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The Black Heavens

The Black Heavens

Abraham Lincoln and Death

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Brian R. Dirck


Hardcover (Other formats: E-book)
240 pages, 6 x 9, 13 illustrations


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About the Book

Winner, Lincoln Group of New York Award of Achievement 2019

From multiple personal tragedies to the terrible carnage of the Civil War, death might be alongside emancipation of the slaves and restoration of the Union as one of the great central truths of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Yet what little has been written specifically about Lincoln and death is insufficient, sentimentalized, or devoid of the rich historical literature about death and mourning during the nineteenth century. The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death is the first in-depth account of how the sixteenth president responded to the riddles of mortality, undertook personal mourning, and coped with the extraordinary burden of sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to be killed on battlefields.

Going beyond the characterization of Lincoln as a melancholy, tragic figure, Brian R. Dirck investigates Lincoln’s frequent encounters with bereavement and sets his response to death and mourning within the social, cultural, and political context of his times. At a young age Lincoln saw the grim reality of lives cut short when he lost his mother and sister. Later, he was deeply affected by the deaths of two of his sons, three-year-old Eddy in 1850 and eleven-year-old Willie in 1862, as well as the combat deaths of close friends early in the war. Despite his own losses, Lincoln learned how to approach death in an emotionally detached manner, a survival skill he needed to cope with the reality of his presidency.

Dirck shows how Lincoln gradually turned to his particular understanding of God’s will in his attempts to articulate the meaning of the atrocities of war to the American public, as showcased in his allusions to religious ideas in the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. Lincoln formed a unique approach to death: both intellectual and emotional, typical and yet atypical of his times. In showing how Lincoln understood and responded to death, both privately and publicly, Dirck paints a compelling portrait of a commander in chief who buried two sons and gave the orders that sent an unprecedented number of Americans to their deaths.


Brian R. Dirck is a professor of history at Anderson University in Indiana. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809–1865; Lincoln the Lawyer; Abraham Lincoln and White America; Lincoln and the Constitution; and Lincoln in Indiana.


The Black Heavens is a masterful and compelling exploration into Abraham Lincoln’s views of and reactions to the deaths of loved ones, friends, and the multitude of young men (and not a few women) he had to consign to the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.”—Bob GormanThe Lincoln Herald

"Dirck’s latest effort—the first book-length treatment of the sixteenth president’s long relationship with death—will hardly disappoint those familiar with his prolific scholarship. . . . Students of the sixteenth president will want to add this concise, thought-provoking, and sensitively written volume to their bookshelves."—Brian Mathew Jordan, Civil War Monitor

"It is a testament to Dirck's writing that he can tell the story of Lincoln's life through the great man's experience with mortality. Dirck has written a highly engaging and, at times, gripping book that is recommended to all who are interested in Lincoln and nineteenth century America—As in a good tragedy, one finished Dirck's work feeling a kind of catharsis, gaining a better understanding of Lincoln, his time, and of the human encounter with mortality. Thus, Dirck's book is highly recommended"—Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death" by Lincoln scholar Brian R. Dirck is a seminal work of outstanding scholarship."Midwest Book Review

“In evocative prose, Brian R. Dirck analyzes Abraham Lincoln’s encounters with death to shed light on the man and his times. Readers will be grateful that this surprisingly neglected topic now has its first book-length treatment.”—Erik R. Seeman, author of Speaking with the Dead in Early America 
“‘Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs / Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.’ Lincoln appreciated Death as Shakespeare had written it—as a tragic sorrow—and by the end of his life (in speeches at Gettysburg and upon his Second Inaugural), Lincoln spoke the poetics of Death as well as the old bard. But as Brian R. Dirck reveals in this compact, powerful, insightful book, Lincoln also knew Death Irredeemable, the unleavened agonies of watching a mother groan and croak until you drag her up a hill and bury her in ‘as unpoetical’ a place ‘as any spot of the earth.’ The Black Heavens reveals the face of Death as Lincoln’s generation really knew it. Spare and unsparing, this book is a gem.”—Stephen Berry, author of House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War

“In The Black Heavens, Dirck tells the largely unexplored story of Abraham Lincoln’s personal encounters with death. This carefully researched and well-written work gives the reader new insights into how witnessing suffering and death affected the development of Lincoln’s thought and personality. Dirck has filled a major gap in existing literature on Lincoln and his era.”—Burrus M. Carnahan, author of Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War
“Once again, Dirck has displayed his gift for applying a popular analytical approach to familiar Lincoln material and producing something altogether original and enlightening. His analysis of Lincoln’s understanding of death yields unexpected insights into Lincoln’s understanding of the Civil War. Reading this book is like looking at a familiar Lincoln portrait hung at a new angle on a different wall, letting fresh sunbeams reveal more of what was always there.”—Gerald J. Prokopowicz, author of All for the Regiment: The Army of the Ohio, 1861–1862

“Dirck has produced a fascinating and elegant study of a subject that utterly captivated Abraham Lincoln throughout his lifetime—the nature and meaning of death. Any serious student of the great president or nineteenth-century American culture will surely want to read this insightful volume.”—Matthew Pinsker, author, Lincoln's Sanctuary:Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home