Letter of legend is read between the lines
JULY 21, 09:53 EDT
By John Pike, Globe Correspondent, 07/21/99
In a poignant moment near the start of the movie ''Saving Private Ryan,'' a general reads a letter of condolence from Abraham Lincoln to a Boston mother whose five sons were killed fighting for the Union army.
Lincoln scholars have long considered it to be his finest letter, ranking among the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses as his greatest literary achievements.
The death of Lydia Bixby's five sons made a grand story that aroused public sympathy during the Civil War and whipped up patriotic ardor. But elements of the story have been debunked over the years.
Since the 1920s, historians have said that Bixby lost only two sons in the war, was a Confederate sympathizer, destroyed the letter in anger, and ran a Boston whorehouse.
And for years, some have said the famous letter to widow Bixby, dated Nov. 21, 1864, was actually written by Lincoln's assistant personal secretary, John Hay. Most Lincoln scholars, however, have resisted this conclusion.
Now, Michael Burlingame, a professor of history at Connecticut College and author of ''The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln,'' says he has recently uncovered evidence further indicating Hay is most likely the author of the letter.
The three-sentence letter notes ''how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine,'' but adds, ''I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.''
It concludes by noting ''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.''
Speaking by telephone in Springfield, Ill., where he is conducting research, Burlingame said the Bixby letter has the stylistic fingerprint of Hay.
The letter contains words and phrases that appear frequently in various letters, poems, and other compositions by Hay but were rarely or never used in Lincoln's works, said Burlingame.
The letter contains the word ''beguile,'' which Lincoln never used, while Hay used it at least 30 times in materials Burlingame has examined. Phrases such as ''I cannot refrain from tendering you'' and ''I pray that our heavenly father'' are occasionally used by Hay but not Lincoln.
''The overall tone of the Bixby letter resembles several of Hay's messages of condolence,'' said Burlingame, whose findings will be in a book he is writing.
Burlingame also said ''a scrapbook containing newspaper accounts of Hay's writings at Brown University, where Hay was an alumnus, includes a copy of the letter, as does a similar scrapbook in the Library of Congress. It is difficult to understand why Hay would have pasted the Bixby missive into these scrapbooks, full of his own literary work, unless he had composed it.''
Lincoln would have been especially inclined to have Hay write letters for him during an especially hectic time such as November 1864, said Burlingame. That month, Hay apologized to Charles S. Spencer, a New York Republican leader and banquet organizer: ''I regret that the president was literally crowded out of the opportunity of writing you a note for yr. banquet. He fully intended to do so himself & for that reason I did not prepare a letter for him. But the crush here just now is beyond endurance.''
In 1943, Roy P. Basler, who later edited ''The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,'' said the style of the Bixby letter seems to mark it as Lincoln's. ''If the student will read aloud the best of Lincoln's lyrical passages in the Farewell Address, Gettysburg Address, or Second Inaugural Address, and then read aloud the letter to Mrs. Bixby, he will find it exceedingly difficult to believe that anyone other than Lincoln composed such sentences,'' said Basler, who did not have access to the Hay papers at Brown University.
Others, meanwhile, have long known of Bixby's shady past.
In the 1920s, William E. Barton, a Lincoln scholar in Foxborough, said Bixby lost only two boys in the war. Of the three others, one deserted to the enemy, another may have deserted, and the third was honorably discharged. Moreover, Barton said, Bixby was involved in prostitution and lived at nine addresses in Boston between 1861 and 1878.
The letter to Bixby was prompted when William Schouler, head of the Massachusetts militia, was shown what he described as five letters from five company commanders, each telling Bixby of the death of one of her sons.
Schouler told Governor John A. Andrew ''she was the best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman I have yet seen'' and encouraged the governor to write to Lincoln about her.
According to Burlingame, Bixby might have been seeking money. In 1862, she claimed one of her sons had been wounded at the battle of Antietam and asked for financial help to visit him in a Maryland hospital. Governor Andrew gave her $40. War Department records contain no indication of a Bixby son wounded at Antietam.
Burlingame also said Bixby's granddaughter believed her grandmother was secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause, had little good to say about Lincoln, and resented the letter.
Bixby died at Massachusetts General Hospital at age 77 on Oct. 27, 1878. She is buried at Boston's Mount Hope Cemetery.
The Bixby letter, said Burlingame, cannot diminish the status of Lincoln, but deserves to elevate that of John Hay. Already, it has won Lydia Bixby a most unlikely immortality.
This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 07/21/99.
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