Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Controversial Bixby Letter

If you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, then you’re familiar with one of the most famous condolence letters in American history.

On this day in 1864, a letter was sent from the White House to Lydia Bixby of Boston:

Executive Mansion,

Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

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, A. LINCOLN.

The Bixby letter is an extremely controversial letter. First, the original letter no longer exists. The text was printed on November 25, 1864 in the Boston Transcript, while the widow Bixby destroyed the letter shortly after receiving it. Nonetheless, forgeries abound.

Second, widow Bixby’s claim to have lost five sons is dubious. Of the five sons who fought for Massachusetts regiments, two died in battle, while one was captured by the enemy and either died in prison or actually deserted to the join the enemy ranks. Another Bixby son also deserted, while a fifth Bixby was honorably discharged from the Union ranks.

Third, the widow herself has come under increasingly heavy fire. One of her contemporaries called her “perfectly untrustworthy and as bad as she could be.” Her granddaughter claimed that she had “little good to say” about the president and was “secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause.” If her granddaughter was correct, then Bixby’s decision to destroy Lincoln’s letter shortly after she received it would make sense.

Fourth, scholars are divided over whether Lincoln actually wrote the letter. For those that argue against Lincoln’s authorship, they point to Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, as the likely author.

For more information on this extraordinary letter, see the following articles:

Roy P. Basler, “Who Wrote the ‘Letter to Mrs. Bixby?” in Lincoln Herald, 45(February 1943):9-14.

F. Lauristan Bullard, “Again, the Bixby Letter,” in Lincoln Herald, 53:2(Summer 1951):26-27, 37.

Michael Burlingame, “New Light on the Bixby Letter,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 16:1(Winter 1995):59-71.

Jason Emerson, "America's Most Famous Letter," American Heritage Magazine, 57:1(February/March 2006).

Joe Nickell, “Lincoln’s Bixby Letter: A Study in Authenticity,” in Lincoln Herald, 91:4(Winter 1989):135-139.