Monday, July 15, 2013

Who wrote the Bixby letter?

All the Great Prizes ably chronicles the Forrest Gump life of John Hay, who served as a private secretary to President Lincoln in his youth and, decades later, as secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. A rich, well-connected man who co-authored a 10-volume authorized biography of Lincoln, he knew many of the literary giants of his age.

Hay summered at The Fells, his estate on Lake Sunapee in Newbury, N.H. He died there on July 1, 1905, at age 66 while secretary of state.

These days, The Fells is open to the public and a joy to visit. Gardens, views, a lakeshore trail, history – what’s not to like? John Taliaferro, author of the Hay biography, is scheduled to speak there about the book on July 24 at 4 p.m. (details here). The next night at 7, he will speak at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord.

I reviewed All the Great Prizes for the Concord Monitor, and you can read the review in full here. Using Taliaferro's analysis, I recounted his position on the authorship of the famous Bixby letter during the Civil War. Here is an excerpt from the review: 

The cover portrait is by John Singer Sargent. Hay
knew many of the giants of his time. 
"Hay also learned to write in Lincoln’s hand. Aside from giving fits to future generations of autograph collectors, this useful skill and Hay’s own eloquence as a writer called into question who wrote some of the letters over Lincoln’s signature.

"Taliaferro is not the first historian to conclude that Hay wrote the famous Bixby letter. The White House was informed that Lydia Bixby, a mother in Massachusetts, had lost five sons in battle. The president’s letter of condolence, much quoted then and now, has long been lost, but it was known to have been signed 'A. Lincoln.'

"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 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.'

"In fact, Lydia Bixby was a Confederate sympathizer, and two of her five sons, not all of them, had been killed in battle. But the facts and the letter’s cloudy authorship do not diminish its expression of noble sentiments."

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