Year
1864
Month Day
November 21

President Lincoln allegedly writes to mother of Civil War casualties

Legend holds that on November 21, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln composes a letter to Lydia Bixby, a widow and mother of five men who had been killed in the Civil War. A copy of the letter was then published in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 25 and signed “Abraham Lincoln.” The original letter has never been found.

The letter expressed condolences to Mrs. Bixby on the death of her five sons, who had fought to preserve the Union in the Civil War. The author regrets how “weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.” He continued with a prayer that “our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement [and leave you] 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.”

Scholars continue to debate the authorship of the letter, and the authenticity of copies printed between 1864 and 1891. At the time, copies of presidential messages were often published and sold as souvenirs. Many historians and archivists agree that the original letter was probably written by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. As to Mrs. Bixby’s loss, scholars have discovered that only two of her sons actually died fighting during the Civil War. A third was honorably discharged and a fourth was dishonorably thrown out of the Army. The fifth son’s fate is unknown, but it is assumed that he deserted or died in a Confederate prison camp. Despite its dubious origins, the letter’s text became even more famous when it was quoted in Steven Spielberg’s World War II film epic Saving Private Ryan (1998).

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Thomas Edison announces his invention of the phonograph

Thomas Edison announces his invention of the phonograph, a way to record and play back sound. Edison stumbled on one of his great inventions—the phonograph—while working on a way to record telephone communication at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. His work led him to ...read more

Ella Fitzgerald wins Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater

On the evening of November 21, 1934, a young and gangly would-be dancer took to the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater to participate in a harrowing tradition known as Amateur Night. Finding herself onstage as a result of pure chance after her name was drawn out of a hat, the ...read more

Men fly over Paris in hot air balloon

French physician Jean-François Pilatre de Rozier and François Laurent, the marquis d’ Arlandes, make the first untethered hot-air balloon flight, flying 5.5 miles over Paris in about 25 minutes. Their cloth balloon was crafted by French paper-making brothers Jacques-Étienne and ...read more

Millions tune in to find out who shot J.R.

On November 21, 1980, 350 million people around the world tune in to television’s popular primetime drama “Dallas” to find out who shot J.R. Ewing, the character fans loved to hate. J.R. had been shot on the season-ending episode the previous March 21, which now stands as one of ...read more

“Rocky” opens in theaters

On November 21, 1976, Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone as the underdog prizefighter Rocky Balboa, debuts in New York City. The movie, which opened in theaters across the United States on December 3, 1976, was a huge box-office hit and received 10 Academy Award nominations, ...read more

Britannic, sister ship to the Titanic, sinks in Aegean Sea

The Britannic, sister ship to the Titanic, sinks in the Aegean Sea on November 21, 1916, killing 30 people. More than 1,000 others were rescued. In the wake of the Titanic disaster on April 14, 1912, the White Star Line made several modifications in the construction of its ...read more

Iran-Contra scandal begins with shredded documents

National Security Council staff member Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, begin shredding documents that would have exposed their participation in a range of illegal activities regarding the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of the proceeds to a rebel Nicaraguan ...read more

George Washington orders General Lee to New Jersey

In what proved a fateful decision on November 21, 1776, Continental Commander in Chief General George Washington writes to General Charles Lee in Westchester County, New York, to report the loss of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and to order Lee to bring his forces to New Jersey. Lee ...read more