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Don E. Fahrenbacher, 1920-1997

Civil War Scholar

In the five years it took to produce the acclaimed documentary series The Civil War, filmmaker Ken Burns found daily inspiration in a final letter written by a young Union officer to his wife -- a letter given to Burns by Stanford's Don Fehrenbacher.

A dogged researcher, Fehrenbacher was also an inspiration to a generation of historians, and his books gave a new perspective on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War period. "He was the foremost Lincoln scholar of his generation," says George Fredrickson, chairman of the Organization of American Historians and a Stanford U.S. history professor. "No one wrote better than he did on Lincoln in the last 30 years."

Fehrenbacher, 77, died of heart failure at his campus home on December 13 -- just nine months after receiving the 1997 Lincoln Prize for his life's work on the Civil War. The $50,000 prize, presented by the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College, is the highest award for Civil War studies.

Fehrenbacher grew up in Sterling, Ill., and attended Cornell College in Iowa. He received his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago and in 1953 joined the faculty at Stanford, where he was appointed the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies in 1966. Prelude to Greatness, published in 1962, is considered the best book on Lincoln's political thought and conduct in the 1850s. But even while his focus was on Lincoln, Fehrenbacher took a broad view of the legal, constitutional and political issues leading up to the Civil War. In 1979, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics.

"It's the single best study of any Supreme Court case that anybody has ever written," says history professor Jack Rakove, who himself won a Pulitzer in 1997 for his book Declaring Rights. "Don's work on it was so thorough, painstaking, balanced, careful, nuanced, subtle and insightful that it really is a definitive monograph in legal history."

Fehrenbacher is survived by his wife, Virginia Ellen Swaney Fehrenbacher; three children, David Fehrenbacher, Ruth Gleason and Susan Koprince; eight grandchildren; a sister; and two brothers.

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