An officer tells General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, that a Private by the name of
Ryan is apparently the sole survivor of four sons of one woman, and that he is somewhere in Normandy, and very much in the thick of the fighting. And the question is, should he be found and pulled out even though finding him may prove very difficult, and may cost the lives of other soldiers? General Marshall, as tough and hard-nosed a soldier as has ever lived says to the officers around him to listen to a letter he has. He goes to his desk and produces a piece of paper, from which he recites - mostly from memory - the letter from President Abraham Lincoln to a Mrs. Bixby, who had lost five sons during the American Civil War:
November 21, 1864
To Mrs. Lydia Bixby.
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 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,
General Marshall then orders that Private Ryan be found and gotten "the hell out of there." This was a very moving moment from a fine movie. Although the letter was real, the story was of course fictional, and it went on to quite deservedly win the Academy Award in 1998 for "Best Picture of the Year". But a very untidy fact of history is that the letter to Mrs. Bixby, written on today's date in 1864, and later published in the Boston Herald, was probably not written by Abraham Lincoln, and Mrs. Bixby was actually a southern sympathizer who did not lose five sons in battle.
Mrs. Bixby - A Rebel at Heart, and Possibly Worse...
Mrs. Bixby's Sons. She Did Lose TWO in Battle.
As to the actual fate of Mrs. Bixby's five sons, the historical record is a bit clearer (see also the letter written below on the details of Mrs. Bixby's sons). Two of her sons, Sgt. Charles N. Bixby, Company D, 20th Massachusetts, and Cpl. George A. Bixby, Company H, 25th Massachusetts were in fact killed in action. Another, Cpl. Henry C. Bixby, Company K, 32nd Massachusetts, was captured and later released. A fourth son, Pvt. Arthur Edward Bixby, Company C, Massachusetts 1st Heavy Artillery joined the army underage and was ordered discharged for that reason, but had gone AWOL by that time. The fifth son, Cpl. George A. Bixby, Company H, 25th Massachusetts, may have been captured, or may have deserted to the enemy, but his precise fate is unknown. However he was apparently not killed in action. A report to Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, regarding the father of five sons serving in the war, reached the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, William Schouler, and was sent by him to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Somewhere along this route through official channels, the information got changed to read that ALL of the Bixbys had been killed. This was the information which was delivered along with the records of the five sons to President Lincoln and at that point the letter was written. The claims by some writers that Mrs. Bixby lied about the death of all five of her sons, in order to gain some sort of monetary reward are not beyond Mrs. Bixby's character, but are largely speculative. The woman may simply have been as misinformed about her sons as the Adjutant General was.
Did President Lincoln Actually Write the Letter?
On this point, the record once again becomes rather murky. It is because the original of the letter has never been found that it cannot be said for certain to have been written by our 16'th President. It was later claimed by Lincoln's Assistant Private Secretary John Hay (pictured, right) according to Hay's associates, that he had written the letter on Lincoln's behalf. The letter did come during a time at which Lincoln was extraordinarily busy with his re-election campaign, and Hay did say that Lincoln was unable to read many of the letters which were sent to him. Further, some analysis of the letter in comparison to the other known writings of the two men does lend itself to some doubts as to Lincoln's authorship. For example nowhere else in Lincoln's writings is the word "beguile" used. Whereas it frequently appears in the known writings of Hay. But whomever the actual author of the letter may have been, the greatness of the man, and the meaning of the letter remain beyond question. As Michael Burlingame, who wrote the article "The Trouble With the Bixby Letter" in "American Heritage" Magazine in the summer of 1999 concluded:
"The author of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural will always command the world’s admiration. As a journalist wrote in 1925, “If under the merciless hand of investigation it should be shown that this remarkable document was not only based upon misinformation but was not the composition of Lincoln himself, the letter to Mrs. Bixby would still remain … ‘One of the finest specimens of pure English extant.’” The letter can never diminish the status of Lincoln, but it deserves to elevate that of John Hay. And of course it has long since won Mrs. Bixby a most unlikely immortality."
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"Saving Private Ryan" Released by Dreamworks Paramount Pictures, 1998; directed by Steven Spielberg.