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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. (News Agency) President 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 goes, he penned a letter to the grieving mother.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.”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.
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.