Washington, Nov 21, 1864
To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.,
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 can not refrain from tendering 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,
The Bixby Letter, reproduced above, is to epistolary art what Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is to oratory – the perfect jewel – crisp, precise, respectful, warm, brief, balanced, plain, perfect. Although there has been speculation in the past that the letter was composed not by Lincoln but by his secretary, John Hay, an article in American Heritage (America’s Most Famous Letter, by Jason Emerson, March 2006, pp. 41- 49) seems to settle the issue in Lincoln’s favor. I find it amazing that such a letter (and such an address) would be composed by one man. Perhaps more than 40 people worked on our president’s last State of the Union Address, and not one paragraph of it even got close to Lincoln’s ability to combine poetry, clarity, and conviction in plain, precise, English prose.
If Lincoln’s authorship of this letter seems to be no longer in doubt, the nature of the bereaved Mrs. Bixby certainly is. She was not originally from Boston, but had moved there from Richmond, VA, where she may have operated a brothel. It is unclear if all five of her sons were killed, or if she even had five sons. Many of her closest friends remembered her as a Confederate sympathizer, who didn’t think highly of Mr. Lincoln. What is certain is that she resented the letter – whether because of her Southern sympathies or because she was looking for some monetary compensation – and so destroyed it shortly after reading it. We have the letter because a copy was simultaneously sent to the newspaper, “The Boston Transcript” for publication.
Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, do not cast your pearls before swine lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and rend you,” (Matt 7.6). The letter received by Mrs. Bixby, whoever she was, and whatever her loss, had great value. It had personal value – someone cared. It had historical value – it was a masterpiece of writing by perhaps the most famous American ever. It had monetary value – from the time of its publication on it was famous, and much-reproduced – her sale of the original to collectors, especially after Lincoln’s imminent assassination, would have fetched a great price. She, however, recognized none of that, and this gem ended up in her trash bin.
She is a powerful example, albeit a negative one, of the very thing Jesus was describing. The Hope Diamond has no value to a dog (unless you rub it down with bacon); he prefers an old soup bone. The Star of Africa is just another rock to a pig; he’d prefer a bucket of slops. Jesus is urgent that WE know the value of what is precious, and hold it dear. It’s like that great line from that old Etta James song (“Tough Mary”): Don’t give me flowers when it’s shoes I need; or like what Jesus says to Martha of Bethany (Luke 10. 41-42), “only a few things are important, really only one. Mary has chosen it, and it will never be taken from her.”
Are we sufficiently prayerful, and into the Word, to know how precious is this life we have with Jesus? Or do the few things really important too often end up in Mrs. Bixby’s trash bin?