Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby

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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.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Cyrus
    Cyrus02-06-2015

    The most powerful and well written letter I have ever heard.

    This is true art.

  2. John Breithaupt
    John Breithaupt03-03-2014

    This letter has never struck as being Lincoln’s; it’s not his voice. “Assuage” and “beguile” are not words that he used; “assuage the anguish of your bereavement” is not a Lincoln phrase. “Loved and lost”, “altar of freedom” and so on are genteel cliches, which Lincoln avoided. The phrasing is flowing, expansive, but Lincoln’s prose, especially when there was powerful feeling behind it, became taut and controlled.

    These are personal impression and will seem right to no one who doesn’t share them to already.

    • Quentin W. Buetow
      Quentin W. Buetow03-25-2016

      I am in awe of your longevity, Mr. Breithaupt. I have never before met, in person or online, a one hundred and fifty-plus year old individual! I am so amazed by your vigor and health, sir.

      You CAN appreciate my sarcasm, right?

      How do YOU know what President Lincoln’s preferred writing style was like? Were you there? Were you a witness to the letter writing? Did the President consult with you on the specific words and phrases he (or his ghost-writer) should employ?

      No?

      (nods) Yeah, I thought that might be the case. You’re just yet one more example of an anonymous Internet blow-hard who enjoys trolling blogs and posting contentious replies.

  3. suzi bumbera
    suzi bumbera02-19-2013

    good to know, wasn’t sure about it being the original, it’s what was said that matters anyway…

  4. Suzi Bumbera
    Suzi Bumbera02-18-2013

    but the writings in or of itself…in or of? is an outlet of , outlet?? of a way to tell a mother a of her childrens demise…so thoughtfully put into words…

  5. Suzi Bumbera
    Suzi Bumbera02-18-2013

    mmmmm..relevant

  6. Suzi Bumbera
    Suzi Bumbera02-18-2013

    Although may be or be not relevant, the handwriting is impeccable as well…if written by Lincoln…

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko02-18-2013

      This isn’t the original. That doesn’t exist. It was created with a (very neat) electronic font. šŸ™‚

  7. Suzi Bumbera
    Suzi Bumbera02-18-2013

    Everything comes out wrong. Iā€™ve said the wrong things with good intentions. Iā€™ve said nothing when I should have said something. And Iā€™ve spoken when I should have kept quiet. wow, so well said, Brian…so true. Seen the film on numerous occasions, an just reading the first part, my eyes swell…thank you for sharing…seriously.

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