Finding the “prince of patients”—John Matteson discovers the whereabouts of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches

friends of sleepy hollow how nurse alcott earned her starOn Saturday, April 2 many of us had the distinct pleasure of hearing Pulitzer-prize-winning author John Matteson speak at the Colonial Inn in Concord for the Friends of Sleepy Hollow’s annual breakfast. His talk was titled “How Nurse Alcott Earned Her Star: The Author of Little Women and the Civil War.”

He was referring to the marker on Alcott’s grave which indicates her war veteran status due to her service as a nurse in the Civil War.

A story of transformation

It was a wonderful entry point into a compelling story of a writer’s transformation after a scant six weeks of service and the soldier that played a major role in that transformation. From his paper Matteson writes,

“Alcott would not have written Little Women or any of the other books for which she is chiefly remembered, were it not for the metamorphosis that she underwent as an army nurse. It was this time, Alcott later wrote, that enabled her discover her true writing style – an observation that I think means something more than just the way she put words together.”

from www.theruinedcapitol.com

The Union Hotel Hospital, from www.theruinedcapitol.com

War and writing

Louisa had also written in her journal that she longed to see a war, wishing she could have marched off with the soldiers. She applied to become a nurse; because of her experience in nursing Lizzie, she was accepted and assigned to the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown.

Her first commercial success, Hospital Sketches came about as a result of the letters she sent home to her family describing her experiences. She framed them into a thinly disguised memoir, calling herself Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle.

Fact or fiction?

Alcott aficionados are well aware of her skill in mixing fiction with fact: it is almost impossible at times to tell where one ends and the other begins. This set up a conundrum in tracing down the star of the most memorable chapter of Hospital Sketches, “A Night,” a soldier referred to as “John.”

Alcott’s journal provides the last name of Suhre but as Matteson was to discover, this name was going to prove troublesome. So were the supposed “facts” which Louisa provided in “A Night.” Except for the description of his appearance, demeanor and injury, none of the details she provided about his family or background proved to be true.

Many lives changed

Matteson is currently at work on a book on the Battle of Fredericksburg and how it shaped luminaries Walt Whitman, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Chaplain Arthur Fuller (brother to Margaret) and a Confederate artillery major named John Pelham who became the “youngest man and the lowest ranking officer to lie in state in the Confederate Capital Building,” along with Louisa May Alcott. It was through his preliminary research that he discovered the real John Suhre.

From left to right, Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. , Arthur Fuller, John Pelham

From left to right, Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. , Arthur Fuller, John Pelham

rable fredericksburgWhat’s in a name?

Suhre’s surname was often misspelled. Louisa sometimes referred to it as “Sulie” in her journal. During his research, Matteson read military historian George C. Rable’s book, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! In it he found an intriguing passage which led him in the direction of John Suhre (referred to as “Shure”). Matteson writes,

“Rable takes brief notice of a letter he believed to have been drafted by an army nurse who was working at a Georgetown hospital. Writing to the mother of “John Shure,” the ostensible nurse reports that she had not found his name on the official roster but had, after a lengthy search, tracked him down. Evidently John Suhre was, sadly, elusive even in his own time. Rable quotes a line from the letter: “He thinks he is getting well but does not know his condition.” That line, to an Alcott aficionado, is a smoking gun, for it precisely matches John’s prognosis and state of mind reported in Hospital Sketches. The fact that Rable identified the correspondent as a nurse raised the thrilling possibility of a double find: we know that Alcott wrote a letter to Suhre’s mother; might the letter in the archive be in Alcott’s hand? To Rable, “John Shure” was just another casualty of Fredericksburg. An expert on war, not literature, he did not seize upon the Alcott connection. The variant spelling of Suhre’s last name was a small puzzle, but Rable had said just enough. The trail leading toward Alcott’s John, ice cold for more than one hundred fifty years, was warm again, and it led to the archives of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.”

Learning details of Private Suhre

Matteson eventually found two letters (both transcribed) in the archives of the Amy War College in Carlisle, PA which yielded interesting detail:

“… the most telling find is Suhre’s return address: “Company D, 133 Regt.” At long last, to learn the particulars of John Suhre’s military service, I now had only to walk across the reading room. In volume 4 of Samuel P. Bates’s History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, the regimental roster for the 133rd Pennsylvania Volunteers lists as having died of his wounds at Fredericksburg a soldier from Company D: Private ‘John Shure.’”

Matteson was able to discover Suhre’s birth date and place (October 29, 1841 in New Baltimore, Somerset County, PA), and the names of his parents (Joseph and Sarah) and siblings (Johanna and George, not Lizzy and Jack, as reported in Hospital Sketches).

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches" historicaldigression.com

From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”
historicaldigression.com

Louisa and John meet

From there Matteson described the story familiar to all Alcott fans—Louisa’s decision to serve as a nurse and the long journey to Georgetown (beginning on December 12, 1862), all the while paralleling Private Suhre’s service in the army which began on August 14, 1862. He eventually fought in the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg, receiving his wounds after his regiment was ordered to withdraw. He arrived at the Union Hotel Hospital a few days after Louisa’s arrival.

Suhre’s impact on Louisa

It was here in the presentation that Matteson focused on the change in Louisa’s writing as a result of her chance meeting with John Suhre. Citing a passage from Hospital Sketches which describes her response to Suhre’s suffering Matteson writes,

“Whenever I read those lines, I have the sensation of seeing a new writer being born. In the stories Alcott had written up to that moment, there had been emotions and sensations aplenty. But it has always seemed to me that she had never struck down to the true core of feeling until Trib Periwinkle offers to bear a portion of the pain of the wounded blacksmith. Of all the moments that shaped Alcott’s thinking about human needs and how we answer them, none was more important than this. It exemplified what she came to see as the greatest good in life: the sweetness of sharing another’s adversity. In much of her best fiction, turning points occur when central female characters resolve to take upon themselves the burdens of the people they love. To Alcott heroines, times of challenge present themselves as opportunities to transcend selfishness. Those opportunities are almost always accepted.”

I recall my reaction to reading “A Night,” feeling as if Louisa had seen the inside of my soul; it was this mutual understanding of the nature and value of suffering that stoked the fire of passion within me for her life and works.

hospital sketchesBack to fact versus fiction

Matteson then tackles the quandary of Louisa’s mixing of fact and fiction, busting wide open a myth. In Hospital Sketches, Louisa writes of holding John’s hand as he died:

“He never spoke again, but to the end held my hand close, so close that when he was asleep at last, I could not draw it away. Dan helped me, warning me as he did so that it was unsafe for dead and living flesh to lie so long together; … my hand was strangely cold and stiff, and four white marks remained across its back, even when warmth and color had returned elsewhere.”

Truth be told, Louisa took poetic license: according to the matron, Louisa was not present when Suhre died as she was attending to other duties. Matteson writes,

“In her fiction, Alcott rewrote the details, perhaps not only for the dramatic effect but also because of the nagging guilt she may have felt for not having been at his side.”

I have to admit, I wish I had not found out that detail though it does not take away the power and poignancy of her description of that scene. The emotion clearly came from her gut.

for louisa

Reconciliation between father and daughter

In winding up the story of Louisa’s service, Matteson described her illness and the summoning of Bronson to take her home. He explored the healing effects of her service on their relationship: she had truly pleased him, appealing to his number one priority in life of self-sacrifice. Matteson declared that he could find no evidence of derision from Bronson after she had served at the hospital. He then cited the famous sonnet written by the father for the daughter which ends with the famous line “I press thee to my heart, as Duty’s faithful child.”

A look at Bronson’s heart

As a side note, I was hitherto unaware that Bronson had written sonnets on his wife, all four daughters and many friends. This led me to Sonnets and Canzonets, written in 1882, available through archive.org. It is a lovely volume that reveals the heart of Bronson Alcott. This book dispels the notion that Bronson was all thought; he felt deeply. The fun part of this book is that none of the people mentioned in the sonnets are directly identified; it will be up to the diligent Alcott sleuth to identify all the people who were so important to Bronson. I will be sharing some of those sonnets in the next post.

Simple truths

Matteson concluded with the essence of Louisa’s transformation as a writer—how she could take “simple instances of kindness and courage from her own life and weave them into irresistible fiction.” Without the Union Hotel Hospital, without John Suhre, there would have been no Little Women, Eight Cousins, Jo’s Boys and all the other stories that made Louisa so loved over the years and still widely read today.

louisa books

Inspiration

No John Matteson presentation would be complete without an inspiring finish. Returning to the description of Louisa’s grave with the star showing her war veteran status, he shared how his life has been changed for the better because of Louisa May Alcott. Many of us can say the same. I admit to getting misty-eyed, thinking of the work and all the obstacles that lie ahead for me in telling the story of Lizzie when he said, “For all of us here today, in whatever form of excellence we have been given to pursue, there are stars still waiting to be won. I am grateful indeed that we have examples like John Suhre and Louisa May Alcott to show us how it can be done.”

Thank you, John. Thank you, Private Suhre. Thank you, Louisa May Alcott.

Where to find out more

John Matteson’s essay on the discovery of John Suhre appears in the March 2015 edition of the New England Quarterly. It is not easy to find out where to purchase the issue so I would suggest either looking for it on JStor or contacting the New England Quarterly at neq@umb.edu. Note: it took me several weeks to receive my issue once I ordered it but it was worth the wait. The New England Quarterly also has a Facebook page.

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3 thoughts on “Finding the “prince of patients”—John Matteson discovers the whereabouts of John Suhre from Hospital Sketches

  1. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for your report on Matteson’s talk. What he discovered is fascinating — I must read his book when it comes out.

  2. In developing “Louisa May Alcottt:
    Beyond Little Women” I use the story The Brothers” to talk about her nursing experience and use the contraband’s (Robert) transformation and bonding to portray her sacrifice and growth as writer from that.
    I mis-emembered John S from Virginia!
    It is a wonderful discovery thanks for sharing.

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