Lincoln’s Civil War Letter to Mrs. Bixby

Abraham Lincoln was undeniably one of the most important presidents in American history, and I’m here to tell you about one of the most touching, yet one of the most mythologized, stories about Lincoln and the Civil War. Specifically, we’re going to examine the story of Lydia Bixby, the recipient of a very famous letter from President Lincoln, written during the height of the conflict. You probably know the text of this letter from a scene in the 1998 Steven Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan. The great actor, Harve Presnell, playing General George Marshall, was listening to a dispute between his staff officers about whether to pull Private Ryan out of combat because three of his brothers had already been killed in the war. General Marshall settled the argument by reading out the a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Bixby in Boston in November 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 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 a touching scene, and very well acted. But what you may not know is that Mrs. Bixby’s five sons did not all die on the battlefield. In fact, two of them are known to have survived the war, and the fate of the one of the others remains a mystery. I do not in any way wish to minimize the heroism and sacrifice of Mrs. Bixby’s sons, and of course I do not wish to minimize her grief and shock at the deaths. But the simple fact is that Lydia Bixby’s loss was not as complete as Lincoln’s letter suggests.

Here’s what we know: On September 24th, 1864, William Schouler, the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, wrote to Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew, that Mrs. Bixby had visited him and said that all five of her sons had died defending the Union. Andrew reported this story to War Department in Washington DC, and asked that the government send a letter of condolence to Mrs. Bixby, about the tragedy of losing all her sons. Eventually, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called Lincoln’s attention to the case, and Lincoln penned the now-famous letter.

Scholars disagree whether Lincoln himself wrote the letter, or whether it was drafted by his private secretary, John Hay. That’s not our concern here. The letter came from Lincoln, as President, and he sincerely believed that Mrs. Bixby had lost all five of her sons on the battlefield. That much is true. But Lincoln was misinformed. Briefly, here’s what happened to her sons.

Military records are clear about the fact that two were killed in the war. Sergeant Charles Bixby was killed in action at Fredericksburg VA in 1863, and Private Oliver Bixby had not only been wounded near Spotsylvania VA in May 1864, but was killed at the battle of Petersburg VA in July 1864.

Her son, George, was a prisoner in two Confederate prisoner of war camps, but there is confusion about what happened to him. One military report says that he died in one of the prisoner of war camps. Another report says he deserted to the Confederate Army.

Corporal Henry Bixby was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and sent to a POW camp in Richmond VA. He was was released the next year, and he returned to Massachusetts, where he eventually died in 1871. The youngest son, Private Arthur Bixby, returned to Boston after the war, but we don’t know what happened to him after that.

We also don’t know how all this misinformation bubbled up from the Massachusetts to the White House. There is not much evidence to point us in one direction or another. Schouler, the Massachusetts Adjutant General, may have written his original report carelessly. Mrs. Bixby may have even been misinformed herself. The most negative spin on this story is that Mrs. Bixby was trying to wheedle some sort of large financial compensation out of the Massachusetts state coffers. And there are, indeed, some accounts that paint her as a Confederate sympathizer, but I hasten to emphasize that there is no way of knowing for sure whether that’s true. Lots of speculation here, Buzzkillers. You know how much I hate to do that because it can help boost the chance that these stories become mistaken for historical facts.

What’s not in doubt is that Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby didn’t remain private for very long. Within three days (by November 24th) news reports and reprints of it had appeared in Boston newspapers, and there is some indication that it provided a much needed boost in Union morale as the war was entering its fourth year. The letter and the Bixby story was also referred to in similar tragedies in World War II, and especially in the US military’s decision to implement regulations and practices designed to prevent multiple sibling deaths during wartime.

These tragedies included the five Sullivan brothers from Iowa, who all served on the USS Juneau, and who all died on the same day when it was sunk in November, 1942, near the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. Four Borgstrom brothers from Utah died within a six-month period in 1944 during the same war. Because of these tragedies, the US military implemented regulations that prevented siblings from serving together in the same unit or ship. As you might imagine, these tragedies were not limited to American military men, and the grief was not limited to their parents. The von Blücher brothers, German paratroopers, were all killed on the same day in May 1941 during the Battle of Crete.

However heart-felt, kind, and comforting the letters that military and national leaders sent to those grieving families, it’s highly unlikely that any of them came close to matching the dignity, directness, and decorum of the sentiment Lincoln expressed to Mrs. Bixby. And when it comes to determining which words go down in history, that makes all the difference.

Further Reading:

  • Burlingame, Michael. “New Light on the Bixby Letter.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter 1995.
  • Emerson, Jason. “America’s Most Famous Letter.” American Heritage, Vol. 57, No. 1, February/March 2006.

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