Letter to Mrs. Bixby
Preceding and closing text by William J. Bennett, in his Book of Virtues: President Lincoln wrote this letter after an aide told him about a Boston widow whose five sons had been killed fighting for the Union armies. As Carl Sandburg wrote, "More darkly than the Gettysburg speech the letter wove its awful implication that human freedom so often was paid for with agony." Here is an American president understanding that agony, sharing it, and performing a heartbelt rite, as Sandburg put it, "as though he might be a ship captain at midnight by lantern light, dropping black roses into the immemorial sea for mystic remembrance and consecration. "
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864
To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
As a historical footnote, we now know that Lincoln had in fact been misinformed: two of Mrs. Bixby's sons had been killed in action, one was taken prisoner, and two deserted. The error does not stand in the way of the letter's deserved fame. Mrs. Bixby's loss and sacrifice hardly could have been greater.
This, from the September 1999 Camp Chase Gazette "Observation Post"
Lincoln Letter May Have Had a Ghost Writer
A letter from Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, who reportedly had lost five sons killed fighting for the Union during the Civil War, may actually have been written by the president's personal secretary, John Hay.
Michael Burlingame, professor of history at Connecticut College, based his conclusion on a comparative analysis of the writings of Hay and Lincoln. The well-known letter, referenced in the movie "Saving Private Ryan," contains a number of words and phrases commonly used by Hay but rarely used by Lincoln. Hay also had included a copy of the letter with a collection of newspaper accounts of his own writings.
While Lincoln's letter to Bixby has remained well known over the years, Bixby's reputation has become rather tarnished. She is said to actually have been a Confederate sympathizer who ran a house of ill-repute and lost only two sons in the war. Nobody's perfect.
And this, from the trivia section of the Internet Movie Database page for Saving Private Ryan:
Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby, while a real document, was inaccurate when written. Only two of her sons died: Sgt. Charles Bixby at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1863 and Pvt. Charles Bixby at Petersburg, Virginia, the following year. Two more sons, Pvts. George and Edward Bixby both deserted, and the remaining son, Cpl. Henry Bixby, was captured and later swapped in a prisoner exchange. In fact, Mrs. Bixby - a Confederate sympathizer who operated a brothel - had lied to the War Department about the number of sons she'd lost. Moreover, according to the Abraham Lincoln Association, the letter itself wasn't even written by Lincoln but by one of his secretaries, John Hay. Brown University houses Hay's scrapbook of newspaper clippings which featured his writings. The Mrs. Bixby letter, publicly credited to Lincoln, is among them. One of the words in the letter, "beguiled", was helpful in showing that it wasn't Lincoln who wrote the letter. A database of Lincoln speeches/writings revealed the only instance in which he uses the word 'beguiled' is actually the Bixby letter. Hay, however, is documented to have used it at least a dozen different times in his letters, writings and speeches.