NEW YORK (Reuters) - First-time novelist Charles Frazier won the National Book Award for Fiction on Tuesday for "Cold Mountain," a novel about a wounded Confederate soldier making his way home during the American Civil War. Frazier's book, following the trek through the devastated South by a deserter going home to the woman he loves in the waning days of the Civil War, took more than six years to write, the author said. "I'm new to this business," the visibly surprised, 47-year-old Frazier said in accepting the award, one of the most coveted U.S. literary distinctions, at a New York gala dinner. "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson" by Joseph Ellis won in the non-fiction category, and "Effort at Speech: New & Selected Poems" by William Meredith won the prestigious poetry prize. Meredith, disabled by a stroke in 1983 that left him unable to speak for several years, spoke haltingly to the ceremony. "I am talking much better now. I am thinking much better now," he said, and his voice grew stronger as he read a poem aloud to the crowd. The prize for young people's literature went to Han Nolan for "Dancing on the Edge" about a mentally ill girl. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Studs Terkel, known for his books of interviews with ordinary folk about American life, was given the National Book Foundation medal for Distinguished Contribution to American letters.