Beneath him were thousands of dead Americans. Their bodies were scattered across the Civil War battlefields during the darkest years of the American experiment. President Abraham
Lincoln, who suffered a tragic death much like his soldiers, led a deadly and divided America.
Four years turned America’s glorious plains into mass graves.
Dr. Brian Dirck, both a Civil War and Lincoln presidential scholar, is releasing a new book titled The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death. The book will be featured at a book signing event in the Nicholson Library on Friday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m.
“I wrote this book because I was initially interested in what was really a leadership question:
‘How did President Abraham Lincoln manage to guide the nation through a bloody, awful civil war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people?’” he said.
In exploring how Lincoln personally handled death and dying, Dirck navigated all the way back to Lincoln’s childhood, when he lost his mother at the age of 9. Dirck also captures a broader perspective of America’s sixteenth president through a series of original and intellectual questions.
Among those questions, Dirck asked, “How did he get the American public to accept such a horrible bloodletting?”
Dirck explains the purpose, interests and message of his book.
“My purpose here is to look at a facet of Lincoln’s life that has been oddly neglected,” said Dirck. “No one seems to have asked how he conceptualized death, despite the fact that he was surrounded by death, and not only during his presidency, but really throughout his whole life.”
Dirck said that his book can also bring hope in the midst of the dark moments.
“I think the messages my book delivers are in many ways somber, as I examine Lincoln at some of the darkest moments of his life, especially when he lost two of his four sons to illness,” Dirck said. “But I think one can see hope here as well. As the war progressed, Lincoln found the
necessary inner resources to accept death as the price of freedom.”
Dirck said, “Lincoln increasingly turned to God as his only real means of explaining the reasons for all the death surrounding him.”
“I was compelled not just to examine Lincoln’s life itself, but also the ways in which nineteenth century Americans dealt with death culturally, socially and even politically,” Dirck said. “I had to steep myself in the literature and rules of death and mourning during Lincoln’s era.”
While writing his book, Dirck encountered multiple challenges. Dirck’s mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer when he began writing The Black Heavens. She passed away in February of 2015.
“I am sure the experience of watching my mom pass away is in the pages of this new book,
though in ways I do not even myself fully understand,” said Dirck, who dedicated the book to his mother’s memory.
Dirck has already begun incorporating his book into his course material at AU. Believing that his book benefits students as he teaches them about Lincoln and the Civil War, Dirck asked, “How did my students help me write this book?”
“The answer is that my students enrich my scholarly and writing life on a daily basis in so many subtle but important ways,” he said. “Maybe they don’t realize it, but I learn more from them than they do from me.”
As Dirck’s lecturing resounds through Decker Hall, how do the quiet words of his authorship convey as powerful of a voice as Lincoln’s? How has Dirck impacted his students both in and out of the classroom?
Sophomore Daniel Gaines, a student senator studying national security, political science, history and mathematics, was first touched by Dirck’s teaching when he was in high school.
“My high school history teacher was someone who really helped me to develop a passion for history,” said Gaines. “This teacher attended AU and was greatly influenced by Dirck.”
After his high school teacher handed him a book, Gains felt the reach of Dirck’s inspiration from beyond the classroom.
“Dirck has a legacy that has extended well past AU,” said Gaines. “My teacher gave me one of Dr. Dirck’s books to read while in high school.”
Gains says that reading Dirck’s book “greatly added to my interest in history.”
Gaines and his classmates agree that Dirck’s voice moves outside the classroom.
Having “learned from such an astute and caring person,” Gaines admires Dirck as a professor who “has always displayed the desire to see students understand and appreciate the lessons that can be learned from history.”
Gaines added, “I was fortunate to take two of Dr. Dirck’s classes during the fall of 2018.”
“Dr. Dirck was extremely passionate about the topics at hand and was always more than willing to assist me when I was working on research projects,” said Gaines.
Amy Weber just graduated with a degree in general education and a minor in history after being inspired by Dirck.
“Dirck’s passion about Abraham Lincoln is contagious,” says Weber. “He encourages discussions and allows his students’ thoughts and ideas to impact his lessons. The student is in control of how they learn in his classroom.”
Senior history major Michael Neeley has had Dirck as a professor.
“Dirck has impacted me by helping me understand that history is about the stories of people who came before us, how we can learn from them and how their decisions can still have an impact on our society and world,” he said.
Dirck is also an academic advisor to Neeley, who has found his professor’s assistance helpful.
“As my adviser, Dirck has helped me in numerous ways,” said Neeley. “He has helped me apply and prepare for graduate school, given me the opportunity to be the vice president of Phi Alpha Theta and given me a new passion for history.”
More than making him a better student, Neeley says that Dirck has made him “a better human being.”
In addition to his 7 p.m. book signing on Feb. 15, Dirck will be presenting a lecture that delves into the contents of his new book.