Review of “The Fateful Lightning” by Jeff Shaara

This fictionalized account of the “March to the Sea” by General Sherman and its immediate aftermath near the end of the Civil War has good and bad points.

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As with Shaara’s other books in this series of novels on the Civil War, it’s hard to go wrong with such great characters like Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman.

Sherman takes center stage in this book, with his march first to Savannah and then back north for an anticipated military rendezvous with Grant, a move which became unnecessary after the surrender by Lee to Grant at Appomattox. Historians have pointed to many factors contributing to Sherman’s success, including the influence of his West Point training, his personal charisma, his intellectual energy, his past work experience which gave him intimate knowledge of the American terrain, an excellent command of logistics, and last but not least the brilliance of his strategic thinking. Shaara doesn’t really acquaint us with much of this. Mostly, we encounter Sherman’s thoughts about the weather, about his son, about his wife, about his respect for Grant, and his loathing of journalists and the fickle nature of politics. This is very much a book about quotidian thoughts people might have been having as they were slogging through the muck and mire to and from battles.

William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman

This quintessential example will give you an idea of (a) the content of much of the book; (b) the staccato and repetitive style of writing; and (c) why it is so very long. This scene occurs in Georgia, late at night when Sherman is once again having a sleepless night:

“He moved to the nearest fire, picked up a stick, prodded the faint embers. The ground around him was soggy from the rain, the fire nearly extinguished, but he poked harder, deeper, the embers growing brighter. He was determined now, searched the darkness for something to add to the flame, some kind of kindling, saw a stack of small sticks, covered by a canvas cloth. He pulled out a single stick, smelled it, the delicious scent of fat pine, used that to prod the embers until the heat ignited the stick. He let the flame crawl upward toward his hand, tilted it away, then added the fat pine to the glowing embers. He retrieved another . . . ”

And on and on. . . .

Shaara chooses to tell this story by alternating among four main points of view: Union General Sherman, Confederate General William Hardee, Southern cavalryman Captain James Seely, and a young male slave from Georgia named Franklin. Franklin’s story is perhaps the most interesting, and Shaara is to be commended for trying to show what that time period was like for the slaves who were able to abandon their plantations and attach themselves to Sherman’s Army.

Confederate General William Hardee

Confederate General William Hardee

In his Afterword, Shaara tells what befell the main actors in the story after the end of the Civil War. He includes a paragraph about Franklin mixed in with the nonfictional characters, but without indicating that Franklin’s “fate” is a product of his imagination.

Evaluation: It has to be said that with material like Sherman’s March to the Sea, it’s pretty hard not to make a pretty good story out of it. I would have liked to see some editing of the long interior monologues of some of the characters, and more attention paid to Sherman’s strategical thinking, but it was still an enjoyable book.

Rating:  3.5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Narrator Paul Michael is an actor, and he adopts different voices not only for each of the main characters but for a number of others in the book who play smaller roles. He does a much better job on this novel than on the other novel by Jeff Shaara to which I listened.

Published unabridged on 20 CDs (25 and 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

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