November 21, 1864: Lincoln (allegedly) writes a letter of condolence to a Mrs. Bixby of Massachusetts, whom he was told had lost five sons in the war.
This letter is one of the most powerful compositions I have ever read. The language and the images move me to tears ever time I read it. Of course, as it turns out, there are some corrections to the story:
- Mrs. Bixby herself was a Southern sympathizer.
- She had lost two sons in battle, not five. (As if having “only” two sons killed was no big deal.)
- Some modern historians don’t think Lincoln actually wrote it, but rather, his secretary, John Hay.
None of which diminishes the majesty of this prose and the incredible command of the English language. I fell in love with this letter a long time ago, when I literally found a copy in a little book, in a pile of trash in the closet of an old house we were cleaning out. (Anybody else remember, “His Place”?) The book was an anthology called “One Hundred and One Famous Poems, with a Prose Supplement.” Not exactly an elegant title, but a great collection, none the less.
I was a Freshman at DCC, and just beginning to appreciate the power of language, and here was a brilliant example. Movie fans will also note that this letter was used in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.
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,
Thank you, Mr. President.