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Lincoln Again a No. 1 Best Seller, and Other New Books

By Ed Epstein

Washington, D.C.

Friday, May 31, 2024


Abraham Lincoln is back in a familiar position. A book about the 16th president and his times is the No. 1 national best seller on the non-fiction lists at Amazon, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.


The author of the latest Lincoln blockbuster is Erik Larson, one of the most popular authors of non-fiction books over the past two decades or so. Larson's book tops the stream of new books about Lincoln and his era. It's a literary flow that never ceases, adding to Lincoln's status as the most-written-about figure in American history. No one knows for sure but estimates of the number of books written about him vary from 15,000 to 20,000 and counting. (To the right, that's a tower of books about a Lincoln in the lobby of the Ford's Theater Education Center.)


Larson's new Lincoln book, The Demon of Unrest. A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War, has gotten respectful reviews, although the critics note that his book offers little that is strikingly new. Instead, his account of the fraught period between Lincoln's election to the presidency in November 1860 and the Confederates' firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 is leavened by Larson's strong story-telling skills and his use of a few key characters to illustrate his story.


In addition to Lincoln, Larson zeroes in on Major Robert Anderson, the federal commander of Sumter, fire-eating secessionist Edmund Ruffin, and Mary Boykin Chesnut, the wife of a plantation owner and the author of a perceptive Civil War diary. For good measure, Larson slams Lincoln's Secretary of State as a duplicitous figure.


Another new book sheds light on a topical issue: Lincoln's views on immigration. It's from the most prolific Lincoln author around, Harold Holzer. His Brought Forth on This Continent: Abraham Lincoln and American Immigration shows that Lincoln was an advocate of immigration and tells how he dealt with the politics surrounding the issue, which was as complicated back then as now.


Jon Grinspan, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, is out with Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War. It zeroes in on the young men in northern cities who formed groups to parade through their communities, often by torchlight, to vocally express their support for Lincoln and the Republican Party in the bitter election campaign of 1860. Thousands joined the movement, which boosted Lincoln and horrified southern secessionists, who pointed to it as evidence that northern anti-slavery forces were out to destroy their slavery-based way of life.


In early June, Chicago journalist Edward McClelland's Chorus of the Union: How Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas Set Aside Their Rivalry to Save the Union will be published. McClelland focuses on how Lincoln and Douglas, longtime political rivals, agreed that the Union must be preserved at all costs. In the final months of his life, Douglas became outspoken in his support for Lincoln's efforts to save the Union in the first months of his presidency and in what would turn out to be the final months of Douglas' life. He died on June 3, 1862. His loss was mourned by Lincoln.


Kent State University Civil War-era historian Leonne Hudson is coming out with Black Americans in Mourning -- Reactions to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It will be published in October. He deals with the feelings of such well-known figures as Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln's seamstress and confidant, and Frederick Douglass, as well as lesser-known people whose grief for Lincoln led to him becoming an indelibly towering figure for black Americans of the time.


Another upcoming book comes from biographer Nigel Hamilton, who has written extensively about such figures as Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. His volume, Lincoln vs. Davis: The War of the Presidents, compares the leadership styles of the two Civil War presidents as they waged their battle.


Library of Congress senior photo conservator Adrienne Lundgren has authored a lavishly illustrated volume called Magnificent Intentions: John Wood, First Federal Photographer (1856-1863). Wood is much less known than such Civil War photographers as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner, but Lundgren's book shows the powerful sweep of his photos of Washington, D.C., during the Civil War.


For Lincoln fans, it's important to note that in addition to his photos of public buildings under construction during the war, the little-known Wood is credited with taking the only surviving photo of Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861.


These are just some of the books coming out this year about Lincoln, a figure whom publishers recognize as a can't-miss figure.


(Editor's note: Jon Grinspan will talk about the Wide Awakes at a June 19 Zoom meeting of the Lincoln Group. See our events page.)


Photo by the National Park Service.

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