The Bixby Letter

JPK Huson 1863

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Yes, I can see the professional historians here rolling their eyes, coming over to Ladies Tea expecting to find the schmaltz attached to the famous Bixby Letter. Not so fast, although there will be some of that- it's a GREAT letter. I'm also more than sure my personal take on both controversies attached to it will not be at all unique, scholars, History buffs and Lincoln experts having tossed this around for 150 years.

A few quotes taken from one website, as a kind of introduction.

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-...edly-writes-to-mother-of-civil-war-casualties

“Legend holds that on this day in 1864,( Nov 21 ) President Abraham Lincoln composes a letter to Lydia Bixby, a widow and mother of five men who had been killed in the Civil War. A copy of the letter was then published in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 25 and signed "Abraham Lincoln." The original letter has never been found.”

“Scholars continue to debate the authorship of the letter”

. “.. scholars have discovered that only two of her sons actually died fighting during the Civil War”



THE BIXBY 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 "


Mrs. Lydia Bixby was a widow around who speculation still rages. She was held to have lost all 5 of her sons in the war, attracting attention upwards through political circles until an appeal was made to Lincoln himself, to please write a lette to the mother in this tragic case. As frequently happens, attention turned then to the widow, who, it transpired, may have lied on the subject, ' only' (?) having lost 2 to death, one to capture, one to desertion and the 5th somewhere ' unknown '. Once this was known, BOY did the tides turn against her. Get this-

http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/26...ht-on-the-bixby-letter?rgn=main;view=fulltext

“ The manuscript of this document has not been seen since November 24, 1864, when it was delivered to Mrs. Bixby, who evidently did not preserve it. The widow's granddaughter told a journalist that Mrs. Bixby "was secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause ... and had 'little good to say of President Lincoln.' "
“She claimed to have five sons in the army. She was a stout woman, more or less motherly-looking, but with shifty eyes—we called her "Mother Bixby." I did not like her, but there seemed to be good reason for helping her. Having heard that there were means of getting supplies to Libby Prison (a very difficult thing to do) I was desirous of sending a box of small comforts to the soldiers. Speaking of it to her, she said that one of her sons was at home for a time on leave, and that if I would come to her house ... she would tell me more about it. That morning I came in the cars with my cousin, Mary Cabot, and she walked along the street with me while I was telling her about it, and waited on the doorstep while I was in the house. ... I did not like the look of things at all, and the woman was very evasive; would give me no definite information, said her son was not there, and asked if I would not meet him somewhere. I said I would and told her to send him to the ladies [waiting] room in the Albany Station at a certain time. I was there at the time appointed, and presently a very ill looking man, who had lost some of the fingers of his right hand, came towards me. He began with some familiarity, but I soon put a stop to him, finding I could get no information from him, and sent him off. Soon after this I received a very distressed letter from Mrs. Paine, saying that the police on finding that we were helping this woman had told her that she kept a house of ill-fame, was perfectly untrustworthy and as bad as she could be. (Sarah Cabot Wheelwright, who at the age of twenty-six became acquainted with her) “

I'd like to take the time here to say that wow- way to tear down a woman who DID, in fact lose 2 sons killed in the war, the one captured may well have been dead, the deserter, same, since how could he come home and the 5th, it seems to imply here lived in daily expectation of being hauled off to prison or worse. Mrs. Bixby can be the lowest female on the social totem pole and still be an object of sympathy based on these shattering losses, plus, I cannot find a source which shows she personally claimed to have had 5 sons killed in the war. It's possible that as this story made its way around, then up, ' lost 5 sons ' took on an assumptive character this woman never intended. She could easily have said it, and meant it, without wishing to actually get a letter from A. Lincoln himself. 2 sons dead, the rest for all intents and purposes lost to her- the most hardened female on the planet of any era would have indulged in depressive thought, ' They are lost to me, all of them'. I do fail to see where this famous letter therefore would be the result of some ruse on her part as an awful lot fo these websites on the subject seem to imply.

I understand it is not the begin-all and end-all as far as documentation, but my intent is not to ' prove' points here, just to give background, let minds be challenged themselves. Here's a basic background on ' what happened ', from Wiki.

"In a report to Governor John A. Andrew, regarding the father of five sons serving in the war, the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, William Schouler, wrote that Lydia Bixby had five sons who had died fighting for the Union. Andrew sent the report to the U.S. War Department with an additional note requesting the president to honor the mother with a letter. The report found its way to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who delivered it along with the records of the five sons to President Lincoln at which point the letter was written."

It also contains a rare defense of Lydia Bixby, refreshing to see amidst the seas of scorn. She's been reported to have been a Southern sympathizer, which will not have been her ' fault ', since it would have not been foreseable that A. lincoln himself would have taken a personal interest in her losses and written to commiserate with her.

"Bixby herself has been criticized as perhaps being a poor model of a grieving Union mother. Lydia (Parker) Bixby, by some reports, had moved to Boston from Richmond, Virginia, yet continued sympathizing with the South as a Copperhead.[3] Contemporaries described her as a madam and "untrustworthy and as bad as she could be". The original Schouler report might have been constructed with insufficient fact checking of her claims, which she could have exaggerated in hopes of financial compensation. One of her great-grandsons repeated his father's story that she angrily destroyed Lincoln's letter after receiving it.] However, it is also possible that she was innocently unaware that three of her sons had not died (Henry, for example, was released from a Confederate prison only after she received the letter). Mrs. Bixby continues to be a mysterious figure in the story about the letter."

The War Department incorrectly informed Lincoln about the fate of Mrs. Bixby's sons: Two had died in battle, the others eventually survived the war. It is unclear whether the errors in Mrs. Bixby's story were intentional, and why the War Department had failed to correct the report based on their own records. "

The larger controversy attached to this letter rages ( seems to rage, not merely putter along ) around who wrote the letter, was it indeed Lincoln himself or was it the work of John Milton Hay, Lincoln's secretary, and Lincoln merely approved it before signing his name?


http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/26...ht-on-the-bixby-letter?rgn=main;view=fulltext

"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 either destroyed by the newspaper editor after publication or by Mrs. Bixby, who may have been a Confederate sympathizer and disliked President Lincoln. Copies of an early forgery have been circulating for many years, causing some people to believe they have the original letter."

“ The manuscript of this document has not been seen since November 24, 1864, when it was delivered to Mrs. Bixby, who evidently did not preserve it. The widow's granddaughter told a journalist that Mrs. Bixby "was secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause ... and had 'little good to say of President Lincoln.' "

Since I am not at all conversant with the subject, and feel I would make a poor interpretor of 150 year's worth of progress and debate on the subject, have found what seems to me ( personal opinion ) the best synopsis on the authorship on the web- which is the above link. It's from the journal of The Abraham Lincoln Association, and the article is written by MICHAEL BURLINGAME.

The Bixby Letter is lyrical and eloquent enough in content to have found its way into popular culture, most recently in ' Saving Private Ryan, read before the men set off on the mission to bring the only surviving Ryan brother home alive.
Again, from Wiki:

" The letter is frequently mentioned in America in relation to the topic of siblings going to war, such as when discussing 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 tragedy of three out of four brothers dying in war, motivating a dangerous mission to find the youngest and last 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 that brother, Private Ryan, and send him home.
Former President George W. Bush read the letter during the ceremony at the World Trade Center site on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on September 11, 2011.”

Mrs. Lydia Bixby
lydiaclarkbixby.jpg


John Milton Hay
cw john hay.jpg


Bixby Letter Forgery
bixby.jpg
 
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ErnieMac

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I remember reading about the Bixby letter years ago and more recently information that not all five of her sons had been killed. The facts concerning her political view points and her sons' actual service are new to me and interesting. It seems amazing that people would criticize her for 'only' losing two sons and for receiving a letter she had done nothing to solicit or to publicize.

I tend to agree with the thought that Hay wrote the letter. I'm no expert, but find it difficult to imagine Lincoln using the words "who have died gloriously on the field of battle" in November, 1864.

Great post.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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I've long been familiar with this letter; it's reproduced in a 1958 book called "One Hundred and One Famous Poems (With Prose Supplement)," on the page facing the Gettysburg Address. According to that book, a facsimile of the letter is displayed "on the walls of Brasenose College, Oxford University, England," "as a model of purest English, rarely, if ever, surpassed." (p. 174)
 

Miles Krisman

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I have never been disturbed by the controversy surrounding the provenance of the Bixby letter. In my opinion, it is one of the most eloquent expressions of sympathy the English language could produce. In fact, I have a framed copy on the wall of my office as a memorial to all the "loved and lost" to the tragedy we know as the American Civil War.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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That's exactly how we should remember it, I think, Miles, yes. It was written in pure spirit, provoked by pure spirit, intended as comfort and some kind of spiritual sustanance to someone who had lost all there is to lose in this world. Indeed, one of the most eleoquent expressions of sympathy in our lanuage, as you say- the only thing I tend to find distrubing in the controversies is this wierd perspective that since Lydia had a dicey background, ONLY had 2 sons killedand was a southerm sympathiser, she didn't ' deserve ' sympathy- kind of a lesson across time, cultures and social strata that none of that means anything. She deserved that letter, the sentiments which were penned to her from whomever it may have been.

If Hay wrote it ( think he probably did also, just opinion based on what I've read ) well, Lincoln signed it, signifying he sure didn't feel he could have done better. You wonder if he would have gotten a kick out of all the controversy, and you just know he'd have stepped up to 'fess up, allow Hay his due.
 

unionblue

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From the movie, The Cowboys (1972), starring John Wayne, comes the following from the black cook character, Jebediah Nightlinger, talking to the group of young boys in the bunkhouse about to embark on a cattle drive:

"Ohhh, children... My father was a brawny Moor, six feet six inches tall. He bound his head in a red velvet cloth. He wore a curved sword, forged from the finest Toledo steel. He captured a lady, bright and dark. He took her in his arms and wrapped her in a warm quilt and carried her off. They came to a castle and he battered down the doors with the trunk of an oak tree and KILLED EVERYBODY IN IT, just so they could rest the night. Later, while she slept, he walked the parapets... and became a king."

One of the amazed young boys (Charlie Schwartz) asked in awe, "Is that true?"

Jebediah Nightlinger replied, "If it ain't, it oughto be..."

I feel the same way about the Bixby Letter.

Sincerely,
Unionblue
 

Custers Luck

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really good post!!!! I remember the first time I read the Bixby letter, OK my opinion!!!.....I said to my self ... thats it! she lost five sons and thats all the president had to say. It was short, I think if you took out the 5 sons part, the letter could have been sent to any mother. the only part that sounded like Lincoln to me is the ...I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Yes, exactly, it's written to anyone, really, who lost someone so irreplacable, on behalf of everyone.

VERY good take on the Bixby letter, Unionblue, sounds like something Lincoln would have had to say on the subject. :smile:
 

donna

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Mrs. Bixby has Memorial on Find A Grave. It only lists her birth and death. Does have her husband's memorial and her five sons.

She is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. There is picture of the A. Lincoln letter and her grave. I will add her to Find A Grave site on this forum.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Thought I'd bump some threads, not out of lack of material but because some things deserve another outing. We have an awful lot of new and extremely active members in the past year, probably know more about this kind of thing than I do. Am not bumping to see my own name out there, honest!
 

Allie

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Bumping this because I had read the letter and heard the story without hearing about the controversy before now.

JPK Huson, I think the point behind Sarah Cabot Wheelwright's discussion of her character is being missed here. The implication is that she lied to authorities about the deaths of her sons in the hopes of financial benefit, then according to her granddaughter received only a beautiful letter - which she tore up in a snit. Is this true? Well, the person who could answer that was William Schouler, adjutant general of Massachusetts, to whom she presented documents indicating that five of her sons had died while serving in the Union Army. It was Schouler who asked for something to be done and Schouler who delivered the resulting letter.

So, yeah, she did personally claim that her sons were dead, and she did personally seek out government officials regarding it - which to me suggests she had a monetary goal in mind. Who goes to see a government official with documents, with no aim other than, "Just wondering, do I hold some kind of record?" And I'm sorry, I don't buy the "lost to me" excuse. What mother, knowing her child might possibly be alive, would decide to give up and call him dead? Many other mothers at this time were desperately seeking their sons in prison camps and refusing to give up hope. The very best that can be said is that she was not sure what had happened to her sons. But in that case, where did the alleged paperwork come from? Records of casualties still exist - she was not misinformed. Did she forge it?

Which as you've pointed out, doesn't change the fact that she did lose two sons, a pretty heavy sacrifice. But just as it's today looked down upon when parents who have lost a child try to cash in with a dubious lawsuit, many people might consider it less than admirable that she may have tried to leverage her family tragedies for money. It's too awful and too funny that this "perfect expression of sympathy" may have been torn up by the lady it was meant to comfort because she would have preferred money.

Reading the controversy about the authorship... It's a lovely letter, whoever wrote it. I lean towards Hays because Lincoln didn't usually refer to God as "our Heavenly Father." But it has consoled a lot of people. Nothing about the recipient or the authorship can change that.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

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Bumping this because I had read the letter and heard the story without hearing about the controversy before now.

JPK Huson, I think the point behind Sarah Cabot Wheelwright's discussion of her character is being missed here. The implication is that she lied to authorities about the deaths of her sons in the hopes of financial benefit, then according to her granddaughter received only a beautiful letter - which she tore up in a snit. Is this true? Well, the person who could answer that was William Schouler, adjutant general of Massachusetts, to whom she presented documents indicating that five of her sons had died while serving in the Union Army. It was Schouler who asked for something to be done and Schouler who delivered the resulting letter.

So, yeah, she did personally claim that her sons were dead, and she did personally seek out government officials regarding it - which to me suggests she had a monetary goal in mind. Who goes to see a government official with documents, with no aim other than, "Just wondering, do I hold some kind of record?" And I'm sorry, I don't buy the "lost to me" excuse. What mother, knowing her child might possibly be alive, would decide to give up and call him dead? Many other mothers at this time were desperately seeking their sons in prison camps and refusing to give up hope. The very best that can be said is that she was not sure what had happened to her sons. But in that case, where did the alleged paperwork come from? Records of casualties still exist - she was not misinformed. Did she forge it?

Which as you've pointed out, doesn't change the fact that she did lose two sons, a pretty heavy sacrifice. But just as it's today looked down upon when parents who have lost a child try to cash in with a dubious lawsuit, many people might consider it less than admirable that she may have tried to leverage her family tragedies for money. It's too awful and too funny that this "perfect expression of sympathy" may have been torn up by the lady it was meant to comfort because she would have preferred money.

Reading the controversy about the authorship... It's a lovely letter, whoever wrote it. I lean towards Hays because Lincoln didn't usually refer to God as "our Heavenly Father." But it has consoled a lot of people. Nothing about the recipient or the authorship can change that.


Yes, have to remember the press in those days makes ours at it's worst sound like 2 grade school girls having a snit with each other. Those folks were TOUGH- and despite Mark Twain's hysterical descriptions of constant law suits and the blood feuds over what was written ( he was generally sued a few times a week, not to be outdone, sued back more ) horrendous stuff was published about pretty much anyone in the public eye. I'm guessing it may be a little hard to know where the entire truth lies and how much we can expect of someone who all of s sudden found herself in a firestorm she had no idea how to deal with. Having said that- agree Mrs. Bixby seems to have given full rein to her imagination. Still- possible her southern leanings and grief at losing 2 sons resulted in some determination to get what she could from this Mr. Lincoln- possibly who she saw as the cause of her distress and misfortunes. I don't know- this is a guess, in her head, since she had southern leanings, scooping the rest of her sons into the story made more sense as trickery against a government she loathed rather than dishonor towards children she may have loved? Guess only, like I said.

And boy, made her look like the worst, most mercenary, coldest mother since Medea, helped along by the press. Like I said though, only a guess! And interesting, never thought about Lincoln not using the phrase ' Our Heavenly Father', did not know that, thank you!

Also makes me think of Manse Jolly's family, where the brothers were known to have perished- sent shock waves into the North, too, believe me- just too horrific to contain anymore as some adversarial cost of war. I say that because in those days the families still kept in loose touch or at least knew of each other and Manse's was ' ours', Jolley, those cousins they all left behind from migrations we've all lost track of now. They had not 150 years ago- could have told you which brother's grandson or grgrandson from early days Manse belonged to. In those days ' family' still was scooped into some whole even if they'd never met or exchanged more than a piece of mail, that family still boasted a few Quakers. Mom told me the shock waves of those deaths survived the war, how poignant is that and Manse not quite considered the ' bad guy', either. 5 brothers? Oi. Evens out who wore what color. Not off thread- you read the Bixby letter, wonder how many mothers Hays ( SO interesting! ) was writing to.
 

MRB1863

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I think it best to that I refrain passing judgement or speculating on any motive by Mrs. Bixby. I do, however sympathize with her painful loss of at least two sons. Additionally, I think it safe to say, the letter in question is written elegantly.
 

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