Best-selling Civil War novelist Jeff Shaara says the audience he wants to reach the most are the ones that come to him often after reading his books saying, “I didn’t know that.”
With its railroads and location on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi was a vitally important fortress city for the Confederate Army at the height of the American Civil War in 1863.
As the community marks the 150th anniversary of its often overlooked involvement in the bloody conflict, Jeff Shaara’s newest novel “A Chain of Thunder” explains why the occupation of the region was compared by one Union general to “the capture of forty Richmonds.”
The newly released book is already ranked eighth on the Barnes & Nobles Bestsellers List and the award-winning Shaara hopes it will raise awareness about that summer of 1863 that most historians say marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.
After holding out for months, the starving, beseiged city of Vicksburg under the command of John C. Pemberton finally surrendered to overwhelming Union forces led by future president U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman. The surrender came on July 4, a day that Vicksburg residents wouldn’t formally celebrate again until the 1940s.
“What Grant accomplishes at Vicksburg is one of the great military feats in history, not just in this country but the world,” Shaara says. “It’s studied by military academies all over the world including of course West Point.”
It’s Shaara’s fourth trip to the Civil War as a novelist. His first works “Gods and Generals” and “The Last Full Measure” completed a trilogy begun in 1975 by his father Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Killer Angels.”
“Typically historical fiction is about a real place with fictitious characters,” the younger Shaara says. Getting into the heads of the real people who rose up at strategic moments of the conflict was a trend started by Michael Shaara who introduced readers to Civil War generals Robert E. Lee, Joshua Chamberlain and James Longstreet.
After spending more than a decade writing about the Mexican War, the American Revolution and the two World Wars, Jeff Shaara says he was prompted by letters from readers to take another look at the Civil War, this time at the western theater and battles in Tennessee and Mississippi. His last book “A Blaze of Glory” introduced characters present at the Battle of Shiloh.
Shaara takes it one step further in “Chain of Thunder” tracing the steps of real-life characters like Wisconsin soldier Fritz Bauer and Vicksburg resident Lucy Spence.
“It’s more important for me to follow that kid, that kid out in front with the musket in his hands who’s terrified out of his mind,” Shaara says. “It’s easy for a general to go tell his men to do something it’s a much different situation for the guys who have to go and do it.”
Shaara says generals Grant and Sherman were as different as night and day but worked together as a team to achieve victory.
“Grant is the administrator. He’s in charge. He’s got the whole army to look after and he learns how to handle different personalities and adapt to the situation.” Shaara says. “Sherman is the firebrand. He’s the guy that wants to get the job done now come hell or high water.”
Shaara’s research for the characters always centers on original diaries, memoirs or collections of letters written during the conflict. For “Chain of Thunder” he talked with the U.S. Grant Presidential Libraries at Mississippi State University as well as battlefield park historians.
While most of the media and tourism attention this summer will be centered around the 150th anniversary of the equally important battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, awareness of the Vicksburg campaign is starting to spark especially among the military community.
Shaara recently met a Mississippi general who takes his soldiers to Vicksburg each year. “(He said) thank you for this book because now we can take these soldiers to Vicksburg and show them something that will have more meaning to them,” he says.
Writing is not the only way that Shaara seeks to preserve America’s history of conflict. For years the author has been involved with the Civil War Preservation Trust, a national organization that protects endangered battlefields.
“They’ll lobby local politicians or approach private landowners,” Shaara says. “Some of the property is fairly expensive.” Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, Brandy Station and portions of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia are just some of the forgotten battlefields that the trust is involved in. “We just bought 500 acres at Shiloh last year, one of the last pieces of private ground that wasn’t owned by the battlefield,” Shaara says.
As far as bringing one of his novels to the big screen, Shaara doesn’t wait by the phone for studios to call. Movie adaptations of “The Killer Angels” and “Gods and Generals” have been made in the past but he says the subject matter lends itself more to the cable TV mini-series format.
“(Movie studios) want catalogs. They don’t just want a one shot film,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned about Hollywood is there’s a lot of talk. I know better than to get excited about it.”