On this day in history, November 21, 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s ‘penned’ letter to Mrs. Bixby

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President Lincoln reportedly sent his heartfelt condolences to a grieving mother in the historic Bixby letter on this day in history, November 21, 1864.

In the fall of 1864, Gov. John A. Andrews of Massachusetts sent a request to then President Lincoln asking him to send his comments to Mrs. Lydia Bixby.

Bixby of Boston was believed to have lost her five sons during the Civil War, according to Abraham Lincoln Online.


Lincoln accepted the request.

As the story goes, he wrote a letter to the grieving mother.

Antique colored portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Old color photo of Abraham Lincoln. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words that attempt to distract you from the grief of so great a loss,” Bixby’s letter reads in part . (iStock)

Dear Madam,

I was told in the files of the War Department a report from the Adjutant General in Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and how fruitless I may have any words to try to distract you from the grief of such a great loss. But I cannot refrain from offering you the consolation that may lie in the gratitude of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our heavenly Father will take the pain of your death, and that you will leave only a loving memory of the love and the lost, and the solemn pride that you must have to sacrifice so much costly on the altar of freedom.

Sincerely and respectfully yours,

A. Lincoln

Abe Lincoln

President Lincoln reportedly wrote his condolences to Mrs. Bixby for the loss of her five sons during the Civil War on November 21, 1864. But the letter is not without controversy. (AP)

The letter was printed and distributed by the Boston Evening Transcript.

It was soon considered “one of the best letters written in the history of the English language,” according to a Time report.

Among the praises he received: the American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg said that it was “a piece of the American Bible” that was “darker than the Gettysburg Address … giving a terrible effect that it was paid for.” ​for human freedom so often oppressed. “

But the letter is not without controversy.


The original copy was allegedly destroyed by the newspaper editor or by Mrs. Bixby herself, who – as a Confederate sympathizer – may not have liked Lincoln.

Bixby’s great-grandchildren remembered this as Bixby’s political stance, according to the New England Historical Society.

Field officers and staff of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, a volunteer regiment in the Union army, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War, June 1865. (William Morris Smith/Library of Congress/Getty Images)

“I was advised by my father that my great-grandmother was a strong Southern sympathizer,” Bixby’s great-grandson said, according to the association.

“And when she received the letter, she destroyed it in anger … soon after receiving it without realizing its value.

It was later revealed that Bixby lost five but two of her sons, Charles and Oliver, in battle, according to the New England Historical Society.

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Out of the other three, the third son, Edward, said that he deserted the Army; the fourth son, George, deserted the Army or died a prisoner of war; and the fifth son, Henry, was honorably discharged.

Whether or not Lincoln himself wrote the letter is also debated.

Lincoln and the generals at Antietam

President Lincoln and General George B. McClellan at his headquarters in Antietam, October 3, 1862. (Getty Images)

Many scholars believe that one of Lincoln’s White House secretaries, John Hay, was the man who put pen to paper.

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The letter’s popularity, however, was revived by the 1998 Steven Spielberg film “Saving Private Ryan”, which the letter is said to have inspired.

Actor Harvey Presnell, who played Gen. Marshall in the film, reciting the letter in an emotional cinematic moment.

The letter is still used to honor those who sacrificed their lives for America.

An excerpt from the letter – “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid such a costly sacrifice on the altar of freedom” – is engraved in stone at the base of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

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On the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, former President George W. Bush read the Bixby Letter at a memorial service at Ground Zero.

In 2017, a team of forensic linguistics researchers used a detection method that revealed that 90% of the letter was identified as Hay’s writing, according to Time.

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