Return to Book Review List
THAT FATEFUL LIGHTNING
Reviewed by Dave Walter
A Civil War buff has to be familiar with at least two central figures in the conflict: Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. In many ways, Grant is both a more interesting character and more unknown to today's observers. Far fewer people write or read about Grant.
Lee, once he made the decision to cast his lot with the South, was destined to serve a key role in the Confederacy's military affairs. Grant, however, was not someone you would identify in 1861 as being the single most crucial piece in the Union's struggle to overcome the rebellion. Both Lee and Grant rose to command their side's armies. Lee, however, became a mystery, a "marble man" of the Lost Cause. He never wrote his memoirs (thus avoiding offending anyone) and died five years after the War ended. People were curious to learn more about this hero. On the other hand, Grant became a two-term president of the United States. An honest man, nevertheless his terms were racked by scandals and corruption. Financially ruined, he struggled to write his memoirs as a means of providing support for his wife, Julia, before throat cancer could take him in 1885. His memoirs, published by Mark Twain, were a posthumous success and, perhaps, everyone got all they needed to know about Grant before the 20th century dawned.
If you haven't read a biography of Gen. Grant, then this historical novel may be just the kind of lighter reading that will appeal. Author Parry is a retired surgeon, and an expert regarding Wyatt Earp. Grant's struggle to finish his memoirs in his final months alive is the setting around which Parry gives the reader an oversight into Grant's life, his character strengths and flaws, and his most important campaigns.
The campaigns he considers most crucial to an understanding of the rise of Grant are Shiloh, Vicksburg, and The Wilderness.
Shiloh solidifies his relationship with William T. Sherman, leading to a life-long friendship and working relationship. The slaughter sickens Grant; however he realizes the necessity for battle, knowing that the caution of men like Halleck and McClellan will only prolong the War and eventually lengthen the casualty lists. Grant always believed that the War's turning point was the capture of the Mississippi which cut the Confederacy in two. The Wilderness demonstrated that Lee's Army, and its destruction, was the object. The author seeks to dramatize the decision Grant makes: "Along the road a party of riders appeared at the head of the crossing. The foot soldiers raised their heads. It was General Grant. There could be no mistaking his hunched shoulders and ever-present cigar. He stopped beside the division officers. The men watched Grant raise his arm and point. He pointed South. An excited murmur ran through the ranks. They were not retreating. They were marching south toward Richmond! Men leaped to their feet and threw their caps into the air. Shouts and cheers burst from their throats. Tears of joy filled the soldier's eyes. The sacrifice had not been in vain."
In the course of the book, you'll learn about the slave that Grant owned, his prowess on a horse, his love of Julia and son, Fred , a frequent battlefield visitor. You'll also learn that his failure as a farmer was not due to incompetence but to a national banking failure. His penchant for liquor and cigars is front and center along with his battles with Halleck and the incompetent Gen. McPherson.
I found interesting the account of Grant's meeting with Lee at Appomattox. While the words they spoke to each other are well-known the tone isn't. The author supposes that Gen. Lee launches a "petty barb" when he tells Grant he remembers meeting him during the Mexican war but has "never been able to recall a single feature" of how Grant looked.
My own petty barb is that the author gets a few facts wrong. He has Longstreet as head of the Third Corps, not the First. He has Lee and Johnson beating up McClellan on the Peninsula in April 1862, several months early. Of more consequence is his having Grant think "From now on (after Wilderness) he would tightly grasp the reins of this army. Issuing general directives to Meade and expecting him to firm up the specifics had not worked." Several historians attribute just such a loose grip to the costly failure at Cold Harbor some weeks later.
As the dust jacket says, this is "A rich, compelling, and action-packed addition to our nation's literature of the Civil War ... an unforgettable portrait of a uniquely American hero, a simple but misunderstood man who felt truly at peace only amid the horror and chaos of war."