LINCOLN'S BOYS: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. By Joshua Zeitz. Viking Press. 400 pages. $29.95.

Who was Abraham Lincoln? We feel like we know him and his story intimately. It has been estimated that there have been some 15,000 books published on our 16th president. And yet, do we have an accurate sense of the man?

For presidents like John F. Kennedy, who died more than 50 years ago, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died nearly 70 years ago, we can revisit film footage, see them moving, gesturing and speaking, and hear their voices; with Lincoln, we have only those iconic photos of him, voiceless, still.

John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay were Lincoln's private secretaries. The post, at that time, wielded a good deal of influence, analogous to the president's chief of staff today. Nicolay and Hay accompanied the president-elect from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., in 1861 and were with Lincoln until his death. They witnessed the president's first faltering steps and his political evolution through history-making events such as the delivery of the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln's brilliant second inaugural speech.

When Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, he was a little over a month into his second term in office, and only five days had passed since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. In the next several years, there were numerous competing images of Lincoln. His place in history was still uncertain, his reputation not yet set.

Nicolay and Hay had planned to write about Lincoln after the president had served out his two terms. The two secretaries believed in his greatness. After Lincoln's death, they maintained the intent, but their respective careers left the project in the background. By 1872, however, Nicolay and Hay found a new sense of urgency. Robert Lincoln, the president's lone surviving son and a close friend of Hay and Nicolay, had promised them access to his father's papers but had dragged his feet. In 1874, Nicolay and Hay finally received access to the Lincoln archive. Over the next 15 years, a gargantuan endeavor consumed the two writers.

What began in 1886 as a series published in Century Magazine over four years ultimately became a 10-volume biography of 1.2 million words that would define Lincoln and that continues to shape his image today.

Robert Lincoln, desiring to guard his family's privacy, did not allow any other access to the Lincoln archive until July 25, 1947, 21 years after his death. Until then, most scholars had depended on the amazing work of Nicolay and Hay as a primary source.

Joshua Zeitz's fine book, "Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image," relates an integral story of Lincoln's presidency. Zeitz begins by weaving biographical portraits of Nicolay, who was born in Bavaria in 1832 and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 6, and John Hay, who was born in Indiana in 1838 and moved to Illinois when he was 2.

Hay was a precocious youth who wanted to be a poet; he graduated with an MA degree from Brown University in 1858. Returning to Illinois, Hay joined his uncle's law firm as a law clerk, and became an attorney in 1859. Meanwhile, Nicolay followed a career in journalism and became an editor at the Pike County Free Press in Pittsfield, Ill. Nicolay became active in local politics and an avid supporter of Lincoln.

Lincoln's first official act was to make Nicolay his secretary. Nicolay, who had been friends with Hay, petitioned the new president-elect to allow Hay to come along as assistant secretary, and Lincoln gave his consent.

In many ways, Nicolay and Hay were Lincoln's closest confidants during his presidency. He often visited them on sleepless nights when he was troubled about some aspect of the war, problems with generals, or other tragedies such as the death of 11-year old Willie Lincoln of typhoid fever in 1862.

Nicolay and Hay lived in the White House and almost were part of the Lincoln family. They often referred to the president affectionately as "The Tycoon" and the first lady, with whom they had a difficult relationship, as the "Hell Cat."

Throughout "Lincoln's Boys," Zeitz provides a thorough historical background that gives the reader a solid context to events as they transpire, such as the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

" 'Over long, weary miles of hot dusty prairie, the procession of eager partisans come on foot, on horseback, in wagons ... pushing on in clouds of dust under a blazing sun ... talking, discussing, litigious, vociferous, while the roar of artillery, the music of bands, the waving of banners, the huzza of crowds' " in fantastic torchlight parades that led a reporter from New York to write " 'the prairies are on fire.' "

There is much written on Lincoln's ever-evolving stance on slavery, the external forces and internal reflections that led him from a war strictly to preserve the Union to a war for which the end of slavery was essential. We also see how Lincoln helped carry along those around him in his changing views.

Zeitz has written a compelling account of Lincoln's presidency from a unique standpoint. By focusing on Nicolay and Hay and their perspective of Lincoln, and then on their scholarship during the years after Lincoln's death, we see the Lincoln we already know a bit differently, perhaps a little more humanly, and also the Lincoln whom these two men gave the world. This is a book anyone with an interest in Lincoln, or American history, should want to read.

Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.