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Controversy surrounds the recipient, the fate of her sons, and the authorship of the letter. Lincoln’s assistant private secretary, John Hay. President Lincoln’s letter of condolence was delivered to Lydia Bixby on November 25, 1864 and was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript and Boston Evening Traveller that afternoon. 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 words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to 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. Lydia Parker married shoemaker Cromwell Bixby on September 26, 1826, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. The couple had at least six sons and three daughters before Cromwell’s death in 1854. Some time before the Civil War, Bixby and her family settled in Boston.
In response to a War Department request of October 1, Schouler sent a messenger to Bixby’s home six days later, asking for the names and units of her sons. He sent a report to the War Department on October 12, which was delivered to President Lincoln by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sometime after October 28. On November 21, both the Boston Evening Traveller and the Boston Evening Transcript published specimen of application letter appeal by Schouler for contributions to assist soldiers’ families at Thanksgiving which mentioned a widow who had lost five sons in the war.
Letter of application for
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Richardson, Virginia on May 28, 1862. Wounded at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. Killed in action near Petersburg, Virginia. Born February 1, 1828 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Enlisted under the name «George Way,» apparently to conceal his enlistment from his wife.
Captured at Petersburg on July 30, 1864. First held prisoner at Richmond but later transferred to Salisbury Prison in North Carolina, arriving there on October 9, 1864. Schouler’s report to the War Department erroneously listed Edward as a member of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry who had died of his wounds at Folly Island, South Carolina. At the time of her September meeting with Schouler, Bixby’s son George had been a prisoner of war for just over a month, and Henry was still hospitalized following his exchange. The War Department failed to use its own records to correct errors in the Schouler report.
Lydia Bixby died in Boston on October 27, 1878, while a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital. Bixby «kept a house of ill-fame, was perfectly untrustworthy and as bad as she could be». In the 1920s, Lincoln scholar, William E Barton interviewed the oldest residents of Hopkinton, Massachusetts for their memories of Bixby’s family before she moved to Boston. They recalled her sons as being «tough» with «some of them too fond of drink». One son may have «served a jail sentence for some misdemeanor». On August 12, 1925, Elizabeth Towers, a daughter of Oliver Bixby, told the Boston Herald that her grandmother had «great sympathy for the South» and that her mother recalled that Bixby had been «highly indignant» about the letter with «little good to say of President Lincoln». Lincoln sent a similar letter to Esther Stockton in January 1864, thanking her for knitting 300 pairs of socks for Union soldiers.
The fate of the original letter given to Bixby is unknown. Bixby, a son of Oliver, told The New York Times in an August 9, 1925 interview that he did not know what happened to the letter after his grandmother received it, though he doubted it still survived. In the early 20th century, it was sometimes claimed that the original letter could be found on display at Brasenose College at the University of Oxford along with other great works in the English language. Huber’s Museum sold these copies of Tobin’s facsimile. Christie’s auction house receives many supposed original Bixby letters every year, including copies of a lithographic facsimile of the letter in widespread circulation.
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