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The history around this letter is storied and rife with paradox. It was printed in the Boston papers at the time and has been used in the movie Saving Private Ryan. It is a real letter. It has been alternately attributed to President Abraham Lincoln, or to his secretary, John Hay. It was written to a Mrs. Bixby, living in Boston, Massachusetts on November 21, 1864 to acknowledge the deaths of her five sons while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War.
The mother who received this letter, Lydia Bixby, is somewhat of a mystery herself. It is said that she tore up and destroyed the original letter sent to her in a fit of anger. It is believed that, though her five sons did, indeed, fight in various Massachusetts units in the Army of the Republic, she may have been a Southern sympathizer, a Copperhead.
History also tells us that two of her sons did, in fact, die fighting; Pvt. Oliver C. Bixby Jr., while serving with Company E of the 58th Massachusetts at Petersburg; and Sgt. Charles N. Bixby was killed while serving with Company D of the 20th Massachusetts near Fredericksburg.
Two of the Bixby brothers were actually captured by the Confederates: Cpl. Henry C. Bixby, served in Company K of the 32nd Massachusetts in 1864. Records show that he was later paroled and honorably discharged. Cpl. George A. Bixby with Company H, 25th Massachusetts was captured near Petersburg. Army pension records showed that he may have defected to the enemy while in captivity, however this fact and his final fate are unclear.
How does one address such sorrow, such inconceivable loss? Losing one son can, with great difficulty, come to be understood, even accepted, but to lose five sons is beyond the capacity of understanding or acceptance. As I said in my recent "Band of Brothers" article, such potential and such a reality has existed throughout the history of war. In the end there are only words. But some words bear more weight and import than others.
The letter reprinted below is one of the most sensitive, humble, literarily acute documents ever written in the English language. As the best of such written works, it is brief, clear, and precise in its sentiments. It captures the pathos, the wonder, and the grief simply and humbly. The letter appears below. Let it speak to you in our time and to those who have lost members of their families in the wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864
I have been shown in the files of the War Department of 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 President expressed his own sorrow and the sorrow and consolation of the entire nation with that letter. Let it speak again now, for the nation, for all those who have, "laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom", over the last ten years.
Even the loss of one family member is beyond comprehension. For all those who have, know that we will not forget. Your loss is our loss, the nation's loss. Each loss diminishes us. Our condolences to you all.