One of my favorite movie scenes of all time comes from Saving Private Ryan when Gen. George Marshall, informed about the deaths of three brothers, tells his staff that they’re going to send a special mission to retrieve a fourth, surviving brother. The staff protests, but Marshall will have none of it. Director Steven Spielberg has already shown the audience the reaction of the boys’ mother when the “I regret to inform you” telegraphs pulls up in her driveway, so we know the emotional stakes. Marshall, not actually privy to the scene, surely has it well in mind, though. Rather than issue orders to his staff, he instead pulls from a desk drawer a letter President Abraham Lincoln wrote to a similar mother some eighty years earlier.
The “letter to Mrs. Bixby,” well known in Lincoln circles, became instantly famous to the American public. It’s little wonder. Actor Harve Presnell delivers a reading of the letter with poignant gravitas—a letter so familiar to the character that Marshall actually stops reading it and instead recites it. Not until the end does he reveal the letter’s authorship, turning Abraham Lincoln into a mic drop. That settles the matter.
The scene is so powerful that moviegoers want the story to be true—and in fact, when Lincoln originally wrote the letter, he believed it to be so. But as with so many great stories in history, there’s more to the story of the Bixby’s letter.
Let’s start with the letter itself, which is a magnificent little piece of writing, worth a moment to read:
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,
Much as he had in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln admits that words can never live up to the monumental effort of compensating for death. But there’s an especial poignancy to the letter because Lincoln had, by this time, lost two sons of his own (Edward in 1850 and Willie in 1862). The letter is not just the commander in chief writing to the mother of five lost soldiers but one grieving parent reaching out to another.
The letter’s recipient, Lydia Parker Bixby, a widow, lived in Boston. Lincoln had been alerted to her situation by Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew, who asked Lincoln if he might send a letter of condolence. Lincoln did, and it arrived in Andrew’s office on November 25. Andrew not only had the letter delivered to Mrs. Bixby, but he sent copies to the Boston Evening Transcript and the Boston Evening Traveller, which both printed the letter in that day’s editions.
Unfortunately, the whole episode, as tragic as it sounded, was premised on inaccurate information compiled by the state Adjutant General’s office. Of Mrs. Bixby’s five sons:
- One deserted the army
- One was honorably discharged
- One deserted or died a POW
- Two sons died in battle, Charles and Oliver
And here’s where the story really caught my eye. The two Bixby sons killed during the war both had local connections to the battlefields around Fredericksburg, where I live.
The first, 22-year-old Sgt. Charles Bixby, had enlisted in the first hot summer of the war on July 18, 1861. He mustered into Company D of the 20th Massachusetts, “The Harvard Regiment.” The 20th Massachusetts had a particularly rough day at the battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861, and they later saw action with the Army of the Potomac in its 1862 campaigns. Bixby was among the men who saw action along Hawke Street on December 11, 1862, at the battle of Fredericksburg.
In the spring, when Joe Hooker mobilized the army for the Chancellorsville campaign, the 20th Massachusetts was part of John Gibbon’s II Corps division, detached from the rest of the corps for action with John Sedgwick’s wing of the army. During the May 3, 1863, battle of Second Fredericksburg, Gibbon’s two brigades attacked north of the city but repulsed along a canal by the brigade of Confederate Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox. Sgt. Bixby was killed during the fighting.
The second Bixby brother to die in the war was Pvt. Oliver Cromwell Bixby. Oliver enlisted on February 26, 1864, just a few days after his 36th birthday. He’d sat out the early years of the war and didn’t need to sign up. He mustered into Company E of the 58th Massachusetts, which was assigned to Col. Zenas Bliss’s brigade of Brig. Gen. Robert Potter’s division in Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps.
On May 12, much of Burnside’s corps advanced against the east face of the Mule Shoe in a morning attack. Potter’s division spent the previous evening moving into position, which put the 58th Massachusetts right on the property that is now Stevenson Ridge, owned by my wife’s family. During the fighting on the 12th, Oliver was wounded. He would survive and go back into service only to be killed in action near Petersburg, on July 30 during the battle of the Crater.
Discovering these connections I have with Oliver and Charles prompted me to look more closely at the Bixby story. Certainly, their deaths together were tragic enough, and the possible death of POW brother George Way Bixby at Salsbury Prison would make it even worse. George fought in the 56th Massachusetts in Brig. Gen. Thomas G. Stevenson’s IX Corps division and was captured at the Crater on the same day his brother Oliver was killed. Unconfirmed reports also seem to suggest George may have galvanized while in captivity—that is, enlisted with the Confederates in exchange for freedom.
Another brother, Arthur Edward Bixby, 18 years old when he enlisted in June 1861, definitely deserted. He served with the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery but left his post at Fort Richardson, Virginia, eleven and a half months into his service. Perhaps it saved his life. The 1st Mass Heavies saw brutal action when they first went into combat on May 19, 1864, at Harris Farm during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
Only Cpl. Henry Cromwell Bixby, 31 years old when he enlisted with the 20th Massachusetts alongside his brother Charles, served long enough for an honorable discharge. Captured at Gettysburg, he was paroled in March 1864 and went home.
The tragedy of five dead Bixby brothers appears to be hogwash. And to add insult to injury, Mrs. Bixby was reportedly a Confederate sympathizer, or so descendants later attested. She apparently found Lincoln’s letter not touching or consoling but offensive.
The story gets even murkier. Debate has raged for 160 years over Lincoln’s authorship of the letter. Some scholars believe Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, wrote the letter because the writing style more closely resembles Hays’s. Unfortunately, the original copy of the letter was lost, so there’s no way to check handwriting.
As it turns out, Spielberg’s retelling of the story in Marshall’s office might have been the truest part of the entire Bixby myth!
Here’s the scene in case you’ve never seen it: