Today in History: Abraham Lincoln pens letter to grieving Civil War mother in 1864

November 21st, 2013

On November 21, 1864, Abraham Lincoln is thought to have written a consoling letter to Lydia Bixby, a Boston widow whose five sons died while fighting for the Union. The letter’s author and the specific details regarding Mrs. Bixby’s sons are debated, but the simple and eloquent prose of the letter is praised.

The letter was written in response to a request by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew. Historical records indicate that, contrary to reports, Mrs. Bixby lost two of her sons in the Civil War, with the other three living for years after the war ended. Mrs. Bixby herself may have been a Confederate sympathizer, though all five of her sons fought for the Union.

While purportedly written by President Lincoln himself, many historians believe it was actually written by John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary. Those historians point to accounts that Hay expressed authorship of the note and that the letter is similar to Hay’s writing style. Regardless, the letter is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made during war. It reads, in part:

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.

Read the complete letter to Mrs. Bixby here, and compare to a letter Lincoln wrote to a teenage girl, Fanny McCullough, the daughter of an old friend from Illinois who had been killed in action. Going sentence by sentence through both letters, examine each aspect of his attempt at consolation. Imagine yourself as Mrs. Bixby or Fanny. Would the letter have any effect, long term, on your feelings of loss? Would the fact that the letter came from the President of the United States make a difference? 

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