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President Lincoln Deceived

Dean Feldmeyer, from The Circuit Rider, June, 1993, quoted in Leadership, Fall, 1993, p. 56

In October 1864, word came to President Abraham Lincoln of a Mrs. Bixby, a Boston widow whose five sons had all been killed fighting in the Civil War. Lincoln later wrote his condolences:

Dear Madam,

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 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, Abraham Lincoln

How beautiful the story would be if it ended here with the simple, literary elegance that was Lincoln's alone. But there is more. The story took an ironic turn just a few weeks after the letter was sent. No sooner had Mrs. Bixby received her letter when it was leaked to the press by someone in the White House. It was proclaimed a masterpiece for some weeks until a reporter went to the records of the Adjutant General and discovered that the President had been given bad information.

Mrs. Bixby had not lost all five of her sons in battle. One was killed in action at Fredericksburg. One was killed in action at Petersburg. One was taken prisoner at Gettysburg and later exchanged and returned to his mother in good health. One deserted to the enemy. One deserted his post and fled the country.

Word got out, and the press, as well as the rest of the Union, became divided in its support of the President. Some said he had been innocently duped. Others said his feelings were sincere if the cause was not.

Carl Sandburg, in his exhaustive biography of Lincoln, has the last word:

Whether all five had died on the field of battle, or only two, four of her sons had been poured away into the river of war. The two who had deserted were as lost to her as though dead. The one who had returned had fought at Gettysburg....She deserved some kind of token, some award approaching the language Lincoln had employed. Lincoln was not deceived.

How like the Bixby family is each one of us: a mixture of success and failure, honor and shame. The only man worthy of honor is Jesus Christ. Yet knowing the whole story of our lives, Christ will honor those who serve him.