Best Books on Abraham Lincoln and Civil War from our reviewers

ABRAHAM LINCOLN and the Civil War were so important in shaping American life that ReadTheSpirit regularly updates our Abraham Lincoln Resource Page—packed with columns, materials for small groups, reviews, sample sermons—and much more. Visit that Resource Page to find additional columns by Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer, the writer whose reviews are featured prominently on this Best Books page. The first review, here, is by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …

The Civil War and American Art


Photography and the American Civil War


YOU may never see the actual exhibitions from which these two thought-provoking coffeetable books were drawn, but the books themselves make remarkable gifts for any American history buff. Both books go far beyond reproducing large-format prints of remarkable paintings and photographs from the Civil War era. They provide a great deal of thoughtful reading related to these works of art, as well.

In The Civil War and American Art, Eleanor Jones Harvey draws on her decade as the senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to tell readers the story of these startling paintings, including Winslow Homer’s 1865 “The Veteran in a New Field.” At first glance, the canvas seems to be a nostalgic rural scene—striking in its beautiful colors and simple design. In Harvey’s accompanying prose, she points out this design was anything but simple!

Most Americans think of Homer as the nation’s favorite seaside painter and forget that he began as a visual journalist—sent to the front lines of the Civil War by Harper’s Weekly, the TIME magazine of its era. Virtually the moment the war ended, Homer began this more-than-3-foot-wide canvas and, before it was finished, reworked the imagery in several ways. Readers of Harvey’s large-format book can easily discern the discarded Union uniform in the lower right of Homer’s canvas. (The uniform looks like a dark oval in the small web-resolution image with this review.)

This crumpled uniform made the painting a vividly familiar image for Americans nationwide as Union soldiers returned to farms to discover, at least across the North that year, an especially abundant harvest. Then, as Harvey explains in the book, Homer deliberately painted a style of scythe that 1865 viewers would have immediately recognized as an ancient model. Even then, contemporary farmers cut with more modern tools.

As 1865 viewers pondered this painting—especially as Civil War veterans looked upon it—they would have realized that Homer was evoking The Grim Reaper, even then a stylized figure with this kind of scythe. What’s more, any veteran would have shuddered at the scene, remembering countless battles fought in fields just like this. The harvester in the painting was moving through a field, mowing down the wheat as he once had mowed down opposing troops. And, even as they recoiled from such a memory, Harvey tells us, they might remember, too, the biblical references all of them would know about beating swords into plowshares.

It may sound surprising, but this lavish art book is a real page turner!

So is Jeff Rosenheim’s equally engrossing Photography and the American Civil War. If Vietnam was the first war televised in American living rooms, the Civil War also was a media first. As Rosenheim writes, “For the first time ever, the camera recorded a long and ferocious war from beginning to end.”

Most Americans may assume that Mathew Brady was the only man with a camera crisscrossing war-torn America. Certainly, a half dozen of Brady’s iconic photos are the images widely known from that era. Rosenheim points out that there were roughly 1,000 photographers on the move during the war, producing hundreds of thousands of images. What’s more, Rosenheim argues, it was in the capturing of these photos that Americans collectively were able to mourn the enormous losses. Suddenly, all Americans could see the youthful faces of all of those young men—now dead and buried. Plus, all Americans for the first time could see a realistic image of the carnage left on battlefields.

“In the creation of this vast treasury of photographs—a national visual library of sorts—the camera performed a key role the opposing armies and their leaders could not: It defined and perhaps even helped unify the nation through an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory-making,” Rosenheim writes.

NOTE: The “Civil War and American Art” exhibition has closed, but the “Photography and the American Civil War” exhibition continues at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, through January 5—then it reopens at the New Orleans Museum of Art January 31 through May 4, 2014.


Abe. A Novel of the Young Lincoln




First, why not a novel about Lincoln? Great writers of history work hard to get us to see the human Lincoln behind the white marble giant of the Lincoln Memorial, and the great rock face of Mount Rushmore.

But it’s not that easy. It takes an act of imagination to re-image Lincoln. The problem of finding the real Lincoln is difficult because Lincoln was a giant in almost all ways. We also have had all those years of tall tales about him. Most of them amazingly are true. But it takes a giant act of imagination to get a new, real, sense of him. It would take a great myth to get behind the big myth of Lincoln.

What a gigantic act of imagination it was then for Richard Slotkin in Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln to picture young Lincoln on his flatboat Mississippi voyage like Huck Finn on his mythic raft. Huck Finn’s journey is a deep story and image in the American mind. Lincoln could have been Huck’s older brother. Through the lens of Mark Twain’s story we have an imaginative way to see behind the lofty image of Lincoln. A great novel about young Lincoln, paradoxically, can be the cure for an overly mythologized President Lincoln.

The genius of Slotkin to place Abe imaginatively on a Huck-like raft was quickly noted by Kevin Baker in his positive New York Times review, shortly after the book originally appeared a decade ago.

This would be a great novel even if it were not telling the tale of many greatly known historical figures. As an historian Slotkin knows the details and the facts of hard frontier life—a mythic tale all its own. But as a poetically inspired writer he takes us into the heart and mind of his lead character, who just happens to be the Abraham Lincoln we think we know.

In a novel historian Slotkin can picture the swaddled infant Lincoln in his mother’s arms, “…the river flowing under them all, dark, and him drifting with it, yearning towards a dim shore that almost had a shape.” (p. 4)

In the second chapter of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald’s biography, Lincoln we find the title, ”A Piece of Floating Driftwood.” Both Slotkin’s novel and Herbert’s biography touch on similar themes. These are not just images; there is fact to it. Herbert’s original theme is the “essential passivity” of Lincoln’s nature. We know, near the end of his life, Lincoln’s dream was of rushing in a boat to a far distant shore—both the nation being saved and his journey being over.

A book like Abe, fact-based fiction, does for us what David Herbert Donald also sets out to do in his must-read historian’s biography.

Putting on an expertly crafted set of blinders, Donald asks, at every stage of Lincoln’s career what he knew when he had to take crucial actions. His is a biography “written from Lincoln’s point of view using the information and ideas that were available to him.” (p.13). Donald does this largely based on “Lincoln’s own words.”

Lincoln in Slotkin’s novel, as Donald pictures him in his biography, is just trying to act—as we all do—and face the flow of life as it comes. This flow is what Donald gives us in factual detail and narrative. What Slotkin’s fiction does is to take us even one step closer. In an historical biography we still see Lincoln in the camera-eye of biographer. But in a novel we are with Lincoln floating down the river. We see and feel the life of this wild and profound young man from within the one dramatic truth he had—that he didn’t know that he was Abraham Lincoln, at least not the Abraham Lincoln we know. He just thought he was Abe, or even just, as he most often signed his name, A. Lincoln.

Historical fiction is not history. The movie “The Butler,” based on the true story of the long-time White House butler, is not all factually true. It is mythically true. This is how “Abe” should be read, historically true to the real story, but also truly inside the big story.

Donald gives us one of the best new clear-eyed and lucid views of the whole Lincoln life. We cannot do without that. Slotkin paints Lincoln’s coming of age in the colors of an American life now writ large.


Lincoln: The Biography of A Writer


The poet Shelley wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” After reading Fred Kaplan’s brilliantly minted biography of Lincoln as a writer we can see how a legislator—Lincoln’s chosen occupation—can be the poet of the world.

In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Kaplan says that it is as a writer, with unacknowledged poetic genius, that Lincoln rose to power and governed the warring nation. Kaplan shows us how Lincoln took his cue from Ralph Waldo Emerson. How many people know of this surprising connection? After hearing Emerson talk in Springfield, Lincoln dove back into the deep currents of American history to embrace and channel the one natural power that could solve the problem of disunion and slavery.

What was that natural power? American values. Lincoln perceived that the country could rise above the curse of slavery and survive the threat of disunion through a language—a language!—that appealed to American’s preference for justice. That, and our generous willingness to extend to others the benefits of our belief in the idea that all men are created equal. Greed and folly, aggression and slavery, would not defeat this natural force if Americans could be presented with that American story in compelling language. It was Lincoln’s literary task—written and then spoken—to do so, says Kaplan.

Lincoln did this all with his words, such as the image of the house divided. He did this with words that created actions. Hear this, his words in Chicago in 1856, “…can we not come together for the future. Let every one who really believes, and is resolved, that free society is not, and shall not be, a failure…let past differences, as nothing be….let us inaugurate the good old ‘central ideas’ of the Republic. We can do it. The human heart is with us—God is with us…to renew the broader, better declaration that ‘all men are created equal.’”

Kaplan’s case is both strong and relevant. He reminds us that Lincoln had no political office in 1854, and was all but washed up politically. The explanation of how Lincoln rose on his moral passion and his “superior language skills” becomes convincing. It is eerie to read this view of Lincoln on language, written in 2008: “He appreciated the inherent danger to effective government in political parties: the manipulation of language to advance their agendas.” (p.243)

He shows us Lincoln’s rich language when he takes a written speech (Lincoln rarely ever departed from a written text) given at the Wisconsin Agricultural State Fair in August of 1859, and gives it the line breaks of a poem. By this point in the book we have already deeply studied Lincoln’s poems on mortality and memory and even a bear hunt. These poems, Kaplan shows us, are of real literary quality. But this he calls Lincoln’s best poem. It is Whitmanesque, before Walt Whitman’s 1882 volume, Specimen Days.

Lincoln’s first line is, “Every blade of grass is a study.”

Lincoln’s written speech, ends with …
“… the thousand things
Of which these are specimens—
Each a world of study within itself.”

Lincoln’s intellectual biography includes the great poets: Burns, Byron and Shakespeare. So when Kaplan takes us through Lincoln’s love letters—yes, love letters—we see how the poets could affect Abe Lincoln’s heart. Kaplan explicates the sordid Mary Owens love affair more clearly than most biographers because he takes the time to understand the words and their psychological nuance.

Lincoln read widely, including major works of his time—or of any era. From Hume to Voltaire to Pope and Milton. Along with Burns and Byron, which he kept at hand and near and dear to this heart, he read Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Bunyan, Longfellow, Edgar Alan Poe. The Library of Congress, Jefferson’s idea and original gift, was Lincoln’s library. Kaplan knows which books he checked out and when. The state library in Illinois was his study away from home as he prepared for his massively detailed, more-than-7,000-word Cooper Union speech in 1860.

In the course of his book, Kaplan shows us how nature, cause and effect, first principles and even God figure into our history—and our tragedies that Lincoln viewed as echoing Shakespeare’s tragedies. Kaplan shows us Lincoln as a man who, at first, viewed language as an honest tool, much like an axe—then learned how, in the end, the pen is the mightiest tool of all.

“He became what his language made him,” Kaplan writes. A master biographer who also has written on the lives of Henry James, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, Kaplan begins this book by quoting the famous editor of The Atlantic, William Dean Howells, who said that “Mark Twain was the Lincoln of our literature.” Indeed, we have noted the role of Mississippi riverboat mythology in both lives. Kaplan wants to suggest that, because Lincoln was such a good and devoted writer—perhaps he is the Mark Twain of our politics. I think this underestimates—if that is possible—Lincoln’s skill.

Not only did Lincoln become what his language made him—we became what his language made us.


Care for more on Lincoln’s language?

A talk by Duncan Newcomer is featured in four 15-minute YouTube segments given at The Working Man’s Institute in New Harmony, Indiana, on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, November, 2011. In the talk, Duncan takes a secular look at the language of Abraham Lincoln. He shows how—with no church membership and little formal education—Lincoln authored speeches that were and are prophetic and revelatory of spiritual truths for our nation’s history. Seeded in the mystery of language and his own sense of “yonder” Lincoln’s love of language carried him—and us.

(Originally published in, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    The farmer in Homer’s painting is using what was called a snath and scythe. Scythe was the blade,snath was the two handled twisted wooden bar. There’s an interesting story of another Civil War veteran using this old fashioned hay cutter even ‘tho he also had a horse-drawn mower machine with a cutter bar. In Ralph Moody’s biography, the third volume, “The Fields of Home” (Bison Press)the young boy, Ralph, is taught to cut hay on his Grandfather’s Maine farm. Grandfather yells at him to go “get the snath and scythe!” Why does Grandfather, Thomas Gould, yell all the time at his young grandson? He’s come back, now fifty years, from the Civil War having fought at Gettysburg and four or five other major battles. He is what we would call suffering from PTSD. As hard a man as he is, the boy and his grandfather teach each other a lot about each other’s ways. After young Ralph drives the blade into the ground and a stone, old Thomas takes over, “Little as he was, he kept in perfect balance as he swung the long blade, and made it whistle each time it swept forward through the grass. Closely as I watched him, I never saw a jerk or pull anywhere.” (p.43) The old man wanted to farm, even in 1915, as his father had farmed, as they had during the days of the American Revolution. The old way. Homer’s painting makes the same time-point Lincoln does–the Civil War was about our long history. That’s how old Thomas Gould saw it too.