Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Bixby Letter

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

You have probably heard of the Bixby letter - Abraham Lincoln's letter to a bereaved mother of five sons killed fighting for the Union cause. Many have pointed to this letter to illustrate an example of Lincoln's finest prose...some suggesting that it stands with the Gettysburg address as a masterpiece in the English language. And of course, it was used in the film Saving Private Ryan as - shall we say - motivational literature.

Like with many stories concerning Lincoln, the Bixby letter story has been questioned, critiqued, and even surrounded by a little controversy. Yes, Lydia Bixby had five sons in the Union army, but may have indeed supported the Confederacy - seems odd, but I read it somewhere on the Internet - so it must be true (snicker). Further, it turns out that three of Bixby's sons died after the war. What's more...some have argued that the letter was actually written not by Lincoln, but by his secretary, John Hay.

Who knows? But however you slice it - it is quite a remarkable note. The original has gone lost to the ages, but the letter was reprinted and widely distributed. A Cosmic America Facebook friend sent me an image of this engraving. If you find it difficult to read - below is the transcription:

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 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,

A. Lincoln

Heavy stuff, wouldn't you say?




  1. For a largely self-educated man, Lincoln wrote beautifully. Each word and sentence is simple yet powerful - and endlessly quotable. So many of his phrasings become book titles - "Upon the Altar of Freedom" from this one, "For Us the Living," "Malice Toward None," "With Charity For All", "The Fiery Trial", "The Great Task Remaining Before Us." Even the USS Abraham Lincoln has the motto "Shall Not Perish." An amazing, incredible man. How fortunate Americans had such a figure in their history at the moment of its greatest challenge! That he died on Easter Sunday added to his near-divine status.

    Fun fact: the current Constitution of France says "The principle of the Republic shall be: government of the people, by the people and for the people."

  2. Edward Steers Jr. in his book, Lincoln Legends - Myths, Hoaxes and Confabulations Associated With Our Greatest President, pretty well lays to rest the story that the Bixby letter was written by John Hay. Apparently Hay himself told Robert Lincoln that he had no knowledge of the letter at the time it was written.

  3. Even if written by Hay as secretary Hay wouldn't have signed his own name on any official capacity so whether he penned it or it was transcribed from notes given him I would not find it peculiar.

    Much offical military correspondance was rarely "written" by the commander but by an aid or staff officer and much was directed to a superior's aid, signed by the commander and undersigned by the man actually writing the report.

  4. Okay, I'm as big a Lincoln fan as the next guy. But this letter both amuses and appalls me. Lincoln was very eloquent and philosophical when it came to other people's children fighting and dying, but he sure as heck pulled string to get his Ivy-League son stationed on Grant's staff. Whatever helps you sleep better at night, Honest Abe ...