DALLAS – A Texas museum hopes a document found in its archives turns out to be an authentic government copy of Abraham Lincoln's eloquent letter consoling a mother thought to have lost five sons in the Civil War.
The famed Bixby Letter, which the Dallas Historical Society is getting appraised as it prays for a potential windfall, has a fascinating history.
The original has never been found. Historians debate whether Lincoln wrote it. Its recipient, Lydia Bixby, was no fan of the president. And not all her sons died in the war.
The letter, written with "the best of intentions" 144 years ago next week, is "considered one of the finest pieces of American presidential prose," said Alan Olson, curator for the Dallas group. "It's still a great piece of writing, regardless of the truth in the back story."
Historians say Lincoln wrote the letter at the request of a Massachusetts official, who passed along news of a Boston woman grieving the loss of her five sons. The letter is addressed to "Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass." and begins with an acknowledgment that nothing written could possibly make a grief-stricken mother feel better about such a horrific loss.
"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," Lincoln wrote.
After thanking Bixby on behalf of a grateful nation, Lincoln wrote that he would pray that God relieve her anguish and leave her with only the "cherished memory of the loved" along with "the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."
The letter, as was the president's custom in his personal correspondence, is signed "A Lincoln."
"It is so beautifully written," said James Cornelius, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. "It is an extraordinarily sensitive expression of condolence."
There was renewed interest in the letter after it was read in the 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan." It also sparked a new round of debate centering on Lincoln's authorship and the fate of Bixby's sons.
Evidence indicates two of Bixby's sons died, a third was a deserter and a fourth ended up in a prisoner-of-war camp, Cornelius said. A fifth is believed to have received a discharge, but his fate is unknown.
Historians have also argued that John Hay, one of Lincoln's secretaries, wrote the letter. Hay was an accomplished writer who wrote a biography of Lincoln and later became ambassador to the United Kingdom.
"Lincoln probably wrote it," Cornelius said. "Hay did on some occasions write letters in Lincoln's name and sign them — or have Lincoln sign them — but probably not something like this that purports to be so personal and individual and heartfelt."
The letter received widespread attention days after it was written. Bixby either sent it to the Boston Evening Transcript or a postal worker intercepted it and tipped off the newspaper, which reprinted the letter, Cornelius said.
The touching note came about two months after Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had broken through Atlanta on his march to the coast and about two weeks after Lincoln won re-election. Union spirits were high, Cornelius said.
"The letter was so popular that it was published in newspapers and people copied and sent it to relatives," Olson said. "That letter and the words in it affected the nation. It tugged at people's hearts at the time of a really bloody period in America."
Olson hopes he has an official government copy of the Bixby Letter and not something one relative sent to another. In an era before photocopiers or carbon paper, secretaries hand-copied documents to be retained for their files, he said.
The paper and ink appear authentic to the Civil War era, he said. The historical society has asked an expert at Christie's auction house in New York for an opinion.
Stacy McDermott, an assistant editor at The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, estimated that an official government copy of the Bixby Letter would fetch millions of dollars.
But Cornelius doubts the letter is authentic. He said the Lincoln White House would have been unlikely to make a copy of such a personal letter and points out that a pair of rival New York companies sold copies of the letter as keepsakes beginning in the 1890s.
Olson said he stumbled across the letter over the summer in the historical society archives, which contain about 3 million items. He said he does not know how or why the letter ended up in the archives.
The discovery, Olson said, will provide a teachable moment even if it doesn't prove to be a bankable one.
"If it's not worth a lot of money — too bad," Olson said. "It's still a fascinating story and it's still a great display piece."