For Lincoln Award, Treatise on Words Prevails

By Linda Wheeler
Thursday, March 8, 2007

Judges for the prestigious Lincoln Award had a tough choice when they picked a book on Abraham Lincoln as a wordsmith over a true romance across the color line and a moral history of the Civil War. They are all good reads.

The winner, selected from a field of 119 books by a panel of three historians last month, is "Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words" by Douglas L. Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. Wilson, who will receive $50,000 at a banquet in New York on April 2, won the same competition in 1999 for his book "Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln."

Wilson's book is a rare two-for-one in the U.S. history field, because it will appeal to students of Lincoln as well as to serious writers. Wilson was an English professor at Knox for 36 years before he took the position with the Lincoln Studies Center. He gently deconstructs Lincoln's most famous speeches, including the Gettysburg Address, tracing the work as it was developed, written and rewritten, reviewed by colleagues, polished and then presented. There are sometimes two versions of the final speech, one that was delivered to a live audience and the other edited for publication.

Lincoln was not known as a fine writer when he arrived at the White House. That was a skill that evolved for the president, Wilson said. He quotes from a remembrance written by Lincoln's son Robert many years after Lincoln's death.

"He was a very deliberate writer, anything but rapid. I cannot remember any peculiarity about his posture; he wrote sitting at a table and, as I remember, in an ordinary posture. . . . He seemed to think nothing of the labor of writing personally and was accustomed to many scraps of notes and memoranda. In writing a careful letter, he first wrote it himself, then corrected it, and then rewrote the corrected version himself."

Lincoln's longtime friend Joshua Speed said Lincoln had the ability to divide his attention when writing. "He might be writing an important document, be interrupted in the midst of a sentence, turn his attention to other matters entirely foreign to the subject in which he was engaged, and take up his pen and begin where he left off without reading the previous part of the sentence."

The act of writing was also an escape for Lincoln in the midst of the war. Wilson said writing "was often a form of refuge for Lincoln, a place of intellectual retreat from the chaos and confusion of office where he could sort through conflicting opinions and order his thoughts with words."

Recognized for honorable mention by the Lincoln Prize judges is "The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race and War in the Nineteenth Century," by New York University history professor Martha Hodes. She has done an extraordinary job of writing the story of an ordinary New England woman who was a prolific letter writer and who made unusual decisions for her time.

There are no imagined dialogues in this book. Hodes uses italics to indicate her quotations from the many letters of Eunice Stone Connolly, who lost her first husband to the Confederate cause and then married a handsome sea captain of mixed blood from the Cayman Islands. The author does a masterful job of interweaving and layering the quotations with observations of the times and the places where Connolly lived.

The other honorable mention went to "Upon the Altar of a Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War" by Harry S. Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale University. This is a dense, challenging book written by a scholar of religion about the Civil War. Stout contends that Lincoln and religious leaders on both sides fused Christianity and patriotism, never pausing to realize they had slipped into a "total war," an immoral war against noncombatants combined with the destruction of private property.

Stout sees the execution of the latter part of the war, with all its abuses, as a "feeding frenzy of blood for blood's sake." The lack of accountability for those abuses, including the treatment of prisoners of war, made it easier for abuse to be tolerated in later wars, Stout says. If we question nothing, we learn nothing, and that has led us to the dilemmas faced in the current war.

Linda Wheeler may be reached at 540-465-8934

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