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

Who am I?

My father’s ancestors had deep ties to the South, owning slaves in North Carolina and fighting for the Confederacy. Raised in a household that was also home to a paternal grandmother born in Nashville in 1885, I grew up fascinated by the troubled, complicated world of the Old South. Over the years I have written nine books, all of which chronicle the intersections of race and politics in the nineteenth century. Since 1987 I have had the pleasure of teaching about the Civil War era to students in my home institution of Le Moyne College, but also at Colgate University, Cornell University, and the University College Dublin. Those classes never witnessed a dull moment.


I wrote...

Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America

By Douglas R. Egerton,

Book cover of Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America

What is my book about?

Many Americans are familiar with the fabled Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, the first African American regiment to be raised in the North during the Civil War, thanks to the 1989 film Glory. Because that movie ended with the July 18, 1863, attack on Battery Wagner, filmgoers mistakenly believed that was the end of the regiment’s story, or that all of its soldiers perished during that battle.

My book, which was the co-recipient of the 2017 Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize, told the story of fourteen soldiers, including two sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who served in the three pioneering Massachusetts regiments. Although few of them were flawless individuals, their heroism both in the face of battle and, in some cases, during the Reconstruction battles, humbled me as I sought to recover their lives.

The books I picked & why

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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.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Frederick Douglass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History**

"Extraordinary...a great American biography" (The New Yorker) of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with…


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.

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

By Eric Foner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Fiery Trial as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Selected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, this landmark work gives us a definitive account of Lincoln's lifelong engagement with the nation's critical issue: American slavery. A master historian, Eric Foner draws Lincoln and the broader history of the period into perfect balance. We see Lincoln, a pragmatic politician grounded in principle, deftly navigating the dynamic politics of antislavery, secession, and civil war. Lincoln's greatness emerges from his capacity for moral and political growth.


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.

Mourning Lincoln

By Martha Hodes,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Mourning Lincoln as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How did individual Americans respond to the shock of President Lincoln's assassination? Diaries, letters, and intimate writings reveal a complicated, untold story.
Winner of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, a Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2015, and a long list finalist for the National Book Award "[A] lyrical and important new study."-Jill Lepore, New York Times Book Review
"Richly detailed and exquisitely written, . . . it immerses the readers in the world of 1865."-Anne Sarah Rubin, Journal of American History

The news of Abraham Lincoln's assassination on April 15, 1865, just days after Confederate surrender, astounded the war-weary…


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.

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

By James Oakes,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Freedom National as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Freedom National is a groundbreaking history of emancipation that joins the political initiatives of Lincoln and the Republicans in Congress with the courageous actions of Union soldiers and runaway slaves in the South. It shatters the widespread conviction that the Civil War was first and foremost a war to restore the Union and only gradually, when it became a military necessity, a war to end slavery. These two aims-"Liberty and Union, one and inseparable"-were intertwined in Republican policy from the very start of the war.

By summer 1861 the federal government invoked military authority to begin freeing slaves, immediately and…


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.

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

By James M. McPherson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked For Cause and Comrade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

General John A. Wickham, commander of the famous 101st Airborne Division in the 1970s and subsequently Army Chief of Staff, once visited Antietam battlefield. Gazing at Bloody Lane where, in 1862, several Union assaults were brutally repulsed before they finally broke through, he marveled, `You couldn't get American soldiers today to make an attack like that.' Why did those men risk certain death, over and over again, through countless bloody battles and four long,
awful years ? Why did the conventional wisdom - that soldiers become increasingly cynical and disillusioned as war progresses - not hold true in the Civil…


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