Among the handful of Lincoln’s articulated and renowned speeches and writings, it is believed that one of his most beautifully constructed documents entered the envelope on this day, 1864.
Amidst the closing of the Civil War, widow Lydia Parker Bixby allegedly had five of her sons perish in combat while serving the Union Army. President Abraham Lincoln supposedly wrote a brief letter of a mere 139 words to convey his condolences to Mrs. Bixby.
Questions that perhaps will remain ambiguous and unanswered surround the entire story, beginning with the fate of Mrs. Bixby’s offspring.
The string of mysterious events begins when documents indicating that all of Mrs. Bixby’s sons had passed in the war were received by William Schouler, adjutant general of Massachusetts. John A. Andrew, governor of Massachusetts, gained word of Mrs. Bixby’s situation upon hearing praise of the woman through Schouler, proclaiming her as “the best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman I have yet seen.”
The governor, touched by Bixby’s case, proceeded to humbly request a letter written to Bixby by the White House. The White House was honored to oblige; the letter states
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,
The letter, though beautifully crafted and sincere, addresses the passing of all five of Mrs. Bixby’s sons. It was later revealed that only two of Mrs. Bixby’s sons had actually fallen in combat. It is speculated that, among the remaining three, one had deserted, another had been respectfully discharged, and the fate of the last son unknown.
Oddly enough, Mrs. Bixby failed to hold a trustworthy reputation among her locals, so the somewhat obscure possibility exists that she produced counterfeit information regarding her sons.
The controversy continues with scholars bickering over the authorship of the actual letter. Lincoln had little time to spare throughout November, therefore it’s reasonably argued that assistant private secretary John Hay was tasked with composing the letter instead.
As for the location of the original document, it is believed that Mrs. Bixby held resentment towards the president and disposed of the letter without realizing the imprint on history that it would leave. Numerous falsehoods have since arisen among museums, collectors, and auctions claiming to be in possession of the authentic letter.
Despite the enigma, the document will endure through time standing as “the most sublime letter ever penned by the hand of man.”(Henry Watterson)