The Letter to Mrs. Bixby

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam, –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. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln.

[As it turns out, this letter, made even more famous when read in the film Saving Private Ryan, may have been written by John Hay, Lincoln's secretary. Further, only two of Mrs. Bixby's five sons had died in battle. One was honorably discharged, one was dishonorably discharged, and another deserted or died in a prison camp. Not that losing three sons in whatever way isn't horrible enough.]


President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 150 Years Ago Today

Nicolay Copy

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Still My Favorite ‘What If’

Had Booth missed, Lincoln could have risen from his chair to confront his assassin. At that moment the president, cornered, with not only his own life in danger but also Mary’s, would almost certainly have fought back. If he did, Booth would have found himself outmatched facing not kindly Father Abraham, but the aroused fury of the Mississippi River flatboatman who fought off a gang of murderous river pirates in the dead of night, the champion wrestler who, years before, humbled the Clary’s Grove boys in New Salem in a still legendary match, or even the fifty-six-year-old president who could still pick up a long, splitting-axe by his fingertips, raise it, extend his arm out parallel with the ground, and suspend the axe in midair. Lincoln could have choked the life out of the five-foot-eight-inch, 150-pound thespian, or wrestled him over the side of the box, launching Booth on a crippling dive to the stage almost twelve feet below.

But Lincoln had not seen Booth coming.

From James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, a great read.

Go try that thing with an axe or other long-handled tool.


Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington crossed the Delaware River Christmas night and attacked the British garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, early on the morning of December 26, 1776.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851

Leutze’s painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though there are many copies including one in the White House.

There are several inaccuracies in the depiction. Wrong flag; too much light (it was night); it would appear they are crossing in the wrong direction; horses were carried by ferries with the artillery, not in boats; probably everyone stood (the gunwales were higher than pictured).

That’s future president James Monroe holding the flag.

Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia. George Washington lost ninety percent of his army and was driven across the Delaware River. Panic and despair spread through the states.

Yet, as David Hackett Fischer recounts in this riveting history, Washington–and many other Americans–refused to let the Revolution die. Even as the British and Germans spread their troops across New Jersey, the people of the colony began to rise against them. George Washington saw his opportunity and seized it. On Christmas night, as a howling nor’easter struck the Delaware Valley, he led his men across the river and attacked the exhausted Hessian garrison at Trenton, killing or capturing nearly a thousand men. A second battle of Trenton followed within days. The Americans held off a counterattack by Lord Cornwallis’s best troops, then were almost trapped by the British force. Under cover of night, Washington’s men stole behind the enemy and struck them again, defeating a brigade at Princeton. The British were badly shaken. In twelve weeks of winter fighting, their army suffered severe damage, their hold on New Jersey was broken, and their strategy was ruined.

Fischer’s richly textured narrative reveals the crucial role of contingency in these events. We see how the campaign unfolded in a sequence of difficult choices by many actors, from generals to civilians, on both sides. While British and German forces remained rigid and hierarchical, Americans evolved an open and flexible system that was fundamental to their success. At the same time, they developed an American ethic of warfare that John Adams called “the policy of humanity,” and showed that moral victories could have powerful material effects. The startling success of Washington and his compatriots not only saved the faltering American Revolution, but helped to give it new meaning, in a pivotal moment for American history.

— From the book jacket of David Hackett Fischer’s excellent, Pulitzer-winning Washington’s Crossing


Christmas Gift for President Lincoln

Savannah, Ga., Dec. 22. [1864]

To His Excellency, President Lincoln:

I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.

(Signed.) W. T. Sherman, Major-General

The headline in The New York Times the following day read: Savannah Ours.


John Jay

John Jay

John Jay was born on this date in 1745. Jay, a delegate from New York, served in the First and Second Continental Congresses. During the War for Independence Jay served as president of the Continental Congress, minister plenipotentiary to Spain, and peace commissioner (in which he negotiated vital treaties with Spain and France). He was Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation. During the ratification of the Constitution Jay was author of the Federalist Papers, along with Madison and Hamilton. John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States.


The Letter to Mrs. Bixby

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam, –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. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln.

[As it turns out, this letter, made even more famous when read in the film Saving Private Ryan, may have been written by John Hay, Lincoln's secretary. Further, only two of Mrs. Bixby's five sons had died in battle. One was honorably discharged, one was dishonorably discharged, and another deserted or died in a prison camp. Not that losing three sons in whatever way isn't horrible enough.]