History’s most famous letter of condolence was the inspiration behind a famous scene in Steven Spielberg’s multiple Oscar-winning movie Saving Private Ryan.
As War Department secretaries stumble on evidence that all but one of four brothers called Ryan has been killed in action, the actor playing General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) prefixes his order to save the remaining Ryan by quoting word-for-word a letter reputedly sent by Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, the widowed mother of five sons all killed in the Civil War.
Separating Fact from Fiction
It is a scene with real dramatic power, although in time-honoured fashion Hollywood has taken a few liberties with the truth. Scholars and historians who doubt the provenance of Lincoln’s so-called ‘Letter to Mrs Bixby’ say it was most likely written by John Hay, one of the White House secretaries. The use of the words “beguile” and “assuage” appear to give the game away because meticulous study of Lincoln’s numerous letters and writings fail to suggest he ever used these words in any other context. Hay, on the other hand, did use these exact words several times in his correspondence.
Lost in Translation? – How the Bixby Story Became Legend
Contrary to what was believed, not all of Mrs Bixby’s sons perished in battle. She certainly had five sons, but only two of them died in battle. The others either deserted or were honourably discharged. One of the alleged deserters might have died a prisoner of war.
None of this, of course, diminishes the personal loss that befell Mrs Bixby, but quite how the embellished version of the Bixby story was allowed to reach the highest office in the land without some degree of corroboration remains a mystery. In any case the White House seems to have accepted in good faith a letter from the Governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, asking President Lincoln to express condolences for the loss of Mrs Bixby’s five sons.
Whatever became of the original copy of Lincoln’s letter to Mrs Bixby is another cause for speculation. It is assumed that Mrs Bixby, a Confederate sympathiser, destroyed it. Forged copies did appear from time to time, stitched together by crayoning Lincoln’s handwriting from other documents over the text of the Bixby letter, which a Boston newspaper had conveniently published.
Yet if the legend of the Bixby letter is discredited, who can deny the majesty of its contents? Three short paragraphs, combining heartfelt compassion with an almost exultant affirmation of the sanctifying power of sacrifice, echo to a fault the grandeur of Lincolns way of words.
Lincolns Letter to Mrs Lydia Bixby
Washington, November 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,