Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
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 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,
Abraham Lincoln’s celebrated Bixby letter, sent to Lydia Bixby of Boston, Massachusetts, a widow who had apparently lost five sons in the course of the Civil War. Put it on your shelf in the form of Abraham Lincoln: Great Speeches.
While there is controversy about the letter’s authorship (some historians believe Lincoln’s secretary John Hay wrote it) as well as it’s recipient (and whether Ms. Bixby’s boys truly died in combat), the Bixby letter is more than just an individual tribute in the hearts and minds of those for whom Memorial Day is more than just a Monday off work.
This letter also inspired the narrative of Robert Rodat’s screenplay for Saving Private Ryan, and is read during the film in the scene below:
Alletta Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa was also robbed five sons, albeit a century later during World War Two, when a Nazi gunboat torpedoed the USS Juneau on which all five of the brothers were serving. This event prompted the United States military to enact the Sole Survivor Policy as well as christen a new destroyer, USS The Sullivans.