The FUSA indubitably is such now, but was it always? Could be, could be. Y’all are doubtless familiar with the Bixby Letter of great renown, as so unforgettably quoted by the actor portraying Ike’s CoS, US GEN George C Marshall, in Saving Private Ryan:
Some damned fine acting there, folks—particularly the part where Marshall sits to finish quoting the letter from memory, with wonderfully understated passion and intensity. Those are the kind of actor’s choices which can make or break a movie, which elevate a merely good flick to a truly great one. One thing I know: when I first saw that early Ryan scene in the local cineplex—after the harrowing, almost unbearable D-Day scene at the beginning—there couldn’t be the least doubt that I was in for one hell of a good ride. And so I was at that. There’s a reason Spielberg’s masterpiece went on to be thought of as one of the greatest movies ever made, and it’s a good one too.
Ahh, but was Lincoln’s letter to the bereaved Mrs Bixby all that IT was cracked up to be? Apparently, it wasn’t; in fact, it may well not have been authored by President Lincoln at all, but by his secretary John Hay.
The Bixby letter is a brief, consoling message sent by President Abraham Lincoln in November 1864 to Lydia Parker Bixby, a widow living in Boston, Massachusetts, who was thought to have lost five sons in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Along with the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address, the letter has been praised as one of Lincoln’s finest written works and is often reproduced in memorials, media, and print.
Controversy surrounds the recipient, the fate of her sons, and the authorship of the letter. Bixby’s character has been questioned (including rumored Confederate sympathies), at least two of her sons survived the war, and the letter was possibly written by Lincoln’s assistant private secretary, John Hay.
On September 24, 1864, Massachusetts Adjutant General William Schouler wrote to Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew about a discharge request sent to the governor by Otis Newhall, the father of five Union soldiers. In the letter, Schouler recalled how, two years prior, they had helped a poor widow named Lydia Bixby to visit a son who was a patient at an Army hospital. About ten days earlier, Bixby had come to Schouler’s office claiming that five of her sons had died fighting for the Union. Governor Andrew forwarded Newhall’s request to the U.S. War Department with a note requesting that the president honor Bixby with a letter.
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 an appeal by Schouler for contributions to assist soldiers’ families at Thanksgiving which mentioned a widow who had lost five sons in the war. Schouler had some of the donations given to Bixby and then visited her home on Thanksgiving, November 24. The letter from the President arrived at Schouler’s office the next morning.
Nevertheless, at least two of Lydia Bixby’s sons survived the war.
Lydia Bixby died in Boston on October 27, 1878, while a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital. In his initial letter to Governor Andrew, Schouler called Bixby “the best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman I have yet seen,” but in the years following her death both her character and loyalty were questioned.
Writing to her daughter in 1904, Boston socialite Sarah Cabot Wheelwright claimed she had met and had given charitable aid to Lydia Bixby during the war, hoping that one of her sons, in Boston on leave, might help deliver packages to Union prisoners of war; but she later heard gossip that 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”. In 1949, Towers’ nephew, Arthur March Bixby, claimed that Lydia Bixby had moved to Massachusetts from Richmond, Virginia; though this assertion is contradicted by contemporary records which list her birthplace as Rhode Island.
Scholars have debated whether the Bixby letter was written by Lincoln himself or by his assistant private secretary, John Hay. November 1864 was a busy month for Lincoln, possibly forcing him to delegate the task to Hay.
In 1988, at the request of investigator Joe Nickell, University of Kentucky professor of English Jean G. Pival studied the vocabulary, syntax, and other stylistic characteristics of the letter and concluded that it more closely resembled Lincoln’s style of writing than Hay’s.
A computer analysis method, developed to address the difficulty in attribution of shorter texts, used in a 2018 study by researchers at Aston University’s Centre for Forensic Linguistics identified Hay as the letter’s author.
Good grief, it’s enough to make a fella call into question the entire history of this country, ain’t it? Be all that as it may, though, and whatever the provenance of the Bixby letter might actually have been, the letter will nonetheless forever shine as the diamond of English-language textual expression it is. And rightly so, too; the sentiments, concepts, and ideals so beautifully conveyed therein are nothing less than the most noble of which we lowly, fallen humans are capable as a species. How deeply, painfully ironic, then, that its true origins might have been so tangled and tawdry.
We’ve come a long way from all that sort of thing, alas, and in precisely the wrong direction too. There’s also a lot of intriguing stuff covering the life, times, and career of GEN Marshall at the Wikipedia link I included above, making it well worth taking the time to read as well.