieutenants, and we get scenes with common soldiers. By returning again and again to these characters we gradually develop sympathies and antipathies with folks on both sides, and Shaara is quite even-handed about portraying gray and blue in bad and good lights. Blazes is also said to be the first in a trilogy, which means, I guess that we’re going to be following Grant’s western campaign through to Chickamauga.
Well and good, and if I hadn’t read so much about this whole thing elsewhere and hadn’t read so much of these father/son novels already, I might be more enthusiastic. But I have, and I’ve grown a bit weary of the template. Moreover, Jeff is simply not the writer his father was. He’s ten or fifteen per cent less, which is the difference between apprentice and master. Case in point, the opening pages where a young Confederate cavalry officer is trying to stop a raid on the warehouses holding army supplies. The Union is coming, and the citizens of Nashville don’t trust their own troop to hold them the enemy, and they think they’re about to starve, so they go after the soldiers’ provender. Our young lieutenant holds rather lengthy debates with a couple of rioters about what they’re doing and why. Our young lieutenant holds rather lengthy debates with a couple of rioters about what they’re doing and why. Now, who, I ask you, stops to talk in that situation? Nobody, except when the author needs to do an info dump and a bit of introductory exposition whether it interrupts the action and drama or not. And so on.
To his credit, Shaara, does everything he can to deglamorize war. Blood, savagery, piles of severed limbs, guts all over the place, wounded lying suffering and unattended for days. At some points, the descriptions get so frequent and intense they become numbing to the point of meaningless. Like “Earthquake: thousands killed.” But it surely is important to stop the idea that this conflict was a glorious affair in any way.
Also to his credit, he lays great blame on the bungling of high-ranking officers. From Grant to Beauregard, everyone in charge comes in for a heavy dose of responsibility for the carnage.
Awesome as the two-day battle was, it was in itself inconclusive. No ground was taken. No railroads destroyed. No ammunition captured. It was just a matter of ground taken one day taken back the next, then the armies separating to prepare for the next encounter. Of course, if X or Y or Z had or hadn’t done A or B or C, things might have been different, and the historical debate rages and the dead remain dead and lost to their families and friends. And the resentments remain 150 years hence.
And so it goes.