On this day in history, Nov. 21, 1864, Abraham Lincoln ‘pens’ letter to Mrs. Bixby


On this day in history, Nov. 21, 1864, Abraham Lincoln ‘pens’ letter to Mrs. Bixby

The Bixby Letter, while controversial, is still cherished as one of the best-written letters in American history

President Abraham Lincoln supposedly sent his sincerest condolences to a grieving mother in the historic Bixby Letter on this day in history, Nov. 21, 1864.

In the fall of 1864, Gov. John A. Andrew of Massachusetts sent a request to then-President Lincoln asking him to send his regards to Mrs. Lydia Bixby.

Bixby of Boston was believed to have lost her five sons during the Civil War, according to Abraham Lincoln Online.

Lincoln accepted the request.

And as the story he goes, he penned a letter to the grieving mother.

A colorized antique photograph portrait of Abraham Lincoln. "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," the Bixby Letter reads in part. 

A colorized antique photograph portrait of Abraham Lincoln. “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,” the Bixby Letter reads in part.  (iStock)

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 to 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,

A. Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln reportedly penned his condolences to Mrs. Bixby for the loss of her five sons during the Civil War on Nov. 21, 1864. But the letter is not without controversy. 

President Abraham Lincoln reportedly penned his condolences to Mrs. Bixby for the loss of her five sons during the Civil War on Nov. 21, 1864. But the letter is not without controversy.  (AP)

The letter was printed and distributed by the Boston Evening Transcript.

It was soon cherished as “one of the best letters written in the history of the English language,” according to a Time report.

Among the praises it received: American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg called it “a piece of the American Bible” that “more darkly than the Gettysburg speech … wove its awful implication that human freedom so often was paid for with agony.”

But the letter is not without controversy.

The original copy was allegedly destroyed by either the newspaper’s editor or by Mrs. Bixby herself, who — as a sympathizer of the Confederacy — may have disliked Lincoln.

Bixby’s great-grandchildren recalled this as Bixby’s political stance, according to the New England Historical Society.

Field and staff officers of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, a volunteer regiment in the Union army, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War, June 1865.

Field and staff officers of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, a volunteer regiment in the Union army, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War, June 1865. (William Morris Smith/Library of Congress/Getty Images)

“I was advised by my father that my great-grandmother was an ardent southern sympathizer,” Bixby’s great-grandson said, according to the society.

“And when she received the letter, she destroyed it in anger … shortly after receipt without realizing its value.”

It was later revealed that Bixby lost not five but two of her sons, Charles and Oliver, in battle, according to the New England Historical Society.

Of the three others, the third son, Edward, reportedly deserted the Army; the fourth son, George, either deserted the Army or died as a prisoner of war; and the fifth son, Henry, was honorably discharged.

Whether Lincoln himself wrote the letter or not has also been debated.

President Abraham Lincoln with General George B. McClellan at his headquarters at Antietam, October 3, 1862.

President Abraham Lincoln with General George B. McClellan at his headquarters at Antietam, October 3, 1862. (Getty Images)

Many scholars believe that one of Lincoln’s White House secretaries, John Hay, was the one who put pen to paper.


The letter’s popularity, however, was revived by the 1998 Steven Spielberg film “Saving Private Ryan,”which the letter reportedly inspired.

Actor Harve Presnell, who played Gen. Marshall in the film, recites the letter in an emotional cinematic moment.

The letter has continued to be used to honor those who have sacrificed their lives for America.

A passage from the letter — “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom” — is etched into stone at the base of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

On the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, former President George W. Bush read the Bixby Letter during a memorial service at Ground Zero.

In 2017, a team of forensic linguistics researchers used a tracing method that revealed 90% of the letter was identified as Hay’s writing, according to Time.

Saving Private Ryan D-Day Scene

Saving Private Ryan opening cemetery scene

HD – Saving Private Ryan – Death of Captain John H. Miller and Final Speech

The Good Life

by Chuck Colson

Learn More | Meet Chuck Colson

An old man walks down a wide path through a colonnade of evergreens. He has a full head of gray hair, combed from a wavy peak to one side. His eyebrows spike with a grandfatherly flourish toward his temples. He wears a light blue Windbreaker over a golf shirt with a horizontal stripe, Sansabelt slacks, and the crepe-soled shoes his doctor recommended. His gait is quick but stiff – stiff like someone who has just gotten himself up. He marches forward with great intent and purpose, as if he’s hunting out something or someone.Behind him trail his family. His wife is closest, his son and daughter-in- law a step or two farther behind, bracketing their children.

The man’s eyes show that for the moment he’s not thinking of his family, although he seems to be dragging them in his wake. His eyes are at once wide-open yet fixed, poached by what can only be dread. His mouth works in a way that shows his stomach is in his throat. Off to the left his family can see the curve of a long shore, hear the soughing of the waves, and nearly breathe in the scent of the brine. But the man looks neither to his right nor to his left. He keeps stumbling forward, his body tense yet determined.

When he finally turns to his right, he steps onto a vast lawn striped with thousands of white crosses that extend toward the horizon. Here and there a Jewish star adds to the procession of markers that contrast starkly against the green sward. The old man’s pace speeds as he makes his way through this vast cemetery. His family struggles to keep up.

James Ryan’s determined march finally halts in front of a particular cross. The rims of his eyes show red. He wipes at them with a shaking hand, sniffs hard, tries again to breathe. Here it is, his captain’s cross, the name, the date: Captain John W. Miller, June 13, 1944.

He takes another sniff against his watering eyes, bites his lip. He’s almost choking as he struggles to breathe in the heavy air. His knees give way, and he kneels before the cross, his shoulders heaving. His wife is suddenly at one shoulder, his son at the other. He’s glad they are there, but they cannot help with what needs to be done.

He mumbles that he’s all right, and they retreat several steps, leaving him to the thoughts that press so hard he can’t bear the weight.

Not until this moment does he realize that what he has been looking forward to yet dreading is a transaction. An exchange of some kind. For him this visit to the Normandy American Cemetery is no sightseeing tour. It’s a profound action. Even now he cannot say why he believes this to be the case. The emotion that’s seized him declares it to be so, however.

Whatever must happen involves the question that’s dogged him his whole life. The unspoken question that’s brought him here. He feels its presence in every memory, and not only the good ones.

Now that he’s looking at his captain’s grave, Ryan has to ask the question.

Decades earlier, on June 6, 1944, Captain Miller and his men had landed at Omaha Beach, a horror James Ryan had been spared as part of the 101st Airborne. His unit had been dropped into Normandy the night before the sea assault. He later learned from the tales of his buddies and from seeing newsreel footage what D-day had been like. Although Germany had not been expecting the assault at the place Eisenhower chose, the air assault hadn’t softened their positions one whit, and when the armored front of the Higgins boats opened onto the beach, the men were ducks on a pond to the enemy’s machine guns. Many of those sitting forward in the landing craft never had a chance to move from their seats as the Germans opened fire. Those who jumped over the craft’s sides to swim and crawl ashore could only cling to the Belgian gates and iron hedgehogs – the jack-shaped defensive works strewn in rows all along the shingle that prevented tanks from making the initial assault.

The army rangers humped forward in waves, men falling to the right and left every few feet. They were getting hit not only by machinegun fire but by artillery as well. Bodies flew with the explosions. The wounded picked up their severed arms and stumbled a few more feet to their deaths. The waves washing onto the beaches ran red with blood, lapping at the dead, who lay scattered and senseless.

Captain Miller and a few of his company made it to the seawall. Although 50 percent of the men in the first waves to hit Omaha Beach were killed in action, the others broke the first line of German defenses.

Soon after the hell of D-Day, Captain Miller and a squad of seven men were assigned to find paratrooper James Ryan and bring him home – alive. The army’s chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, had personally issued the order for Private James Ryan to be taken out of the war. Ryan’s two older brothers had died in the great assault, and a third brother had been killed in action in New Guinea. Marshall thought that three sons were enough for any mother to contribute to the war.

Captain Miller and his squad found Ryan with remnants of the 506, Baker Company, which had orders to secure a bridge on the far side of a river. The company had been ordered to hold the bridge at all costs – or, as a final defense, to blow it up. When Captain Miller and his squad arrived to take Ryan home, Ryan refused to leave. Miller asked him what he was supposed to say to Ryan’s mother when she got another folded American flag. Ryan replied, “You can tell her that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left. And that there was no way I was deserting them. I think she’d understand that.”

Captain Miller and his squad told Ryan angrily that they had already lost two men in the search to find him. Miller finally decided that they’d make Ryan’s battle their own as well and save him in the process.

The Germans soon came at them – nearly a full company of men, two Panzer tanks, two Tigers. The Americans lured the Panzers down the village’s main street, where they staged an effective ambush. The only thing Ryan had been allowed to do was pitch mortar shells like hand grenades. Captain Miller never let Ryan leave his side, protecting the private every step of the way.

Still, one tank blew their sharpshooter to eternity. Another soldier died in hand-to-hand combat with a knife to his heart. No matter their ingenuity, the squad couldn’t hold off such an overpowering force, and the men made a strategic retreat to the other side of the bridge. In the retreat one of the sergeants was hit and collapsed.

Captain Miller took a shot beneath his ribs as he struggled to fix the wiring on a detonation device. Then an artillery blast knocked him nearly unconscious. All hope lost, Captain Miller began shooting at a tank coming straight at him.

Suddenly, Tankbuster aircraft shrieked down on them, blowing the enemy’s tanks to smithereens and routing their foot soldiers. The Allies’ own armored reinforcements rolled up minutes later.

Of the squad that had come to save Ryan, only two men escaped relatively unscathed. The others were dead or dying.

Captain Miller lay close by where he had been hit, his back slumped against the bridge’s wall. Ryan, in anguish, was alone with his rescuer in the final moments before Miller died. Ryan watched as the captain struggled in his last moments, shot clean through one lung. The captain wouldn’t take another breath, except to grunt, “James. Earn this . . . earn it.”

Were these dying words a final order or charge?

These memories rivet the aged James Ryan, who now finds himself staring at the grave marker and mumbling to his dead commander. He tells Captain Miller that his family is with him. He confesses that he wasn’t sure how he would feel about coming to the cemetery today. He wants Captain Miller to know that every day of his life he’s thought of their conversation at the bridge, of Miller’s dying words. Ryan has tried to live a good life, and he hopes he has. At least in the captain’s eyes, he hopes he’s “earned it,” that his life has been worthy of the sacrifice Captain Miller and the other men made of giving their lives for his.

As Ryan mutters these thoughts, he cannot help wondering how any life, however well lived, could be worthy of his friends’ sacrifice. The old man stands up, but he doesn’t feel released. The question remains unanswered.

His wife comes to his side again. He looks at her and pleads, “Tell me I’ve led a good life.”

Confused by his request, she responds with a question: “What?”

He has to know the answer. He tries to articulate it again: “Tell me I’m a good man.”

The request flusters her, but his earnestness makes her think better of putting it off. With great dignity, she says, “You are.”

His wife turns back to the other family members, whose stirring says they are ready to leave.

Before James Ryan joins them, he comes to attention and salutes his fallen comrade. What a gallant old soldier he is.

Who of us can see this scene from Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film Saving Private Ryan and not ask ourselves the same question: Have I lived a good life?

Does there exist an exact way of calculating the answer to this question? How do we define living a good life? What makes the good we do good enough? Is our life worthy of the sacrifice of others? The unavoidable question of whether we have lived a good life searches our hearts.

Not everyone experiences what Ryan did in such a dramatic way. Yet this question of the good life – and others like it – haunts every human being from the earliest years of our consciousness. Something stirs us at the very core of our being, demanding answers to so many questions: Is there some purpose in life? Are we alone in this universe, or does some force – call it fate, destiny, or providence – guide our lives?

These questions don’t often occur to us so neatly of course. Usually the hardest questions hit us at the hardest times. In the midst of tragedy or serious illness, when confronting violence and injustice, or after seeing our personal hopes shattered, we cry out, “Why is the world such a mess? Is there anything I can do about it?”

There’s a mystery at work in these perennial questions of human existence. I doubt anyone who has ever seen Saving Private Ryan or read great works of literature like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or Camus’s The Plague has ever doubted the relevance of such questions. Neither does anyone who has ever marveled at the beauty of the Milky Way or sat weeping at the bedside of a dying loved one.

What distinguishes humans from all other creatures is our selfconsciousness: We know we are alive and that we will die, and we cannot keep from asking ourselves questions about why life is the way it is and what it all means.

And isn’t it odd that we all understand immediately why Private Ryan would feel compelled to live an honorable life? Does he believe that in doing so he can make his comrades’ sacrifice worthwhile? Evidently, he does, and we sense the rightness of this. But why does he feel in their debt? Why does he feel that their actions have to be recompensed by his own, as if blind justice with a sword in one hand and balancing scales in the other really existed? And why should goodness be the means of repaying this debt? Why not revenge? Why should he not set about killing as many former Nazis as possible? Somehow that does not satisfy, though. If sacrifice can be repaid at all, it can be done only by sacrifice, not by slaughter. We know this. But why do we know this?

A broad answer lies in our humanity. Because we are human, we ask questions about meaning and purpose. We have an innate sense of justice and our own need to meet the demands of justice. Moral attitudes differ from culture to culture, but take people from a Stone Age culture in a remote village in Papua New Guinea, sit them down in front of Saving Private Ryan, and they will immediately understand the issues involved. They will understand Ryan’s questions and his sense of gratitude.

The word should in the questions that arise from Private Ryan’s life immediately grounds us in ethical considerations. It implies there must be a variety of answers to these questions. It suggests that some answers are better than others – some are right while others are wrong. So, where does this should come from? What does it mean that we possess an innate sense of these things?

At the very least it points to the notion that we all live in a moral universe, which is one of the reasons human beings, regardless of background or economics or place of birth, are irresistibly religious. If nothing else, we know there is someone or something to which we owe a debt for our existence.

Our questions also presume that we can choose our answers to these questions and act on these choices. The freedom of the human will, even if circumscribed, is built into the way the human mind works.

Commenting on life’s questions, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in the case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, said, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Kennedy asserted that beliefs about these matters define the attributes of personhood. We are who we are, we are the type of creatures we are, because we are obliged to come to our own conclusions about the great questions. Although I disagree profoundly with the legal conclusion Justice Kennedy drew from this observation, I must admit his summary captures what makes us human.3

I can remember when I first began asking questions early in life. I have particularly vivid memories of the Sunday morning in December 1941 when our family was riveted to the radio, listening with growing anxiety to the reports of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor. I was certain we’d be fighting Japanese soldiers or German SS officers in the streets of our sleepy Boston suburb. I remember asking my father, “Why does there have to be war and bloodshed and death?” He replied – mistakenly, as I now think – that it was all part of the natural process, like famines and plagues that prevented overpopulation.

During the war, I organized fund-raising campaigns in my school, even auctioned off my treasured model airplane collection to raise funds for the war effort. Instinctively I knew I was meant to do my part to protect our freedoms. I wanted my life – even at age twelve – to matter.

I also remember standing in our yard many nights, the world around me in darkness, blackout shades covering every window in the neighborhood, protecting us against the expected air raids. I would stare into the dazzling array of stars above me and wonder where the universe began, where it ended, and what I was doing here. As a student, I struggled to grasp the concept of infinity – what was beyond those stars.

I’ve continued to ask these kinds of questions, especially during times of stress. I’ve asked them in my life as a government official, as a husband and father, as a convicted felon, and then as a Christian leader. Many times in the inner recesses of my conscience I’ve asked Ryan’s questions: Have I been a good man? Have I lived a good life? Sometimes I’ve been unsure; other times I’ve been sure that I have failed. But where do we go to answer these questions? Whom do we ask? Who can tell us the truth about the value of our lives?

While the quest to find answers to such questions can be arduous at times, even heartbreaking, the search for the truth about life is the one thing that makes life worthwhile, exhilarating. The ability to pursue such a search makes us human. Emmanuel Mounier, the founder of the French “personalist” philosophical movement, writes that human life is characterized by a “divine restlessness.” The lack of peace within our hearts spurs us on a quest for the meaning of life – a command imprinted on “unextinguished souls.”4 Pope John Paul II sums up the matter elegantly: “One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth.”5

What will be the truth of our lives and our destinies? Most people want to arrive at Captain Miller’s cemetery cross – or whatever judgment seat they envision – with some confidence that they have lived a good life.

But what is a good life? How does such a life incorporate answers to the great questions? How can such a life be lived?

Have I lived one?

Have you?

(This scene includes violence and bad language) Saving Private Ryan Omaha Beach


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