The best books about Abraham Lincoln

7 authors have picked their favorite books about Abraham Lincoln and why they recommend each book.

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Lincoln

By David Herbert Donald,

Book cover of Lincoln

Donald’s one-volume biography of Lincoln remains the standard in the field. I knew David Donald and found him always generous. From his perch at Harvard, Donald dominated the Lincoln field for many decades. His biography of Lincoln stands head and shoulders above a host of more recent studies. In fact, it surprises me people keep writing biographies of Lincoln that go over the same ground repeatedly. Donald brings Lincoln alive with the authority that comes from a lifetime of reflection and writing on the Civil War and our greatest president.


Who am I?

I got my first job as a professor of history in 1972 in Springfield, Illinois, at a new university there. What can you do in Springfield except work on Lincoln? The more I read, the more intrigued I became. Lincoln draws you in. His lively mind and always well-written letters, along with his brilliant and memorable speeches, are endlessly fascinating. He also had genuine integrity as a human being and as a leader in our greatest crisis as a country. It is hard not to be inspired by Abraham Lincoln.


I wrote...

Lincoln's Quest for Union

By Charles B. Strozier,

Book cover of Lincoln's Quest for Union

What is my book about?

Lincoln’s Quest for Union is the first, and remains the only, serious psychoanalytic account of Lincoln’s inner life—from his childhood in Kentucky and Indiana, through his youth and adulthood in Illinois, his years of struggle finding himself in friendship and marriage, through his ascent to the presidency when he guided the nation and articulated for the country the meaning of the Civil War. 

“Surpassingly eloquent.”  The New York Times

Lincoln on the Verge

By Ted Widmer,

Book cover of Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington

This book rocked my world. Imagine this: Congress is meeting to ratify the election of a new president. But half the country doesn't want the new guy; in fact, there are armed thugs wandering around the streets of Washington, making noise about insurrection. The rumors of violence are so disturbing that the police force is put on high alert, and the Vice President, carrying the election paperwork, is assigned extra security. Sound familiar? This was the situation in 1861, as Abraham Lincoln was readying himself for his trip to the Capitol to take office. The book follows his train ride there, and the writing rollicks along just like a train speeding down a track. I adored this book, and for me, it was made even more compelling because I read it about a week after the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021. As a really well-written book, filled with history…


Who am I?

Sylvia Shults is a librarian by day, a ghost hunter by night, and the “hostess with the mostest ghosties” of the Lights Out podcast. During her twenty-plus-year career in libraries, she has managed to smuggle enough words out in her pockets to put together several books of her own, including 44 Years in Darkness, Fractured Spirits: Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital, and Spirits of Christmas. She sits in dark, spooky places so you don't have to, and shares her experiences of her brushes with the other side of the Veil.


I wrote...

Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays

By Sylvia Shults,

Book cover of Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays

What is my book about?

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring... but are you sure about that? The dark winter nights can hold many secrets, along with tales of both horror and hauntings. In this chilling book, Sylvia Shults has gathered over 120 tales of Yuletide Spirits, Holiday Horrors, and Christmas Catastrophes that give a new meaning to the "dead of winter."

These pages include rollicking legends of holiday helpers with dark sides; gripping accounts of Christmas season fires, train wrecks, and disasters; winter tales of phantoms and haunted houses; and a collection of Christmas spirits that are sure to send a shiver down your spine Hearkening back to the days of the paperback anthologies of the 1960s, you'll be delighted when you unwrap this package on Christmas morning and start turning page after page of eerie and frightening tales. It's the perfect collection for the spookiest time of the year.

Killing Lincoln

By Bill O'Reilly, Martin Dugard,

Book cover of Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever

If Abraham Lincoln had survived the war, the country might have followed an entirely different track. Rather than send carpetbaggers to rule the southern states, Lincoln planned on working with the existing rebel governments to transition them back into the Union. However, his policy toward the newly freed blacks was uncertain. Lincoln’s hope was that blacks and whites would learn to live together given time. He just hadn’t figured out how to make that happen.

What’s certain is that Andrew Johnson’s ascendancy to power derailed many of Lincoln’s plans and reversed many of the gains African-Americans had won. Johnson favored quick restoration of the southern states. At the same time, he refused to educate the freedmen and work them into society. His hope was that things would go back to the way they were before the war. Blacks would no longer be slaves but still be dependent on their former…


Who am I?

What could be cooler to a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s than the Civil War? TV spoon-fed us westerns—Bonanza, F-Troop, The Lone Ranger, and The Wild, Wild West. Many of the stories were set during the Civil War or had characters molded by it. And then, somewhere in the mid-1960s, my parents took me to a civil war reenactment. Guns cracked. Cannons boomed, and men fell. I was hooked. I’ve devoured every Civil War book I could get my hands on for the past fifty years and watched every movie remotely connected to the subject. So, it’s only natural I wrote a book about it.


I wrote...

1861: Civil War Beginnings

By Nick Vulich,

Book cover of 1861: Civil War Beginnings

What is my book about?

It’s 1860. Military societies form throughout the south, drilling and waiting for orders to attack. The threat: Abraham Lincoln. Southerners are convinced his election means the end of life as they know it.

Lincoln has received hundreds of death threats since his election. As he travels to Washington for his inaugural, things turn deadly. Rumors say thousands of bloodthirsty Southerners intend to storm the capital, burn the public buildings, and kill the president-elect before he reaches the capital. The attack on Fort Sumter is still months off, but for Abraham Lincoln, war is imminent and real. Very real.

Herndon's Informants

By Douglas L. Wilson, Rodney O. Davis,

Book cover of Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln

William Herndon was Lincoln’s law partner and knew and worked with him from the early 1840s until 1861 when Lincoln left for Washington. After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Herndon tirelessly interviewed many of Lincoln’s family and neighbors from his childhood and youth. As I noted many years ago, Herndon’s project was the first oral history in American literature. His vast collection was long disdained by scholars. I used the records extensively myself and in the 1980s and 1990s those in the Lincoln field realized the letters and interviews were a priceless source. Doug Wilson and his colleagues did an excellent job in editing the Herndon material that is both invaluable for understanding Lincoln and providing a social history of the frontier in the early part of the 19th century.


Who am I?

I got my first job as a professor of history in 1972 in Springfield, Illinois, at a new university there. What can you do in Springfield except work on Lincoln? The more I read, the more intrigued I became. Lincoln draws you in. His lively mind and always well-written letters, along with his brilliant and memorable speeches, are endlessly fascinating. He also had genuine integrity as a human being and as a leader in our greatest crisis as a country. It is hard not to be inspired by Abraham Lincoln.


I wrote...

Lincoln's Quest for Union

By Charles B. Strozier,

Book cover of Lincoln's Quest for Union

What is my book about?

Lincoln’s Quest for Union is the first, and remains the only, serious psychoanalytic account of Lincoln’s inner life—from his childhood in Kentucky and Indiana, through his youth and adulthood in Illinois, his years of struggle finding himself in friendship and marriage, through his ascent to the presidency when he guided the nation and articulated for the country the meaning of the Civil War. 

“Surpassingly eloquent.”  The New York Times

Prelude to Greatness

By Don E. Fehrenbacher,

Book cover of Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850's

Nothing equals this short introduction to Lincoln’s experience in the 1850s. One gains here an understanding of what Springfield on the urban frontier of America was all about, its muddy streets and yet remarkable collection of politicians like Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. It was truly an Athens on the prairie. Fehrenbacher also masterfully traces the role of circuit riding in Lincoln’s law career throughout the decade, as well as his keen sense of the nation’s crisis over slavery, especially after 1854. The book is very readable and accessible.


Who am I?

I got my first job as a professor of history in 1972 in Springfield, Illinois, at a new university there. What can you do in Springfield except work on Lincoln? The more I read, the more intrigued I became. Lincoln draws you in. His lively mind and always well-written letters, along with his brilliant and memorable speeches, are endlessly fascinating. He also had genuine integrity as a human being and as a leader in our greatest crisis as a country. It is hard not to be inspired by Abraham Lincoln.


I wrote...

Lincoln's Quest for Union

By Charles B. Strozier,

Book cover of Lincoln's Quest for Union

What is my book about?

Lincoln’s Quest for Union is the first, and remains the only, serious psychoanalytic account of Lincoln’s inner life—from his childhood in Kentucky and Indiana, through his youth and adulthood in Illinois, his years of struggle finding himself in friendship and marriage, through his ascent to the presidency when he guided the nation and articulated for the country the meaning of the Civil War. 

“Surpassingly eloquent.”  The New York Times

Battle Cry of Freedom

By James M. McPherson,

Book cover of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Beautifully written masterwork on one of the most important wars of the 19th century. It takes the reader from the experience of ordinary soldiers in battle to key debates around the cabinet table, in a rare display of dexterity and understanding of all levels of war. You will enter Grant’s HQ from where he ran the critical Western theater of operations and sit across from Lincoln as he makes the key decision for a hard war that let the Union maximize its resources and win. And you will walk into Lee’s HQ where the Confederacy lost the war in bursts of Southern hubris that led to two ill-conceived invasions of the North that provoked the final crushing.  


Who am I?

I'm an award-winning teacher and writer who introduces students and readers to war in a profession that today is at best indifferent to military history, and more often hostile. That gives me a wry sense of irony, as colleagues would rather teach about fashion than fascism and truffles over tragedy. Having written a multiple award-winning book that covered 2,000 years of war, frankly I was sickened by how the same mistakes were made over and again. It has made me devoted to exploring possibilities for humane behavior within the most inhumane and degraded moral environment humanity creates; where individuality is subsumed in collective violence and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy.


I wrote...

Mercy: Humanity in War

By Cathal J. Nolan,

Book cover of Mercy: Humanity in War

What is my book about?

War presents the most degraded moral environment humanity creates. It is an arena where individuality is subsumed in collective violence, and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy pitted against its reflection in an elemental struggle for survival.

A barbaric logic has guided the conduct of war throughout history. Yet as Cathal Nolan reveals in this gripping, poignant, and powerful book, even as war can obliterate hope and decency at the grand level, it simultaneously produces conditions that permit astonishing exceptions of mercy and shared dignity. Pulling the trigger is usually both the expedient thing and required by war's grim and remorseless calculus. Yet somehow, the trigger is not always pulled. A different choice is made. Restraint triumphs. Humanity is rediscovered and honored in a flash of recognition.

Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln

By Virginia Fehrenbacher (editor), Don E. Fehrenbacher (editor),

Book cover of Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln

People known for witty sayings or informative stories – think Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker, or Yogi Berra and Samuel Goldwyn – tend to have any such items foisted on them. Lincoln, who was a genuine purveyor of funny and biting remarks is a victim of this form of theft in reverse. Any pointed or funny words get more dignity or heft if attributed to him. It is amazing how many such pseudo quotes are collected and sifted by the Fehrenbachers. There is a whole false American history that could be woven together from these fakes.


Who am I?

In high school (the best time for doing this) I read the first two volumes of Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln. A year or so later I made my first trip on an airplane (Saint Louis to Detroit) and an easily recognizable Sandburg was one of the few passengers on our small commercial prop-plane. I was too shy to approach him, but I did sidle up the aisle to see what he was reading or writing (nothing that I could make out). He had boarded the plane alone, but there was a small party meeting him when we landed. I suppose it was Sandburg’s poetic approach to Lincoln that made me alert to the President’s astonishing feel for the English language.


I wrote...

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

By Garry Wills,

Book cover of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

What is my book about?

When, later, I fell in love with the ancient Greeks and got a doctorate in that field, I was surprised at the rhetorical and logical rules that Athenians formulated, rules that Lincoln, with little schooling, grasped intuitively. With an almost miraculous appropriateness, Lincoln gave a funeral oration over the graves at Gettysburg that resembles the Athenian addresses in honor of their fallen military men of the preceding year. The religious ceremonies at the Greek cemetery (Kerameikos) were like the Transcendental cult of nature in the new scenic cemeteries (like Gettysburg) that were replacing the old church graveyards.  Lincoln spoke into a charged air that let him make his brief but powerful address call his audience back to the real meaning of the Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln

By Michael Burlingame,

Book cover of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

All right, children, it is time to eat our vegetables. This massive work of two volumes, each about a thousand pages, is biography as encyclopedia.  And the original text has been trimmed down to this published version. The original text, in all its length and density, can be read online at the  Lincoln Studies Center of Knox College. If the book seems too daunting, just look up in the informative index something you think you know about Lincoln – his Cooper Union address, say, or the Gettysburg Address, or the Second Inaugural --- turn to the relevant pages and see how much more there is to know about your subject. Or, for some racy material, look up “Mary Todd Lincoln, adultery.” Lincoln biographers have always been tough on his wife, but not as harsh as Burlingame is. Once you start looking up something you thought you knew, you will be…


Who am I?

In high school (the best time for doing this) I read the first two volumes of Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln. A year or so later I made my first trip on an airplane (Saint Louis to Detroit) and an easily recognizable Sandburg was one of the few passengers on our small commercial prop-plane. I was too shy to approach him, but I did sidle up the aisle to see what he was reading or writing (nothing that I could make out). He had boarded the plane alone, but there was a small party meeting him when we landed. I suppose it was Sandburg’s poetic approach to Lincoln that made me alert to the President’s astonishing feel for the English language.


I wrote...

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

By Garry Wills,

Book cover of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

What is my book about?

When, later, I fell in love with the ancient Greeks and got a doctorate in that field, I was surprised at the rhetorical and logical rules that Athenians formulated, rules that Lincoln, with little schooling, grasped intuitively. With an almost miraculous appropriateness, Lincoln gave a funeral oration over the graves at Gettysburg that resembles the Athenian addresses in honor of their fallen military men of the preceding year. The religious ceremonies at the Greek cemetery (Kerameikos) were like the Transcendental cult of nature in the new scenic cemeteries (like Gettysburg) that were replacing the old church graveyards.  Lincoln spoke into a charged air that let him make his brief but powerful address call his audience back to the real meaning of the Constitution.

Mrs. Lincoln

By Catherine Clinton,

Book cover of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life

While Mary Lincoln (although we often call her "Mary Todd Lincoln," she preferred "Mary Lincoln," "Mrs. Abraham Lincoln," or the unassuming "Mrs. A. Lincoln") has been the subject of several biographies, this is my favorite, and one which I always used as my first resource when checking a fact or looking for a reference about Mary Lincoln. It's readable, well-sourced, and sympathetic toward its subject without veering into hagiography or being overly indulgent of Mary's foibles.

Who am I?

I write historical fiction about real-life characters, some relatively obscure, some very well known. One of my main goals is to avoid the stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions that have gathered around historical figures. At the same time, I strive to remain true to known historical facts and to the mores of the times in which my characters lived. I use both primary sources—letters, newspapers, diaries, wills, and so forth—and modern historical research to bring my characters to life.


I wrote...

The First Lady and the Rebel

By Susan Higginbotham,

Book cover of The First Lady and the Rebel

What is my book about?

The First Lady and the Rebel is the story of Mary Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm, half-sisters whose affection for each other is tried when they find themselves on the opposite sides of civil war.

Courting Mr. Lincoln

By Louis Bayard,

Book cover of Courting Mr. Lincoln

The other books in this list are all retellings of well-known fairy tales and myths, and though Courting Mr. Lincoln is a fictionalized version of a real man’s life, I would argue that Abraham Lincoln has achieved a sort of mythic status. Louis Bayard has created a gorgeous story about Lincoln told from the perspectives of two people who loved him: his wife, Mary—rendered here with tightly-drawn nuance—and his roommate, Joshua Speed.

Previously, I’d mostly seen Mary Todd Lincoln portrayed as a mother consumed by her grief. Bayard’s Mary is sharply intelligent, independent, and imperfect—she can be as cruel as she can be kind. Few books have stuck with me as completely as this one; with writing that is both lyrical and somehow raw, it brilliantly depicts relationships in all their messy, enduring, heart-breaking intricacy. 


Who am I?

“All stories have two sides,” my fifth-grade teacher said to us one day. “Sometimes, they have more than that.” She told us to rewrite a scene from the book we were reading from the perspective of a different character. What was meant to be a quick writing exercise turned out to be the start of my lifelong fascination with retellings. I love that retold tales show the fundamental truth that everyone has a story, no matter how peripheral they might seem in the original. I’ve written two Pride and Prejudice continuations, and my forthcoming novel is a historical retelling of Beauty and the Beast. 


I wrote...

The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh

By Molly Greeley,

Book cover of The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh

What is my book about?

As a fussy baby, Anne de Bourgh’s doctor prescribed laudanum to quiet her, and now the young woman must take the opium-heavy tincture every day. But she comes to see that what she has always been told is an affliction of nature might in fact be one of nurture – and one, therefore, that she can beat. She throws away her laudanum and seeks refuge at her cousin’s London home. Suddenly wide awake to the world but utterly unprepared, Anne must decide what matters more: society’s approbation, or the pull of her newfound sense of self.

An extraordinary tale of one woman’s liberation, The Heiress reveals both the darkness and light in Jane Austen’s world, with wit, sensuality, and a deeply compassionate understanding of the human heart.

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