Opinion

opinion | Judith Giesberg

In defense of Boston’s Widow Bixby

Lydia Bixby’s unmarked grave is in Mattapan.
HEATHER HOPP-BRUCE/GLOBE STAFF
Lydia Bixby’s unmarked grave is in Mattapan.

The Boston Daily Advertiser ran the story on Nov. 26, 1864, the day after Thanksgiving, under the headline “Local Matters.” It followed news that Union troops at the front had gratefully received and enjoyed their donated Thanksgiving meal. The story also told of a Boston widow, Lydia Bixby, whose five sons had been lost in battle. Bixby’s extraordinary sacrifice had caught the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, who addressed a condolence letter to her.

Executive Mansion,

Washington, 21st November, 1864.

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Dear Madam,

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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 word 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.

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Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln.

Like the state’s soldiers in the field, Bixby, a resident of Boston’s South End, was the recipient of the city’s gratitude. After William Schouler, the state adjutant general, delivered the letter to her on Thanksgiving Day, Bostonians brought Bixby firewood and food.

Lincoln’s letter became famous, particularly after the president’s death just days after the Civil War ended. In 1864, Lincoln had narrowly won reelection, and while Sherman’s campaign brought good news from Georgia, Grant’s forces remained stalled in Virginia, no closer to capturing Richmond. After nearly four years of fighting, the end of the war still seemed far away. The letter also captures something of Lincoln’s own experience of loss. Lincoln’s sons Eddie and Willie died well before either was old enough to enlist.

After Lincoln’s death, the 1864 letter was referred to alternately as “the most famous condolence letter” and Lincoln’s “letter to the Widow Bixby.” Americans turned to the contents of Lincoln’s letter after both world wars, and it was featured in the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan.” Mystery shrouded many things about the letter, as scholars have argued about its authorship, and no one has been able to account for the original letter’s whereabouts.

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But about one thing everyone seems to have agreed over the years: The recipient, Lydia Bixby, was a cheat, a fraud, and wholly unworthy of this most famous letter. Bixby enjoyed a very brief moment of fame before her name and the war service of her sons slipped into infamy. Suspicious Bostonians called her a drunk, a prostitute, or worse yet, a Confederate spy. Later, scholars discovered that two of her five sons managed to survive the war — Edward, who had enlisted at the age of 15, and Henry, who, instead of dying at Gettysburg, as had been reported to his distraught mother, had been a prisoner of war.

Armed with this information, historians became suspicious of Bixby, repeating the tired old rumors about the widow’s unworthiness. As late as 2006, one Lincoln scholar continued to wonder if Bixby was not in fact “a wily Rebel sympathizer” or “the owner of a house of ill-repute.” Keeping in mind that we are talking about a woman who sent five sons into the Union army, why all the Lydia Bixby hate?

I suspect that some of the negative press results from the special attention Bixby received from our most special president, attention that she seems not to have sought nor particularly valued — according to her granddaughter’s recollections, the widow destroyed the letter soon after Schouler delivered it.

Lydia Bixby died as a free patient at the Massachusetts General Hospital in October 1878. She was buried in a largely forgotten section of the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Mattapan. In the cemetery office, a large leather-bound register lists her name and the number of her grave. With some effort, you can find its location. Her headstone is marked with the solitary number 423.

With all the rumors circulating about her while she mourned the loss of her sons and tried to take care of her surviving children and a grandchild, Lydia Bixby might have welcomed the anonymity that finally came to her at the end of her life. But does she still deserve it today?

To continue to ignore her now, to allow her sacrifices to the nation to go unacknowledged, seems ungenerous. It does a disservice not only to Bixby’s memory but also to Lincoln’s, who was convinced that she deserved thanks for having “laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

A statue or, perhaps, a more fitting headstone won’t do Lydia Bixby any good. But it will remind people that when the nation is at war, and afterwards, we should remember the sacrifices of the men and women who serve and those who raise them to believe in the causes for which they are willing to die.

Judith Giesberg is a professor of history at Villanova University.