The Bixby letter is a letter sent from U.S. President Abraham Lincoln to a mother of five sons who were thought to have died while fighting for the Union in the American Civil War. The brief, consoling message was written in November 1864 to Lydia Bixby, a widow living in Boston. The text has been widely praised as one of Lincoln's finest written works along with the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address.
Controversy surrounds the background of the recipient, the fate of the sons, and the authorship of the letter. Although her sons fought for the Union, there is speculation that Mrs. Bixby may have supported the Confederacy. Furthermore, records show at least two sons were alive after the war. Finally, historians have debated whether the text was written by Lincoln himself or by his assistant private secretary, John Hay. The letter continues to be widely regarded and is often reprinted although the original has been lost.
Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby was printed by the Boston Evening Transcript on November 25, 1864, the day after Thanksgiving. The letter had been personally delivered to Bixby by the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, William Schouler, although accounts in Boston newspapers disagree about whether it was delivered on November 24th or 25th. The following is the text of the letter as it appeared in the 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,
In a report of September 24, 1864 to Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew regarding a request by the father of five sons in the army to discharge one that had been wounded, the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, William Schouler, mentioned that he had been visited about ten days before by Lydia Bixby, a widow who claimed that five of her sons had died fighting for the Union. Andrew sent the report to the U.S. War Department with a note requesting the president honor the mother with a letter. The report found its way to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who delivered it to Lincoln.
The War Department incorrectly informed Lincoln about the fate of Mrs. Bixby's sons: Two had died in battle, two others survived the war, and the fate of the other is unclear. It is also unclear whether Bixby was deliberately deceptive or why the War Department failed to correct the Schouler report based on its own records. Perhaps the report was written carelessly, or Bixby might have exaggerated her claims in hopes of financial compensation. It is also possible that Bixby was unaware that some of her sons had survied. George, for example, had been captured as a prisoner of war just a month and a half prior to her visit to Schouler.
The actual fate of Bixby's sons was as follows:
- Pvt. Arthur Edward Bixby, Company C, 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery (enlisted June 24, 1861)
Deserted from Ft. Richardson, Virginia on May 28, 1862. In an attempt to obtain a discharge order for him, on October 17, 1862, Lydia Bixby filed an affidavit that claimed Edward had enlisted underage and without her permission. Born July 13, 1843 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Returned to Boston after the war.
- Sgt. Charles N. Bixby, Company D, 20th Massachusetts Infantry (served July 18, 1861 – May 3, 1863)
Killed in action near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Born c.1841 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
- Cpl. Henry C. Bixby, 1st enlistment – Company G, 20th Massachusetts Infantry (served July 18, 1861 – May 29, 1862), 2nd enlistment – Company K, 32nd Massachusetts Infantry (served August 5, 1862 – December 17, 1864) Captured at Gettysburg and sent to Richmond, Virginia. Paroled on March 7, 1864 at City Point, Virginia. Born March 30, 1830 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Died November 8, 1871 in Milford, Massachusetts.
- Pvt. Oliver Cromwell Bixby, Jr., Company E, 58th Massachusetts Infantry (served February 26, 1864 – July 30, 1864)
Killed in action near Petersburg, Virginia. Born Feb 1, 1828 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
- Pvt. George Way Bixby, Company B, 56th Massachusetts Infantry (served March 16, 1864 – ?)
Enlisted under the name "George Way," apparently to conceal his enlistment from his wife. Captured at Petersburg on July 30, 1864. First held prisoner at Richmond, but later transferred to Salisbury Prison, in North Carolina, arriving there on October 9, 1864. His fate after that remains uncertain. Later army records report conflicting accounts of him either dying at Salisbury or deserting to the Confederate Army. In 1878 there was a report that he may have been living in Cuba. Born June 22, 1836 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
According to some accounts, Lydia Bixby had moved to Massachusetts from Richmond, Virginia, and during the war was a Confederate sympathizer, although contemporary records variously list her birthplace as Massachusetts or Rhode Island. The earliest confirmed record of her is a September 26, 1826 marriage in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, of Lydia Parker to shoemaker Cromwell Bixby. The couple had at least six sons and three daughters before Cromwell's death in 1854. Sometime after her husband's death, Mrs. Bixby left Hopkinton and eventually settled in Boston just before the start of the Civil War. She died there in 1878.
In 1904 Boston socialite Sarah Wheelwright claimed to have met and given charitable aid to Mrs. Bixby during the war, including once having gone to Bixby's home to see if one of her sons, who had been in Boston on leave, could help in sending care packages to Union prisoners of war. Shortly after this she heard gossip that Mrs. Bixby "kept a house of ill-fame, was perfectly untrustworthy and as bad as she could be".
The fate of the original letter given to Mrs Bixby is unknown. In a 1925 newspaper interview William A. Bixby, a son of Oliver, said that he did not know what happened to the letter after his grandmother received it. Arthur M. Bixby, a great-grandson, told the New York Sun in 1949 of his father's story that Mrs. Bixby had angrily destroyed the letter after receiving it.
Christie's auction house receives numerous false original Bixby letters every year. These include copies of a lithographic reproduction of the letter in widespread circulation that first appeared in 1891, when a New York print dealer named Michael F. Tobin applied for a copyright of the facsimile in order to sell souvenir copies for $2 each. Huber's Museum, a dime museum in New York, soon began displaying a copy of the Tobin facsimile as "the original Bixby letter" and selling their own copies of it for $1 each.
Charles Hamilton, an autograph dealer and handwriting expert, examined a copy of the Tobin facsimile of the Bixby letter and concluded that it was a poorly executed forgery. He believed it had originally been written in pencil and then retraced in ink, calling the facsimile's handwriting "halting and awkward and makes his (Lincoln's) forceful hand appear like a child's scrawl". Robert Todd Lincoln said his father's handwriting was easy to imitate, and John Hay believed the facsimile to have been made from a "very ingenious forgery". The facsimile also contains the salutation "To Mrs Bixby, Boston Mass" which is missing from the original version published in the Boston Evening Transcript.
In the early 20th century, some Americans believed that the original letter, or a copy of it, could be found in Brasenose College at the University of Oxford on display in a place of honor above other great works in the English language. When Lincoln scholar F. Lauriston Bullard investigated this claim in 1925, he discovered that the college had never heard of the Bixby letter and did not have a copy, let alone the original.
Scholars have engaged in ongoing debate about whether the Bixby letter was written by Lincoln himself or by his assistant private secretary, John Hay. Most Lincoln experts believe that the president personally wrote the letter, and the arguments in favor of Hay have no hard proof, only hints that Lincoln might have delegated the task.
Hay may have claimed to friends that he had written the letter, though these accounts were second-hand recollections. Writing to William E. Chandler in 1904, Hay said "the letter of Mr. Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby is genuine", and Robert Todd Lincoln said Hay had told him that his father was the author. Although one of Hay's scrapbooks contained a copy of the letter, and these scrapbooks largely contain Hay's own writings, Hay also kept material about Lincoln.
Hay told William Herndon, Lincoln's former law partner and biographer, that in November 1864 when the Bixby letter was written, Lincoln had a very busy month and read few of the letters sent to him, though he still wrote about a half-dozen letters a week.
Supporters of Lincoln's authorship note that the Gettysburg Address and the Farewell Address are similar examples of Lincoln's highly regarded style. Hay supporters have countered that Hay wrote pieces that compare favorably to the Bixby letter and note words and phrases in the letter that appear more frequently in Hay's writings than those of Lincoln. The most telling example may be the word beguile, which appears 30 times in the works of Hay and, excepting the Bixby letter, not once in the collected works of Lincoln. Still, in the letter, the word beguile seems to mean "to divert" rather than "to charm," the sense in which Hay frequently employed it.
The phrase "the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom", is included on the base of the statue of Lady Columbia in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. The letter is reprinted in full on a plaque in a memorial garden at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
In the United States, the letter has been frequently mentioned when commentators discuss the topic of siblings going to war, such the Sullivan brothers, the Niland brothers, the Borgstrom brothers, and the Sole Survivor Policy of the United States military.
The 1998 war film Saving Private Ryan dramatized the story of three out of four brothers dying in battle and thereby instigating a dangerous mission to find the youngest and surviving brother missing in France after D-Day. In the film, General George Marshall (played by Harve Presnell) reads the Bixby letter to his officers before giving the order to find Private James Francis Ryan and send him home.
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