War Like the Thunderbolt

31 08 2009

ThunderboltWhen Russell Bonds asked me, via Facebook, to read an advance copy of his new book, War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta, I had mixed thoughts.  While all facets of the Civil War interest me, and I have read quite a bit, my impressions of the campaign and fight for Atlanta have been formed primarily by Thomas Connelly’s Autumn of Glory.  So, not only am I not an expert, I’m not particularly well read on the subject.  I’m not going to go into great detail here – you can find any number of reviews on the web, and I imagine scholarly, critical reviews are in the works.  The reviews look favorable thus far, and I don’t disagree with their overall tone.  What follows are just a few thoughts.

Thunderbolt is not a detailed, tactical analysis of the campaign; it’s not my idea of a military history.  The battle-pieces don’t venture much below brigade level.  This is popular, narrative  history, with plenty of first hand military and civilian accounts and character studies (Bonds appears to have used a wide array of resources, published and unpublished).  As such, it gets the job done in fine style.  Bonds writes in an engaging, clear, and easy to read manner, and he keeps things moving. 

I don’t necessarily agree with some characterizations.  Joe Johnston comes off as a caricature of the views of his long time detractors (I was disappointed to see the famous Mary Chesnut quail hunt story used again: it’s a tale that I think is just that, too prescient to be believable and probably one of her many “diary” entries created years after the fact).  John Bell Hood is cast in a more favorable light than that in which I’ve seen him over the years.  I’ve never viewed his behavior under Johnston as aggressive, supportive, or even obedient, and I’ve never thought of him as an upgrade over Old Joe.  As I read Thunderbolt I wondered if the Confederacy would have been better off had they given up Atlanta without the fight put up by Hood.  They ended up losing the city and about 20,000 men under Hood, and the hard fought Union victory won Lincoln reelection.  But had Sherman taken possession of the city in a relatively bloodless manner, would it have been viewed as a great victory by the Northern people?  Was Tullahoma?  As it is, I remain unconvinced of Hood’s ability and efforts at army command.

I’ve also never been impressed with Joe Wheeler, who is perhaps too kindly treated by Bonds.  And I wondered at the author’s asserertion that Oliver Howard was referred to as “Uh-Oh” by his commands – I’ve never seen contemporary evidence of it.  The footnoting format makes it a little difficult to tell what his source for this was.

But with the exception of what seems to me a pro-Hood angle, these are nit-picky things.  The strength of Thunderbolt is Bonds’s ability to tell a story.  It will appeal more to folks looking for a good yarn about the Civil War, creatively and colorfully presented (I love the way the book opens with the filming of Gone With the Wind), with not too many X’s and O’s.  And that’s OK, because I think that’s what it was meant to do.  If Bonds piques your interest for more detail, he also points you to where you can find it.  I don’t have to agree with an author’s every assessment to enjoy or even like a book.  I give War Like the Thunderbolt a thumbs up.

As luck would have it, I also received for review two other books, one on the same and the other on a similar topic.  Right now I’m reading Marc Wortman’s The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta.  The scope of Bonfire, if not the length, is much broader than that of Thunderbolt – it’s not until the 121st of 361 pages that Sumter is fired upon.  A much different book indeed.  I’ll let you know what I thought of it when I’m done, but so far I can tell you this guy loves adjectives.

The second book is a novel by Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South.  I don’t usually read Civil War novels, but the publisher was very nice in asking and as it turns out A Separate Country kinda-sorta picks up where Bonfire and Thunderbolt leave off, not in Atlanta, but with Hood in post-war New Orleans.  It looks interesting, and I haven’t taken a fiction break in a while, so what the heck.

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4 responses

1 09 2009
Mike Clem

Hi Harry,

Recently, I picked up Elliott West’s “The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story” (Oxford University Press, 2009). On page 137, the author outlines Howard’s military career, noting the outflanking of XI Corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, adding, “In those and other engagements, his command suffered heavy losses. At some point his men gave General O.O. Howard a wry nickname: ‘Uh-Oh’ Howard.” His footnote references page 84 of the 1995 biography “Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company,” by Roy Morris, Jr.

I remember chuckling at that because although I’m no Howard buff, I’ve read extensively on the ACW and, like you, it was the first time I’d seen that soldiers’ sobriquet of their commander ever used, in contemporary material or elsewhere. The only nickname I could recall for him was “the Christian general.” Now it pops up again in another recent work. It’d be interesting to learn Bonds’ source.

As always, I appreciate your balanced reviews and enjoy your insights — as well as your droll comments. Keep ‘em coming! Thanks.

3 09 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Mike,

I think sometimes things make it into “the books” as they say, and are just accepted. This isn’t the only thing related to Howard that I have found to have no documentary support – there’s also the “fact” that he tried to “shift blame” for the results of July 1, 1863 to Abner Doubleday. The story of Howard’s “torpedo” is completely unsupported, but repeated by dozens of writers.

Until I see contemporary evidence, I’ll file Howard’s nickname in the “myth” folder, along with his famous “torpedo”.

13 10 2009
The Bonfire « Bull Runnings

[...] possibly the most inappropriately titled book I’ve ever read.  Unlike Russell Bonds’s War Like the Thunderbolt, and despite the claims of its title, Wortman’s book is most definitely not primarily [...]

8 12 2010
Interview: Gary Ecelbarger, “The Day Dixie Died” « Bull Runnings

[...] primarily a social history about Atlanta during the war and the war’s impact upon its citizenry. War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta includes “The Battle of Atlanta” in the subtitle but is actually referring to “the battles [...]

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