Every so often, a moment in history jumps out at me. This is one of those moments to me. A heartfelt letter to a grieving mother from a grieving Commander-in-Chief.
In 1864, the Governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew wrote to the President about a grieving mother.
Linda Bixby was not only a grieving mother; this widow had lost all five of her children fighting for the Union.
President Lincoln’s letter was published in the Boston Evening Transcript.
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
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,
The original letter has never been found. Speculation was that the letter was destroyed by the newspaper’s editor, a Confederate Sympathizer.
Scholars have long debated as to who wrote the letter. Many believe it was the White House Secretary John Hay.
Since there are no original copies available–only forgeries–we will never know.
Reading more into this story, I have come to learn about Mrs. Bixby’s character.
Keep in mind, the character of this woman does not discredit the sincerity of the letter.
Mrs. Bixby lied to William Schouler –Adjutant General of Massachusetts– when she presented documentation that her sons had been killed. In reality, two sons had died in combat. Charles and Oliver were killed. As for the other three sons, one deserted, one was discharged, and one vanished. It is speculated that the one that vanished deserted or died a prisoner of war.
As I said before, Mrs. Bixby’s actions do not take away the heartfelt sentiments of a letter so poignantly written.
The letter again became famous in 1998 –when it was read by General George C. Marshall– in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
I cannot recommend enough this scholarly work by Michael Burlingame