November 21, 1864: Letter to Mrs. Bixby

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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.

It is a magnificent letter and repeats themes from the Gettysburg address and looks forward to the Second Inaugural.  Alas, the letter demonstrates how frequently ill advised it is to rely on government records.  Two of Mrs. Bixby’s sons died fighting for the Union, another died as either a deserter or a prisoner of war and another deserted and survived the war.  The final son was honorably discharged from the Army.  (This is not that unusual.  One of my friends, when it came time for him to retire from the Marines, had quite a time convincing the Pentagon that he had not died fighting in Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968.)

Mrs. Bixby did not find the letter of comfort apparently.  According to a granddaughter, Mrs. Bixby was secretly in sympathy with the Confederacy and had little good to say of Mr. Lincoln.  She probably destroyed the letter soon after it was delivered to her on November 24, 1864, as the original letter, which was published at the time, promptly vanished from history.

Lincoln, although he signed the letter, may not have written it.  Theodore Roosevelt had a copy of it in his office and greatly admired it.  A witness indicated that at one point his Secretary of State John Hay, who had been one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, stated that he had written the letter, which would not have been an unusual procedure, although Lincoln wrote quite a bit of his own correspondence as President.  The question remains open, although on balance I think the authorship of the letter by Hay, mimicking Lincoln’s thoughts and style, probably has the stronger case than Lincoln’s own authorship.

Having said all of that, I assume that Lincoln’s heart did go out to Mrs.  Bixby.  He had seen two of his own sons die, and friends and relatives of his had fallen in the War.  He was a frequent visitor to Union hospitals around Washington to visit the Union wounded and knew well the immense human cost of the War that now, mercifully, was drawing to a close.

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