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Gilbert: Lincoln's Bixby Letter

Two of the greatest pieces of prose in English were written by the same person less than sixteen months apart: The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. That’s the speech with that magnificent final sentence beginning, “With malice toward none, . . ..”

There’s a third superb prose document written between those two, a letter also with Lincoln’s name on it, dated a hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow , to Lydia Bixby, a widow and bereaved mother in Boston whose five sons were thought to have died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. In “Saving Private Ryan,” General George Marshall reads this letter aloud to his staff before ordering them to find Ryan, whose three brothers had been killed, and bring him home safely. Marshall tells them only that it was “written a long time ago”:

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[braham]. Lincoln

But the story isn’t exactly as it appeared: the War Department gave the White House inaccurate information: although Mrs. Bixby had said that she had had five sons killed, in fact two of her sons were killed; three survived the war. Second, Mrs. Bixby was hardly the idealized grieving Union mother. She had moved to Boston from Richmond, Virginia and was an ardent Southern sympathizer.

Finally, while most Lincoln scholars believe that the president wrote the letter, some argue, for a variety of reasons, that the epistolary masterpiece was authored by his private secretary John Hay; for example, the word “beguile” appears thirty times in Hays’s writings and nowhere else in Lincoln’s; Lincoln supporters counter that this proves nothing.

Fortunately, any uncertainty as to its author hasn’t diminished the regard in which the letter’s prose is quite rightly held.

But even more rare than its exquisite language is its substance, its sensitive sentiment, which, like the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, speaks eloquently to the singular character and empathetic spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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