Many of us have never experienced a war, especially if we were born after 1960. How would you react if confronted with it? How would it change you?

Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Matteson gives readers a chance to ponder that thought and much more in his latest nonfiction offering, A Worse Place Than Hell: How the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation (W. W. Norton & Company). Through the lives of five 19th-century figures, Matteson provides a personal and immediate experience of the cataclysmal Battle of Fredericksburg and its devastating aftermath. Meticulously researched, it is a powerful and exquisite story of resiliency, creativity, redemption and transformation that puts a human face on an unspeakable war. It is haunting yet hopeful, a book to be savored and examined.

A Worse Place Than Hell is not another academic study, although there is plenty to satisfy any Civil War devotee. What amazed me about this book was its scope, skillfully interweaving these actors’ lives with significant historical events and extracting profound meaning with their narratives. The text reads like a historical novel complete with a riveting plotline and in-depth character development, inviting readers to become involved in the protagonists’ stories.

Some are well-known while others have faded into obscurity: associate Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Confederate lieutenant colonel John Pelham, the Reverend Arthur Fuller (younger brother of Margaret Fuller), Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women), and poet Walt Whitman. Each was motivated by romantic notions of duty to country and passion for their cause. The harsh reality of battle fomented fear, anxiety, anger, confusion and existential questions about the meaning of it all. It also summoned extraordinary courage.

Holmes and Pelham fought and served with valor. Alcott and Whitman nursed the wounded with unadulterated selflessness and compassion. Chaplain Fuller, compelled to action, stepped outside of his assigned role, giving his life as a soldier. Only Holmes, Alcott and Whitman survived, and each paid a steep price, not unlike the country at large. The dramatic change in each of them reflected that of the nation struggling to rebuild and redeem itself.

As I am not a Civil War enthusiast, I had misgivings going through the chapters on the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, thinking they would not keep my interest. However, I knew that plodding through was necessary as Fredericksburg was the nexus point for all five players. One must understand what transpired on the battlefield to appreciate their stories. Matteson’s graphic descriptions of battle provided a visceral experience, a slow-burn to the climax that was the extraordinary responses of these five people to an unspeakable tragedy.

A Worse Place Than Hell is a historical account that transcends its period. One cannot read this book without a sense that history may be repeating itself: two sides with their rigid ideologies unable to come to an understanding — would our nation again subjugate itself to open warfare on our own soil? My suggestion would be to read A Worse Place than Hell, internalize it, and then share it with everyone you know. If anything, it will cause the reader to pause and ponder, perhaps motivating some positive action.

Can one person make a difference? The stories of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., John Pelham, Arthur Fuller, Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman prove that, perhaps, one can. For Holmes, Alcott and Whitman (whose lives and works are still remembered), the results of their metamorphoses after the war rippled out into the wider world. As Matteson wrote in his Prologue to the book, “If these five had not lived, or if the calamity of Fredericksburg had never touched their lives, we would now inhabit a different nation.” 

A Worse Place Than Hell is a masterpiece, a must-read

Q and A with John Matteson

Q: Would you describe this book as a series of connections?

A: There are a lot of ways in which a book tries to connect. I think that, as a biographer, I’m very much in the business of creating connections between my books’ subjects and their readers. Whereas some people may think of a biographer as a kind of verbal portrait artist, my goal is to be more of a liaison — someone who brings readers and historical figures together in a lively, kinetic fashion. I don’t want readers just to look at my subjects. I want readers to know them, to the greatest extent that time and distance will allow.

I think the most important connections are not personal, but rather thematic: How do these five all seek redemption? What are they trying to prove to themselves and to the world? What were their greatest disappointments and greatest triumphs? How do they understand and express faith, kindness and courage? When I was planning the book, I wrote out pages and pages of interpretive questions that I wanted an astute reader to be able to answer once she or he had read the book.

Q: How did you figure out that these five extraordinary people were linked to the Battle of Fredericksburg?

A: I don’t think there was an “a-ha” moment. I had been interested in John Pelham and in the Civil War generally since late childhood, and I got a good, stiff dose of Holmesian thought when I went to law school. I specialize as a professor in 19th-century American literature, so Whitman was pretty inescapable. I’ve written previous books on Alcott and on Arthur Fuller’s tragic older sister, Margaret. So I came upon all of these interests in a kind of piecemeal fashion.

What I find remarkable, though — and there was no way I could have planned this — each of the stories I was telling took me to a different place on the Fredericksburg battlefield, such that I could narrate more or less the entire battle through the experiences of important characters. Arthur Fuller and Holmes’s regiment are in the street fight on the first day of the battle. Then, on the climactic day of the battle, John Pelham does heroic things on the Union left, Walt Whitman’s brother George charges up the Confederate middle, and John Suhre (the Pennsylvania private who so profoundly impresses Alcott when they meet in a Georgetown hospital) attacks at the end of the battle on the Union right. It’s incredibly serendipitous.

I will say, though, that I was astonished to find how often the theme of the search for the lost beloved reasserted itself in the factual record. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., travels to Antietam in search of his wounded son. Bronson Alcott comes to Georgetown to rescue Louisa. Whitman searches for George twice, both after Fredericksburg and later, when George becomes a prisoner of war. In this war that is so often described as “brother against brother,” there is a constant, desperate desire to preserve and defend and reunite family.

Q: As part of your research, you visited Fredericksburg. What were your impressions? 

A: I think I visited Fredericksburg three times — once on the anniversary of the battle so I could check the angle of the sun at that time of year. I’m serious! I walked as much of the field as I could, following the routes of Union regiments, walking the length of the stone wall where so many soldiers perished, sometimes using a stopwatch to estimate how long a particular troop movement might have taken.

I have two huge impressions. The first is of the staff that oversees the historic site. They are fabulous! Especially John Hennessey, the park’s chief historian, who gave me a wonderfully warm welcome, and Frank O’Reilly, a superb historian in his own right who gave me a special, customized tour of the field, showing me just the features I needed to see. They are extraordinary professionals.

My second impression, alas, is not quite so happy. Unlike a field like Antietam, which is far from the beaten path and is almost perfectly preserved, the battlefield at Fredericksburg lay in and around a growing town, and the town has kept on growing, such that many of the key sites are now bland suburban neighborhoods. Only a relatively few small patches look roughly the same as they did in 1862. It’s a little heartbreaking to see the scene of Pelham’s magnificent stand reduced to a small marker next to a pharmacy, or was it an auto parts store? I understand that societies survive by selling soap and spark plugs, but we really don’t honor or protect our history in this country nearly as much as we should. 

Q: What other sites did you visit?

A: I explored John Pelham’s native region in Alabama. I also visited Antietam and Kelly’s Ford twice and paid single visits to Ball’s Bluff, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. There’s really no substitute for walking the ground. 

Q: Describe your interest in the Civil War. What fascinated you about it?

A: The Civil War defines who we are as a nation, more than any event other than the Revolution. If you love something, one of the best ways to show it is by learning everything you can about it. I have a kind of fitful, frustrating love of America, and wanting to know about the people and occurrences that have shaped it is the way I express that love.

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John Matteson is a professor of English and legal writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for the book Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.  His more recent book, The Lives of Margaret Fuller, has been awarded the Ann M. Sperber Prize for Best Biography of a Journalist. Matteson’s annotated edition of Alcott’s Little Women, published by W. W. Norton in 2015, reached number one on Amazon’s list of bestselling works of children’s literary criticism. Matteson is a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society and a former Fellow of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, where he formerly served as deputy director.