April 29, 2013
Lincoln's Bixby Letter: A Study in Sources
The Bixby Letter has enchanted millions since its publication in 1864. The letter was reportedly written by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 to Lydia Bixby after hearing that her five sons had died in the Union army.
The letter was as follows:
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,
The letter was printed in The Boston Evening Transcript the same day it was delivered to Lydia Bixby. The letter was read in the movie, Saving Private Ryan and even read at the World Trade Center site by George W. Bush during the 10th anniversary ceremony in 2011.
Primary sources are a historians best friend but this particular letter is a great example of why primary sources can be deceiving and should only be a part of a historians research.
From this letter, one can get some basic facts:
1. Mrs. Bixby lost five sons in the Union army.
2. President Lincoln wrote a letter of condolence to her.
However, through more research we find out that while five of her sons were in the Union army only two of her sons died during the war. Did Mrs. Bixby not know the fate of her sons at the time she reported they all had died? Did she exaggerate in an attempt to gain compensation? No one is sure, but the fact is that facts reported incorrectly in a primary source can trip up a researcher who might assume that primary sources are the most accurate sources.
Another problem with the Bixby letter is that many historians dispute who actually wrote the letter. Lincoln was very busy the week that it was written and some evidence points to the probability that his secretary John Hay wrote it.
There's even more to the story. Mrs. Bixby was living in Massachusetts but she was reportedly from Virginia and was still supporting the southern cause, despite having her sons in the Union army. One of her sons said that his mother ripped the letter up upon its receipt. No one is sure how the newspaper got a copy of it or if it received the original and the original hasn't been located, although there are many forgeries and copies.
It is very important to analyze sources and to find corroboration with other sources of evidence. It is also important to see what other historians have written about sources you find. Sometimes other researchers realize something that you did not or propose theories that seem likely.
It is easy to fall into these traps and new researchers frequently do. I know I certainly did when I started researching. Even today, we don't just trust one source of news. We shouldn't blindly believe every account we read unless there is subsequent evidence to back it up.
As a side note: If you have the original Bixby letter, it's said that it would fetch millions at auction. :)