During his remarks at Ground Zero to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush quoted one of the most famous and controversial pieces of writing associated with Lincoln.
The letter to Lydia Bixby has a tangled history, and even the details contained in the text itself are muddled. Mrs. Bixby actually lost two sons, rather than five, to the war. The mistake seems to have originated with Massachusetts Adjutant General William Schouler, who informed Gov. John Andrew that all five of Mrs. Bixby’s sons died in battle. Andrew forwarded this information to the War Department, and from there it made its way to the Executive Mansion.
As for the three surviving sons, one received an honorable discharge, another left the army before being discharged, and the third was captured and reportedly deserted to the enemy. Ironically, Mrs. Bixby’s family claimed that she was a Confederate sympathizer who had little regard for Lincoln. The text was printed in the newspapers, and forged facsimile copies continue to circulate today, although the original is long since lost.
Perhaps the most interesting debate surrounding the Bixby letter is the question of whether or not Lincoln actually composed it. According to some oral testimony, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay may have claimed to be the original author. Hay also pasted a copy of the letter into a scrapbook containing some of his writing, which Lincoln authority Michael Burlingame considered evidence for his authorship.
Other researchers, such as Ed Steers, think it more likely that the Bixby letter is an authentic Lincoln composition. Lincoln’s eldest son Robert reported that Hay denied any association with the letter to him, and believed that his father was indeed the author. Whatever the letter’s origin, the fact that it continues to be such a popular text to invoke in times of sacrifice and suffering is due not only to its literary power, but to Lincoln’s unparalleled place in American memory.
The complete document, along with annotations, is available online in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.