A Worse Place Than Hell: How The Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg Changed a Nation, by John Matteson

March 26, 2021 at 1:17 am (Book review, books, History)

This handsome youth is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. In the course of his military service in the Union Army, he was wounded on three separate occasions. Afterwards, having made it through this harrowing experience, he vowed to enter the practice of law. He was not only interested in becoming a lawyer, but was equally interested in exploring the philosophical underpinnings of the profession.

In this photo, Holmes appears composed and confident. He was not that way at all by the time his service ended. He was lucky to be alive and he knew it. But he had seen terrible things that could never be forgotten. They affected the entire remainder of his long life.

As far as can be known, Holmes regarded his survival as mere happenstance— confirming, not disrupting, his sense of the universe as a place of inscrutable, mindless forces. If it had any effect on his thinking at all, the wounding at Antietam more stoutly convinced Holmes, already a religious doubter, that the world had neither plan nor reason. The power that drove the world could be neither understood nor appeased. Randomness had become God.

Holmes went on to become one of the most distinguished Supreme Court Judges this country has known. He also served in that capacity for a very long time – just under thirty years. This record remains unbroken.

In A Worse Place Than Hell, John Matteson describes some of these terrible things in excruciating detail. I had to force myself to read some passages. But I felt that I had to. For one thing, this was such a compelling narrative and so beautifully written. For another, it was such a huge part of this country’s past, and therefore, of my past. I have heard it said that the Civil War was America’s Iliad. It seems to me an apt comparison.

The lives of four other individuals are delineated in this book.   Louis May Alcott came to Washington to work in the hospitals where wounded soldiers were treated.

She told herself, “There is work for me, and I’ll have it.” She went back to her room “resolved to take Fate by the throat and shake a living out of her.”

Walt Whitman did likewise, although he worked at a different location from Alcott. There is no evidence that they ever encountered one another.

Here is another picture of Whitman, taken when he was younger. I was struck by this image, having only seen him as an elderly, heavily bearded sage.

Whitman was a big-hearted man of very modest means, with not much in the way of tangible effects to give to these sick and wounded young men. So he did what he could:

The poet gave almost every form of sustenance: blackberries, peaches, lemons, preserves, pickles, milk, wine, brandy, tobacco, tea, underclothing, and handkerchiefs all passed into the hands of his grateful boys. He wrote countless letters and read aloud, both from his own poetry and from whatever material a soldier might fancy. It seemed to Whitman, however, that the most precious gift he gave lay in “the simple matter of physical presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism.”

Arthur Fuller was a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard Divinity school. A gentle soul who yearned to ‘do something for my country,’ Fuller became chaplain to to the Sixteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in 1861.

He came from a distinguished family. Margaret Fuller was his sister. His full name was Arthur Buckminster Fuller, and yes, R. Buckminster Fuller, he of geodesic dome fame, was his grandson.

Arthur Fuller’s brother Richard wrote his biography in 1864. It is available on the Internet Archive.

It opens thus:

HERE is a natural curiosity to trace a stream to its source — to follow it back to the hills from whose bosom it first springs to life-. The more noble the flow of its current, the more beneficent its waters, in opening paths to inland navigation or furnishing food for man, so much the keener is curiosity to trace it to the crystal fountain of its origin. The undiscovered source of the Nile was for centuries the theme of speculation. Inquirers, after the ancient method, propounded this practical question to the oracles of reason, and drew from them the enigmatical responses of theory ; never apparently thinking of the solution, which modern empiricism has reached, by actually threading back the stream, and thus working out the safe result of observation.

Human life, like the river, may attract little public notice in its playful early course, when prattling among the parent hills, or leaping in gay cascades on its downward way, to swell, eventually, into the graver, deeper current of manhood. But if, as its waters gather head, they furnish a spectacle of natural beauty in their flow or fall, or bestow public blessings in banks made green and fruitful, or bountiful fisheries, or bear upon their back the burdens of navigation, or attract attention by the glory of their exit into the sea, symbolizing the issue of life for time into the ocean of eternity, — then men turn their steps back to the early stream, and search out, in its source and surroundings, every presage of its destiny.

How I yearn to read more of such lovely, old-fashioned prose! And in the service of Arthur Buckminster Fuller, a courageous and immensely appealing man.

And finally, John Pelham, a young tearaway from Alabama who became a first rate artillery officer. Not only that, he astonished his fellow soldiers with acts of brazen, almost inhuman bravado on the battlefield.

John G. White of the Second Maryland Infantry outdid even [J.E.B.] Stuart in his appreciation. To him, Pelham was nothing less than “some god of battle.” But in an instant, a battle can turn a god to dust.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Arthur Fuller, John Pelham. These five individuals are the linchpins of this narrative. There is plenty of description of battles also, especially of Antietam and Fredericksburg. Much of it was difficult to read.

Men killed with cold, unthinking hatred— hatred for the war, for the enemy, for the miserable fate that had led them here, hatred perhaps above all for themselves. Many of the participants who told of it later, even though they had seen the slaughter with their own eyes, could not believe the heartbreaking truths that they were telling.

Heartbreaking is exactly the right word. I experienced that sensation over and over as I read this book. Yet I think that, at least from my perspective, One owes it to these mean to learn of what they went through, to acknowledged both the heroism and the horror of this brutal war.

  This book is superb. I’ve been reading a great deal of history lately, yet the stories contained in  A Worse Place Than Hell – the words are Lincoln’s; the full quotation is “If There Is a Worse Place Than Hell, I Am In It” – will remain with me the longest.

They watched as “the sun set in the smoke of battle,” a sight that, for some of them, surpassed anything they had ever imagined. Now and then a shell would explode against the sky, ironically forming “the most beautiful wreaths” of color. As the sound of the artillery rolled on, the heavens darkened, and the blood-red sun went down, Chaplain Hartsock thought “the orb of day” wore “a fitting appearance” as it looked down “upon the crimson tide that flowed from American veins.”

 

1 Comment

  1. Bobbie Bernet said,

    Hans and I both read this. Fascinating, and a good addition to any Civil War library.

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