The best books to have won the Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize

Douglas R. Egerton Author Of Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America
By Douglas R. Egerton

The Books I Picked & Why

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight

Book cover of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Why this book?

Since 1991, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute and Gettysburg College have annually awarded the Lincoln Prize to the best book on the sixteenth president or the Civil War era, and this biography of Lincoln’s frequent critic and sometimes supporter richly deserved the award. Because Douglass lived nearly eight decades, his eventful life has surely dissuaded potential biographers, with the last full life published in 1992.

Historians have instead focused on one period or aspect of his life, with Leigh Fought examining his relationships with women and Blight himself, in an earlier volume, chronicling Douglass’s activism during the Civil War years. At 764 pages, some readers may find the book’s size intimidating, but Blight is as elegant a writer as he is thorough a researcher.

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The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

By Eric Foner

Book cover of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Why this book?

Historians and popular writers typically come either to praise or to bury Lincoln. The author of a seminal 1970 study of the political culture of the early Republican Party, Foner here examines Lincoln’s thoughts and actions as he grew from being a young free soiler—who held some unfortunately characteristic Midwestern attitudes toward race—into the far wiser president who advocated voting rights for black veterans in his final speech.

Lincoln’s defenders and detractors too often cherry pick his statements on civil rights, as if the Lincoln who debated Stephen Douglas was the same man who invited Frederick Douglass to his second inaugural, but Foner’s careful attention to context reveals a complicated yet ever evolving wartime leader.

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Mourning Lincoln

By Martha Hodes

Book cover of Mourning Lincoln

Why this book?

As are all my choices, Hodes’s study is the result of voluminous research into hundreds of diaries, letters, newspapers, and memoirs, and like my other selections, her book is gracefully written. Hodes reveals the vast range of opinions on Lincoln’s assassination, which rarely broke down along neat sectional lines. Many northern Democrats expressed “glee”—one of Hodes’s chapter titles—over Lincoln’s murder, while a good number of Confederates, even as they regarded Lincoln as a tyrant, worried that his assassination might guarantee northern vengeance.

Lay readers who today instinctively venerate Lincoln will be surprised at how divided many Americans were about his death, an often-partisan schism that foreshadowed the coming battles over Reconstruction. My students, however, take pride in hearing that when Lincoln’s funeral train passed through Syracuse at midnight, thousands of mourners turned out to show their respect.

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Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

By James Oakes

Book cover of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

Why this book?

For decades, historians have argued over who was the most responsible for the death of slavery during the war years. Was it the president, Congress, or self-emancipated freedpeople who forced Washington to confront the issue and then donned blue uniforms to fight for freedom? James Oakes here demonstrates that the enemies of slavery created a formidable alliance and that from the moment South Carolina seceded, the Republican Party was committed to both victory and liberation in the Confederate states.

As he did in a superb earlier volume on Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Oakes depicts the president as a prudent and savvy leader, one careful not to get too far out in front of Congress on this explosive issue. Even so, Oakes observes that while Lincoln quoted from the Second Confiscation Act in his initial Emancipation Proclamation, he used his powers as commander in chief to go beyond the intent of Congress to forge an alliance with black recruits.

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For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

By James M. McPherson

Book cover of For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

Why this book?

James McPherson, the dean of Civil War scholars, is known to most readers as the author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, far and away the best single-volume history of the conflict. But this volume, which came out roughly a decade later in 1997, was one of the first military histories to move beyond generals and commanders and examine why common soldiers enlisted and remained loyal to their fellows even as the bloody conflict dragged on.

After reading tens of thousands of letters and diaries of more than one thousand U.S. and C.S.A. soldiers, McPherson opens previously shuttered windows into their hearts and minds. Their letters home reveal both the tedium and terror of numerous campaigns, and most of all, show how common soldiers were forced to wrestle with the issue of slavery, with northern soldiers, rather like their commander-in-chief, increasingly committed to ending the South’s peculiar institution.

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