Interest Level: Middle School, High School, Adult
“When the sun went down, the shelling began again, the civilians moving inside quickly, but she remained outside the cave, watched the red streaks, heard the thumps and distant thunder, and noticed now for the first time that something was missing. What had been done to James’s best friend was an act of raw desperation repeated in the town, and all throughout the cave-spotted hills. Until now, every time the shells came, it had been the same, the whistle and shriek of the mortars and the cannon fire answered by a scattered chorus of howling dogs. But tonight there were no howls…” (510)
If the above quote doesn’t make you want to pick up A Chain of Thunder: A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg (the Civil War in the West) by Jeff Shaara, then perhaps you should just stop reading here! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. (Yes, Mr. Shaara himself calls it a novel in his letter to the reader.)
A friendly note: I read this book right before my trip to Vicksburg. I made sure to take pictures of everything I could find that was mention in this novel, therefore, you will see A LOT OF PICTURES in this post. Quite possibly more than I have ever included!
A Chain of Thunder follows the Vicksburg campaign. Grant, Sherman and several other Union Generals and their men are headed to Mississippi from Tennessee. There to meet them is General Pemberton. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the President desires Pemberton to protect Vicksburg, but General Johnston desires Pemberton to march out and meet Grant.
Pemberton is an interesting person in that he is originally a Pennsylvanian but married a Virginian woman. Therefore, he sides with the Confederacy in the war. His men, however, do not fully trust him seeing as he is a Yankee by birth. This makes his command even more challenging.
The chapters are each presented by a different character in the novel, which I love! It allows you to get multiple perspectives about the same situation.
It also gives you a glimpse into the relationships between different leaders. Not until I read this book did I realize that Sherman and Grant were so close. Sherman was fiercely loyal and protective of Grant. Even when he didn’t fully agree with Grant’s decisions he bow to military rule and followed Grant’s orders.
We meet both Confederate civilians like Lucy Spence and file-in-rank soldiers from both sides. We learn of wounds, starvation, death, and fear from each character.
I jotted down lots of notes in the margins and kept wishing my students could read this novel! (My pre-ap kids just might read it next year!)
There are too many details to get into in this post, but I will say Shaara does a magnificent job putting you in the minds of those involved in this conflict. His attention to detail and research is phenomenal. As a teacher, I always stress to my students the importance of studying an event such as the Civil War from both sides. Shaara definitely does this.
*This is a war book therefore battle scenes are discussed. There is no description that is unnecessarily gory. Do to the nature of the event, the dead on the Union side were left out in the field for some time. There is one chapter in particular where Bauer sees several Union dead out in front of him and will describe the bloated bodies.
*Civilians who chose to stay in Vicksburg will eventually have to move to the hills and create caves. There they will eventually subsist on donkeys, squirrels, dogs, and even rats.
*There is some good natured ribbing among the soldiers and some harsh commands from the younger officers. (I don’t rightly remember off hand there being any foul cuss words used.)
*You get a glimpse into the lives of the leaders. Until I read this book and William Tecumseh Sherman by James Lee McDonough, I did not know that Sherman lacked confidence in his abilities and vehemently hated the press! (For good reason!)
*The reader gains a better understanding of the strategy and reasoning behind the siege. We are privy to the true intelligence of all those in charge.
*The book is incredibly well-written and will have the reader eager to finish. (Even if you already know the outcome.)
*This book would be a wonderful springboard to use in studying the Civil War leaders like Sherman, Grant, Pemberton, and Johnston.
Lesson Plan Ideas:
*Research each leader: Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Pemberton, Bowen, Johnston
*Go to the Vicksburg National Military Park youtube channel and watch several awesome videos!
*Research Vicksburg civilian stories