Letter to Mrs. Bixby

I am currently reading David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln and am in the section of the book that briefly discusses a letter Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Lydia Bixby — a Boston widow who was believed to have lost five sons fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew asked the president to send his condolences to the widow and the letter was also printed in the Boston Evening Transcript.

Executive Mansion, Washington, November 21, 1864.

Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Massachusetts:

DEAR MADAM: 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 words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to 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,

Abraham Lincoln

Afterwards, it was discovered that Mrs. Bixby had actually lost “only” two sons in battle. One son survived and was honorably discharged. A fourth son was a deserter and the fifth son either deserted or died as a prisoner of war. It was also later revealed that Mrs. Bixby was a Southern sympathizer who hated Lincoln. She later destroyed the original letter.

The authorship of the letter has been debated for years by scholars. Many believe the letter was written by John Hay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries. Whether Hay wrote the letter on his own or was directed to do so by Lincoln does not diminish the beauty and eloquence of the words.

Fans of the movie Saving Private Ryan may recall that, in the early part of the movie, the letter was read aloud by General George Marshall.

Compare Lincoln’s letter to a letter written by the German Kaiser to a mother of nine sons who died fighting for the Fatherland. In the letter, the Kaiser was “gratified” by the sacrifice and was “pleased” to send a framed and signed photograph to the mother. This came from a New York Times article dated July 30, 1918.

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