A letter from Lincoln

Jadon Gibson
Jadon Gibson

Antietam was the bloodiest one day battle in our nation’s history with more than 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of savage combat on September 17, 1862. The Antietam National Battlefield Park is located in Washington County, Maryland.

Lydia Bixby, a woman of over sixty years of age, called on Adjutant-General William Schouler on Beacon Hill in Boston saying one of her sons had been wounded in the battle. She wanted to go and help nurse him back to health but she was impoverished and unable to do so. Gen. Schouler reported the meeting to Governor John Albion Andrew who appropriated forty dollars to cover her expenses in visiting her son.

Two years later, about September 14, 1864, Lydia Bixby again called on Adjutant-General Schouler. During this meeting she showed him five letters, written by five different commanding officers, informing her of the deaths of each of her sons. Gen. Schouler was deeply saddened.

A few days later Schouler received communication from a man named Newhall who petitioned for one of his five sons to be discharged from the army. This reminded him of Lydia Bixby’s visit and he mentioned her loss in his communication to Governor Andrew.

“A still more remarkable case is Mrs. Bixby who ten days ago came to my office and showed me five letters from five company commanders, each informing her of the death of one of her sons. She is the best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman I have seen.”

Gov. Andrew was so impressed with the document that he filed a report of it with the War Department in Washington.

“Mrs. Bixby sent five sons to the army, all of whom have been killed. This is such a remarkable case that I really wish a letter might be written by the President. A mother of five dead sons, as noble as Mrs. Bixby, certainly deserves it.”

In Washington, Colonel Thomas Vincent received the communication and wrote Schouler asking him for the names and particulars of the Newhalls and of the Bixbys. Schouler dispatched a courier to call on and get the information.

He wrote Colonel Vincent with information about the Newhalls and the following information about the Bixbys: Charles Bixby, killed at Fredericksburg, May 3, 1863; Henry Bixby killed at Gettysburg, July, 1863; Edward Bixby, died of wounds at Folly Island, S.C.; Oliver Bixby killed before Petersburg, July 30, 1864; and George W. Bixby killed before Petersburg, July 30, 1864.

Charles Dana, Assistant Secretary of War received the communication. He approved the discharge of Newhall and sent the Bixby information to Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War. Stanton turned the information over to President Lincoln. The president was heart-wrenched in composing a letter to Mrs. Bixby. The president’s ingenuity in composing it has led the letter to stand as a masterpiece in correspondence.

On Thanksgiving Day, Schouler called on Mrs. Bixby delivering a “considerable sum of money,” a turkey, a ton of coal, and the following letter written by President Lincoln.

“Executive Mansion, Nov. 21, 1864, To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.

“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 any words of mine would be to attempt to relieve you from the grief of your loss so overwhelming. Yet I can not refrain from sending you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.

“I pray that our Heavenly Father may lessen 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 on the altar of freedom. Yours very sincerely and respectfully, A. Lincoln.”

The letter, masterfully written, was widely published in 1864. Fifty years later, President Woodrow Wilson, who was highly educated, used similar wording from Lincoln’s letter in writing to parents of four Marines who died at Vera Cruz.

Lydia Bixby’s family certainly did their share in representing the Union but she didn’t lose five sons in the war as she claimed. The War Department incorrectly informed Lincoln about the fate of Mrs. Bixby’s sons. They accepted her letter at face value and forwarded it on to the president. In actuality only two of her sons had died in battle, the others eventually survived the war. Bixby has been criticized by some for these inconsistencies and that she was a poor example of a grieving Union mother.

Charles Bixby was killed at Fredericksburg and Oliver Bixby served honorably before being killed in action near Petersburg, VA, on July 30, 1864.

It is certainly possible that Lydia Bixby wasn’t aware that three of her sons had not died. She learned later that her son Henry was living and had been released from a Confederate prison.

When George Way Bixby enlisted in 1864 he did so as George Way, not using his full name, to keep his wife from knowing of his enlistment. He probably had served previously as his enlistment papers indicated that he was a veteran. He was captured by the enemy July 30, 1864 but was somehow listed after this as a deserter. Other records indicate that he was a prisoner of war and that he died in prison. In 1878 the name “George Bixby of Cuba” appeared on a preliminary list of heirs of his Uncle Albert Bixby’s estate although no action was taken to receive his inheritance the following year.

Edward Bixby didn’t die from wounds at Folly Island as his mother claimed. He ran away from home when he was eighteen years old and joined the Union army in May of 1861. His mother learned of this and attempted to gain his release. Edward didn’t know of his mother’s efforts and deserted before his release was granted. It was thought for some time that he had been killed in action.

If he had held out a little longer, his mother with five sons in the service, undoubtedly would have secured his release and he could have lived his life more openly and respectably. Instead he spent much of his lifetime hiding from his past.

Edward Bixby’s name wasn’t found in records until the 1870’s when he was shown to be living with his mother. He received his share of his Uncle Albert Bixby’s estate in 1879.

It was learned that Lydia Bixby began stretching the truth while soliciting assistance from churches and Christian families in Boston where she lived. It wasn’t uncommon for families to have lost two sons but a woman who had lost five sons was indeed worthy.

Lydia Bixby died on October 27 of 1878 and Edward moved to Illinois where he worked as a cigar-maker. He died in 1909 and was buried in a simple grave that was paid for by his local union.

The whereabouts of President Lincoln’s letter to Lydia Bixby is unknown. She couldn’t proudly display it with two sons present while the letter indicated they had been killed in action. She spent a number of years trying to live down these inconsistencies so she probably destroyed or discarded it.

Lincoln didn’t live long enough to learn that the chain of officers and that he, too, had been duped. Would he have sympathized with a widow who was forced to live on handouts while receiving frequent reports of death, injury and capture of her five sons while serving the Union Army?

Some feel that Lincoln would have understood Lydia Bixby’s plight and smiled at her resourcefulness, taking some pleasure from having assisted her during her difficult time of need.

Lydia Bixby & Abraham Lincoln
Lydia Bixby & Abraham Lincoln

copyright 2015 Jadon Gibson.

Editor’s note: Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com Don’t miss a single issue. Listen to Jadon and wife Chris Saturday mornings from 6 to 9 a.m. at wcxz.com

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