In the fall of 1864, Lincoln was contacted by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, who had written on behalf of Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a constituent. Andrew explained that Mrs. Bixby had lost five sons in the Civil War, and he requested that Lincoln send her a note of condolence.
Lincoln complied, and the letter was later printed by the Boston Evening Transcript. However, after the letter became public it was revealed that only two of Mrs. Bixby's five sons had died in battle, Oliver at Petersburg and Charles at Fredericksburg. Henry, who had been reported as killed at Gettysburg, actually had survived. He spent time as a prisoner of war, then made his way to Cuba, after which nothing is known of him. A fourth son, George, had also been reported killed at Petersburg with his brother Oliver. That report proved to be false. George had volunteered under the name George Way, using his middle name as his last, so his wife would not know of his enlistment. The fifth son, Edward, had also been erroneously reported killed in South Carolina, but alive and well, he was honorably discharged and moved to Boston.
The letter was featured prominently in the recent blockbuster movie, Saving Private Ryan, in which it was read in its entirety.
Historians have long debated the authorship of the letter. Some believe that the letter was actually written by Lincoln, but others insist that it was penned by John Hay, one of Lincoln's secretaries. The original letter has long been lost, and therefore can not be checked. However, in 1904 Hay said that Lincoln had, indeed, been the letterís author. Until proof is offered one way or the other, the authorship is left to the readerís imagination.
Following is the text of the letter to Mrs. 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,
Famous Lincoln Letters