War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta , Russell S. Bonds, Westholme Publishing, 544 pages, 10 maps, 50+ photographs, end notes, index, bibliography. $29.95.
What initially drew me to this book was the author. In Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor Russell Bonds captures The Andrews Raid of 1862 (better known as the Great Locomotive Chase) so well in detail and story that I hoped a second effort would soon arrive.
During the middle of my reading Thunderbolt, I asked myself 'when have I so thoroughly enjoyed a book on the American Civil War?' As enjoyable as Stealing the General is, War Like A Thunderbolt exceeds it. The freshness of the writing style, the pace of the story, and the handling of an entire campaign is as compelling Bruce Catton's hallmark Army of the Potomac trilogy. When I finished reading Catton's trilogy (each of the three times) I wanted to know more about the Army of the Potomac and its battles. Finishing Thunderbolt, I went to my shelves and found two other related books. Bonds' writing left me with a desire to know more about the battles at Atlanta, its soldiers, its impact on civilians, and even the logistics of moving armies across rivers, mountains, and through the cities of Georgia.
In the Preface Bonds presents the risk that Selznick took in obtaining the rights to Gone With The Wind, then producing and marketing the movie. The impact of tragedy and romance on the representations of the Atlanta campaign was profound. Considerations of Sherman, Johnson, Hood and their armies are often viewed with Gone with the Wind in mind of the popular audience and casual reader of Civil War history. Bonds challenges that Hollywood induced collective memory.
The civilians in the path of the armies are not neglected by Bonds: die hard Rebels, immigrant Northern business families, free and enslaved Blacks appear in the opening chapters, throughout the book and in the final chapter about the Phoenix City. Sherman's reputation is neither polished nor bruised; through Sherman's words Bonds' tells the commander's story of amazing generalship, intuitive leadership and a great deal of luck, earned and unearned. Some the earned luck that Sherman had included his 1844 tour of duty that place him among the mountains and rivers over which his army would march 20 years latter. Bonds pointedly describes Sherman's first visit to northern Georgia and how crucial it was for the formation of his 1864 strategy.
Neither Johnson nor Hood are stereotyped or diminished. Johnson does not act cowardly and Hood is not a laudanum addled commander. Each general has his perspective and talents and commands the army in accordance with them. The soldiers' voice is heard throughout every chapter; corps, divisions and brigades are surely in their place and there commanders and troops are placed as firmly before the reader as they are the enemy.
Three times I've returned to Catton's Mr. Lincoln's Army, Glory Road, and Stillness at Appomattox during my lifetime of reading Civil War history; I plan to do the same with War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta and Stealing the General.