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Lincoln Letter Read By Bush Has Raised Questions Over Years

Though it is widely recognized as "one of the finest pieces of American presidential prose," as The Associated Press wrote in 2008, the "Bixby Letter" that President George W. Bush read this morning during the Sept. 11 memorial service in New York City has been the subject of several questions over the years.

It's still in debate whether it was written by President Lincoln or his secretary, and after it was sent it became clear that Lydia Bixby — the mother Lincoln was consoling — did not lose five sons in the Civil War.

What's more, she might have been a Confederate sympathizer. Her granddaughter, according to historian Michael Burlingame, said Bixby was "secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause."

Still, there's nothing in the histories we've found to indicate that Lincoln or his aides knew about any questions surrounding Mrs. Bixby. And its language remains powerful:

"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 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."

Update at 2 p.m. ET: The Associated Press has video of President Bush reading the Bixby letter.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.