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President Lincolns Famous or Infamous Letter to Mrs. Bixby | People

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President Lincolns Famous or Infamous Letter to Mrs. Bixby
President Lincolns Famous or Infamous Letter to Mrs. Bixby

While there have been many myths propagated during and hence the American Civil War, not may have come to such prominence as the supposed Abraham Lincoln letter to that of Mrs. Bixby.

 Some of you may recall the movie “Saving Private Ryan” where this letter was read. While the movie tended to lead the viewer to think the letter was factual, Hollywood sometimes does have a habit of making things up. Well the story goes that letter, noted for its compassion and prose, has been hailed since that time and even made its way into Stephen Spielberg’s movie which has  with General Marshall reading from the letter and using the letter as the reason why they were going to find Private Ryan.

 So what are the facts?

 In the fall of 1864, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew wrote to President Lincoln asking him to express condolences to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. Lincoln's letter to her was printed by the Boston Evening Transcript. Later it was revealed that only two of Mrs. Bixby's five sons died in battle (Charles and Oliver). One deserted the army, one was honorably discharged, and another deserted or died a prisoner of war.

The authorship of the letter has been debated by scholars, some of whom believe it was written instead by John Hay, one of Lincoln's White House secretaries. The original letter was destroyed by Mrs. Bixby, who was a Confederate sympathizer and disliked President Lincoln. Copies of an early forgery have been circulating for many years, causing many people to believe they have the original letter.

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

Whereas many such incidents did have merit such as The five Sullivan Brothers who were lost when the ship to which all five were assigned, USS Juneau (CL-52) was sunk on 13 November 1942. In the case of the letter to Mrs. Bixby….well we may never know the truth.

The Bixby letter is not the only document attributed to Lincoln whose authenticity has been questioned by collectors, dealers and historians. In fact, there are many documents in circulation today that have been passed off as original Lincoln pieces that are actually forgeries. Handwriting and document experts have been able to expose many of the forgers, some of whom have been acknowledged as geniuses in the art of deception.

Ironically, on November 17, 2008 a report surfaced that the original Bixby letter may have been found. But, when you read that story you find that it suggests the signature on the new letter is not that of Lincoln. But, of Hay?

It is interesting to me, however, that in The Living Lincoln: The Man and His Times, in His Own Words by Paul M. Angle and Earl Schenck Miers, that they DO NOT mention any question as to Lincoln being the author. They simply say, “Superbly eloquent as the letter that Lincoln wrote to Mr. Lydia Bixby of Boston. This message, published in the Boston Transcript, appealed to the heart of the nation.” I’m not sure if they are suggesting that it was written as a political piece of prose with that purpose in mind, or if its publication resulted in appealing to the heart of the nation. Either way, whoever was the author, it is quite a remarkable letter.

Sometimes truth is truly stranger than fiction.

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