History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 February 2007

More on Civil War Era Letters

Kathrynn's post of the achingly loving letter from Major Ballou to his wife, Sarah, inspired me to hunt up Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby. February is the month when we honor our Presidents, but in this letter a President honors a woman who gave more than any mother should be asked to give. It reads as follows:

Executive Mansion,
, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,--

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,

What impresses me most about this letter is its heartfelt sympathy. My favorite line: 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. I would consider my life a success if I could write one line as fine as that.

I have always wondered how deeply commanders feel the loss of their men, especially when the commanders are far from the front. When you read the closing of this letter, is there any doubt that this was written from the heart, by a man who grieved every death in a war he oversaw as Commander in Chief?

Honesty compels me to tell you the rest of the story. It was later discovered that two of Mrs. Bixby’s sons survived. One was a deserter and the other honorably discharged. According to one web site I checked, Mrs. Bixby destroyed the original letter as she was a Confederate sympathizer and did not like Lincoln. This makes me wonder how someone with such strong convictions could have raised five sons who fought on the side she opposed. As my friend, writer Marsha Nuccio, says, “Every life is a novel.”



Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

That's one amazing letter. I love when the written word is strong enough to reach across time and place and make you FEEL.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Mary Blayney said...

Very well said, Kalen...

9:53 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What a letter, what a story, Mary. Thanks.

But I just want to add one word about the term "Commander in Chief," and Lincoln's correct use of it -- as discussed just last week by the historian Garry Wills:

"When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, 'commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.' That title is rarely -- more like never -- heard today. It is just 'commander in chief,' or even 'commander in chief of the United States.'"

10:01 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

How eloquent and sad.

You know, if Mrs. Bixby destroyed the original letter in grief, I could understand. The words of a President, even Lincoln, would be a weak and feeble "attempt to beguile me from the grief of a loss so overwhelming."

No disrespect to Mr. Lincoln, but she lost three (or five) sons---she would be devastated and angry. A reason to destroy the letter in itself, IMO. I could see doing that.

Thank you Mary, for another fine example of words that make use feel.

1:37 PM  

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