Pulitzer Prize–winning author John Matteson illuminates three harrowing months of the Civil War and their enduring legacy for America.
December 1862 drove the United States toward a breaking point. The Battle of Fredericksburg shattered Union forces and Northern confidence. As Abraham Lincoln’s government threatened to fracture, this critical moment also tested five extraordinary individuals whose lives reflect the soul of a nation. The changes they underwent led to profound repercussions in the country’s law, literature, politics, and popular mythology. Taken together, their stories offer a striking restatement of what it means to be American.
Guided by patriotism, driven by desire, all five moved toward singular destinies. A young Harvard intellectual steeped in courageous ideals, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. confronted grave challenges to his concept of duty. The one-eyed army chaplain Arthur Fuller pitted his frail body against the evils of slavery. Walt Whitman, a gay Brooklyn poet condemned by the guardians of propriety, and Louisa May Alcott, a struggling writer seeking an authentic voice and her father’s admiration, tended soldiers’ wracked bodies as nurses. On the other side of the national schism, John Pelham, a West Point cadet from Alabama, achieved a unique excellence in artillery tactics as he served a doomed and misbegotten cause.
John Matteson is a Distinguished Professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his first book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. A former Deputy Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography, he is also a former fellow at the Center, whose support assisted him in writing his second book, The Lives of Margaret Fuller, winner of the Ann M. Sperber Prize. He has written extensively on nineteenth-century American literature and is also the editor of The Annotated Little Women.
Debby Applegate won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for her first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, and is the author of Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age, forthcoming from Doubleday in September 2021. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.