Saving Private Ryan was on TV this evening and I happened to flip past it at the part toward the beginning where the general is quoting the letter from Abraham Lincoln to the mother of five soldiers killed in the Civil War. Having no ability to take things at face value, I decided to see if the letter actually existed or if it was just Hollywood taking poetic license.*
In trying to find some sort of reliable source, which if you Google the text of the letter is not the easiest thing given its use in a blockbuster film, and came across a book published in 1917 titled American Patriotic Prose in which the letter is printed in full and a very interesting article first published in American Heritage Magazine in February/March of 2006.
The article discusses the letter and its history** and debates whether or not Lincoln himself wrote the letter or if it was tasked to his personal secretary, John Hay. In the end, the author concludes that the letter was, in fact, written by Abraham Lincoln at the behest of John A. Andrew, the Governor of Massachusetts. I can’t write an article in this space that is of more value than that one, so I’ll just link to it and hope you’ll read it because it’s well worth the time. I don’t often come across such well-conducted research while doing research for my posts here, so it’s a pleasant surprise when I do.
In case you have no idea which letter it is to which I refer, here is the text.***
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,
*I don’t trust Hollywood to get anything that’s quoted right. One of my very favourite movies misquotes Walt Whitman. (I’ll give you a hint: lollygaggers!)
**The answer to the question I was asking is more or less that yes, it existed and it was published in the Boston Transcript on 25 November, 1864, the same day that Mrs. Bixby received the letter.
***It is, in my personal opinion, one of the finest examples of English ever recorded.