Monday, November 21, 2011

The Bixby Letter

This is the text of the famed "Bixby Letter," sent to one 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 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

It's the best of Victorian sentiment without an excess of verbal ornamentation that era was also known for, and has been acclaimed as a Lincoln masterpiece. But did he or his secretary John Hay (pictured) actually write it? This argument as been going on for some years, and each side has its partisans. There's no dispute that such a letter was sent from the White House to a Mrs. Bixby, but the writing itself could plausibly be the work of either Lincoln or Hay.

Another thing: It's fairly clear that Mrs. Bixby did not, in fact, lose five sons, but two of five. A sad loss, certainly, but not quite the decimation described in the letter.

As Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame put it in the Spring 1999 volume of the Abraham Lincoln Association newsletter: "Although extravagant praise has been lavished on this document, it is surrounded by ironies. Mrs. Bixby was deemed 'the best specimen of a true-hearted Union' ever seen, yet she was in fact a Confederate sympathizer who ran a whorehouse. In addition, Mrs. Bixby lied about her sons; despite her claim that five of them had been killed, she had really lost only two boys in the war."

In Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past, author Joe Nickell is a little more sympathetic to Mrs. Bixby, whom he describes as a "nurse" and "widow," though he agrees that only two Bixby sons died for the Union (and two others deserted to the Confederacy). But Nickell says it isn't clear who gave Lincoln the erroneous information, Adjutant-General William Schouler, Bixby or someone else.

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