The Trouble With The Bixby Letter

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Saving Private Ryan , Steven Spielberg’s big movie of 1998, prefaces its plot with the very moving reading of a famous letter of condolence written by Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, a widow in Boston who had lost five sons in the Civil War. The letter, dated November 21, 1864, says: “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.

 

Saving Private Ryan , Steven Spielberg’s big movie of 1998, prefaces its plot with the very moving reading of a famous letter of condolence written by Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, a widow in Boston who had lost five sons in the Civil War. The letter, dated November 21, 1864, says: “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 letter has long been legendary among students and scholars of Lincoln. The eminent Lincoln authority James G. Randall declared that it “stands with the Gettysburg Address as a masterpiece in the English language.” Carl Sandburg called it “a piece of the American Bible” that “more darkly than the Gettysburg speech … wove its awful implication that human freedom so often was paid for with agony.” Another historian, Daniel Kilham Dodge, wrote that “we can imagine how that great heart throbbed and that strong, beautiful right hand rapidly traversed the paper while he was bringing comfort to a bereaved patriot mother. There was as true lyrical inspiration at work … as that which impelled Wordsworth to compose the ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality.’”

Mrs. Bixby, who ran a whorehouse, had lied about her sons.They weren’t all dead.

Yet the letter is hardly what it seems. the Mrs. Bixby to whom it was addressed was in fact a Confederate sympathizer who ran a whorehouse. Sarah Cabot Wheelwright, a Boston matron who became acquainted with Mrs. Bixby during the Civil War, described her as “a stout woman, more or less motherly-looking, but with shifty eyes.” Wheelwright and a friend considered hiring Mrs. Bixby until “the police on finding that we were helping this woman … told [the friend] that she kept a house of ill-fame, was perfectly untrustworthy and as bad as she could be.”

Mrs. Bixby’s granddaughter recalled that her grandmother “was secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause” and had “little good to say of President Lincoln.” She added, “I remember so clearly my surprise when my mother told me how Mrs. Bixby resented” the letter. The widow’s great-grandson similarly recalled that as a youth “I was advised by my Father that my Great-Grandmother was an ardent Southern Sympathizer, and when she received the letter, she destroyed it in anger … shortly after receipt without realizing its value.”

What’s more, Mrs. Bixby had lied about her sons. They weren’t really all dead. The genesis of the letter began when she showed William Schouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, what he described as “five letters from five different company commanders” each telling “the poor woman of the death of one of her sons.” He told Gov. John A. Andrew she was “the best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman I have yet seen” and encouraged him to write Lincoln. But she had actually lost only two boys in the war. Of the three others, one had deserted to the enemy, another may have deserted, and the third was honorably discharged.

She may have been hoping for money. In 1862 she claimed that one of her sons had been wounded at Antietam and asked for financial help to visit him in a Maryland hospital; Governor Andrew gave her forty dollars. War Department records contain no indication that any of Mrs. Bixby’s sons were wounded at Antietam. She also received money from the public after Schouler published an appeal in the Boston Traveller , in November 1864, for funds to assist families wishing to provide “good New England Thanksgiving dinners” to troops in the field. He made a special plea for “a poor but most worthy widow lady … who sent five sons into this war, all the children she had, every one of whom has fallen nobly in battle.” A few days later the Traveller reported that “a considerable amount of money was received for soldiers’ families, and some was sent especially for the lady to whom allusion was made. General Schouler visited her and left the money, and called yesterday to see that she had everything comfortable for Thanksgiving.”