Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
In honor of Presidents’ Day:
One of my favorite scenes in Saving Private Ryan is when General George Marshal reads/recites this letter by Abraham Lincoln:
It’s difficult to read this letter without emotion. It is an astounding example of good writing: eloquent, concise, and profoundly moving. Every word is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed. If you are thinking, no one writes letters like this anymore, I would say, no one has ever written letters quite like this.
I was not surprised to learn that there is much debate among historians about the letter. No one doubts that it is real, but there are some who believe it was penned by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. It’s generally accepted that Lincoln was misinformed about Mrs. Bixby’s sons. Only two were killed in battle. Two others were held prisoner, but survived the war. The fifth, and youngest, went AWOL. At least that’s what Wikipedia tells me.
Historians have been critical of Mrs. Bixby herself as well. It is likely she was a Confederate sympathizer who destroyed the original copy of the letter.
I find all that interesting, of course, but none of it changes the astonishing beauty of the Bixby Letter. It was written with all sincerity to a mother mourning the loss of five sons. Do you know what’s it’s like to encounter suffering people and to want desperately to say something meaningful and kind? Something that will somehow ease their pain? I know of nothing more difficult. I’ve been there. Everything comes out wrong. I’ve said the wrong things with good intentions. I’ve said nothing when I should have said something. And I’ve spoken when I should have kept quiet.
That’s why I find this letter so astonishing. It expresses sympathy with humility and also offers genuine consolation. That word itself is perfect, isn’t it? Consolation. It means “comfort in a time of grief.” This letter doesn’t try to heal or explain. It doesn’t offer platitudes or propaganda. It acknowledges both the power and limitations of words. It merely affirms the one hope of those who have lost loved ones in battle — that they died for something that matters.
Comments? Questions? Leave them below!