... moving ... Choosing five figures from the Civil War—of different backgrounds, temperaments and political views—gives Mr. Matteson the opportunity to range widely over varied perspectives, and his firm grasp of detail, visible as well in his fine biographies of the Alcott family and Margaret Fuller, makes each of his characters vivid and distinctive ... Interweaving the five stories requires Mr. Matteson to circle frequently back in time so that, for example, we can be reading about one individual in 1862 and then, in the next chapter, move back to the 1850s to catch up with another. This structure creates a somewhat meandering reading experience, but it also deepens the layered, palimpsest quality of Mr. Matteson account ... The book’s subtitle is perhaps overly ambitious ... Nonetheless Mr. Matteson is justified in emphasizing Fredericksburg, especially because some of those who were directly or indirectly involved in the battle had such an outsize role in the postwar years. The ill-considered strategy of Gen. Burnside at Fredericksburg produced a tragic bloodbath. A Worse Place Than Hell reminds us of the wider effects of war, beyond the carnage.
... is not, strictly speaking, a military history, though the reader learns about battle tactics and strategies. This is human history, in which Matteson skillfully weaves the biographies of 'five heroes' ... Matteson is an elegant writer, and his narrative is compelling and often cinematic. His description of death...is far more vivid than what is found in most military-history books ... Despite the book’s many strengths, though, there are some missed opportunities to enrich the story. Pelham, of the horse artillery, brought two slaves with him to the front, which was not uncommon for officers of the Southern gentry. But we are left wondering what became of them after he died in battle.
Matteson immerses readers ... Equally compelling is Matteson’s tracking of difficult family relationships, literary breakthroughs, and how Holmes’ war experiences influenced his thinking as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Here, too, are dramatic scenes of Abraham Lincoln’s political and moral quandaries—the book’s title is his phrase—in the aftermath of the horrific Battle of Fredericksburg, a touchstone for the exceptional and influential individuals Matteson incisively portrays in this masterful and distinctive inquiry.