Eliane Spalding reads a portion of her essay at the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize dinner. (Photo courtesy of Gilder Lehrman.)

First-place ribbons are so four score and seven years ago. When a Lakewood eighth-grader won a nationwide essay contest on the Civil War, she received $300 and a paid trip to New York City.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History named Eliane Spalding its first-place middle school winner for her essay comparing the leaders of the Union and the Confederacy.

“I wasn’t expecting to win this contest at all,” Spalding said. “I couldn’t believe that I had won such a competitive and prestigious contest, nonetheless first place. New York was so amazing and overwhelming, and I felt so honored to have been chosen to go.”

Spalding worked on the paper for two months. She was the first winner selected from her school, Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, history teacher Kenneth Aronhalt said.

“She was able to be as objectionable as possible without asserting any bias, which is hard to do in an argumentative paper,” he said. “That’s what set it apart from other students who write at the same caliber.”

Two judges selected her essay over more than 240 entries in the middle school category, said Daniel Pecoraro, the Civil War essay contest coordinator. One judge gave it a 4 out 5, and the other gave it a 5 out of 5. 

The judges said it was a well-researched and well-argued paper that toed the line between support and criticism for Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis’ styles of moral leadership.

“Overall, it was an outstanding piece in a competitive category,” Pecoraro said.

Spalding was honored April 16 at the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize dinner. The awarded is given annually for the finest scholarly work on Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War soldier or the American Civil War era.

From left: Kenneth Aronhalt, Eliane Spalding and her parents at the Lincoln Prize dinner. (Photo courtesy of L. Arielle Richman.)

The 14-year-old was the only student to read a small portion of her essay during the dinner. She and the other winners met several historians, including Lincoln Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight, who was honored for his biography of Frederick Douglass. 

“I was stunned at the beautiful, poised young woman who read a portion of her essay at the dinner,” Spalding’s mother L. Arielle Richman said. “We felt so honored, proud and excited about what she’s going to be and what she’s going to do.”

As part of the prize, Spalding, her family and her history teacher were invited to tour the Gilder Lehrman archive, where they saw an original Emancipation Proclamation and a rough draft of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. Archivists also showed the group a lock of James Madison’s hair that his wife Dolly Madison cut after he died.

“When you get to see these original artifacts first hand, it gives you a new perspective on how precious the American founding is,” Aronhalt said.