Several years ago, our on-site partner, Ford’s Theatre Society, created an iconic tower of books about Abraham Lincoln, which is encircled by a three-story spiral staircase at their Center for Education and Leadership. This impressive spectacle resides directly across the street from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Added up the books in this 34-foot tower represent approximately 6,800 books. This is just a small portion of the books that have been written about Lincoln.
The vast volume of books about Lincoln available, including both in-print and out-of-print works, makes it difficult to gain a command of our sixteenth president. Fortunately, the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, celebrated in 2009, produced a flood of acclaimed books about Lincoln that have come to be regarded as contemporary classics. In that year and in the years following, historians wrote and published an unprecedented bevy of great new studies on Lincoln.
Biographies on Lincoln are typically lengthy. While Ronald C. White, Jr.’s 2009 A. Lincoln: A Biography is a 600-plus page tome, White is often conversational in tone, and has a keen eye for great anecdotes that paint a fuller picture of Lincoln. James M. McPherson, a well-known Civil War historian, also created a slim and highly readable biography during this time. His 79-page Abraham Lincoln, including back material, invites readers to ask how would one succinctly sum up the 56 years of Lincoln’s life, and if that is even possible? This is a great introduction to Lincoln, and the included annotated bibliography provides a welcome road map to other existing scholarship. While not strictly a biography, Kenneth J. Winkle’s Abraham and Mary Lincoln, examines a partnership that shaped a political career and a remarkable presidency. Mary Lincoln is a popular topic among Lincoln historians, but unfortunately some scholars have unfairly criticized and maligned her character. Winkle deftly deals with the relationship between the two and provides a more even-handed, nuanced portrayal of her.
Arguably one of the most celebrated books to come out of the 2009 Lincoln book deluge is Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. The Fiery Trial won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Lincoln Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. Foner’s assertion that Lincoln evolved over time and that this evolution facilitated his effective prosecution of the war and the ending of slavery is not necessarily new. Foner’s strength in providing historical context and demonstrating how these factors influenced Lincoln is masterful. Readers gain much from The Fiery Trial. Howard University Professor of History Edna Greene Medford’s Lincoln and Emancipation works well in tandem with Foner’s book. Abraham Lincoln’s dramatic shift towards emancipation, adeptly chronicled by Medford, changed the raison d’être for the Civil War and Lincoln’s presidency. This transformation midway through the war was evident in the increasingly critical role played by the U.S. Colored Troops, the designation given to blacks fighting on behalf of the Union cause. Those challenges are brilliantly covered by John David Smith in Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops. Both Lincoln and Emancipation and Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops, as well as Abraham and Mary Lincoln referenced above, are part of a welcome series known as the Concise Lincoln Library. Produced by an academic publisher, these books remain highly accessible to the general reader, and for people learning about Lincoln for the first time. Some of the titles in this series are more granularly focused in terms of subject matter, whereas the three works provided here cover broader perspectives on Lincoln.
Michael Burlingame is one of the foremost Abraham Lincoln scholars of our time. His massive 2-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, is widely known among scholars and armchair historians for its breadth and depth. In Lincoln and the Civil War, Burlingame relates how the conflict shaped Lincoln. Burlingame distinguishes himself from many historians by often turning a more critical eye on historical actors and events. He offers a breath of fresh air where much of the historical literature glosses over conflicts or seeks to minimize tensions that probably deserve more scrutiny. James M. McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief is another important book on Lincoln as a wartime president. McPherson’s premise is that despite the wealth of historical material on Lincoln, there is a dearth of scholarship on President Lincoln as the top military leader during the Civil War. Widely praised at the time of release, Tried by War permits the reader to see Lincoln through a different lens, and something is clearly gained by examining Lincoln’s military perspective rather than giving greater weight to political decision making. Burlingame’s short book and McPherson’s Tried by War work well together in this realm.
To understand the last stages of the Civil War, it is important to study the environment in which the final weeks of Lincoln’s life occurred. Two books are uniquely positioned to provide this understanding. Kenneth J. Winkle’s Lincoln’s Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, DC, reveals how the nation’s capital changed irrevocably due to the war. Though local residents are often aware of this fact, few visitors to the city know that Washington, D.C. became the city it is today because of the Civil War. The city was widely regarded as a sleepy, cultural backwater compared to many other East Coast cities prior to the war, but its population would boom in the tumult of the conflict. As Winkle argues, Washington became the most heavily fortified Union city, and the fact that many of the pivotal battles of the Civil War played out in close geographic proximity, gave even greater centrality to the American capital.
While Winkle’s book looks broadly at how Washington, D.C. evolved during Lincoln’s presidency, there is an endless fascination with the last week of Lincoln’s life among visitors to Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. Often visitors—and even employees—want to know detailed, cryptic minutiae about Lincoln’s final days and the circumstances around his assassination. Edward Steers, Jr. provides this in Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Steers is well regarded as perhaps the preeminent scholar of the Lincoln assassination. His Blood on the Moon is often consulted by Park Rangers that work at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. The book makes a useful reference for gleaning facts about the assassination and the role of various conspirators. The works chronicled above provide a great entry point for those wanting to learn more about Abraham Lincoln, though rest assured, more about our sixteenth president is always being written.
Last updated: February 13, 2022