For several generations, many Americans have made a point of thanking not only the men and women who serve in the armed forces, but also their families, who often make incomparable sacrifices of their own.
Perhaps historically it is true that mothers—arguably more than anyone else in a soldier's family—sacrifice, worry, and grieve the most.
“How many Mothers and Sisters and Wives have been made to mourn since this war has been sent upon us[?]” wondered one South Carolina woman in 1863, the third year of the American Civil War. “Numbers on top of numbers and we are not yet through.”
The war would continue for two more years after she penned those lines, adding to the “Numbers on top of numbers.”
By the time it reached its conclusion in April and May of 1865, the Civil War permanently removed more than 620,000 sons from the earth, and therefore from their mothers. As hundreds of thousands of additional wounded soldiers lay in hospitals throughout the nation, it was most often one's mother who the men cried out to see as they suffered, bled, and breathed their last. But of course, thousands of miles from home, most soldiers’ last pleas to be soothed by the women who gave them life could not be fulfilled.
The frequency of these circumstances led soldiers to write poems and ballads which “expressed gratitude to the women caring for the wounded at the same time that [they] sought to reassure wives and mothers that their loved ones were not dying alone,” according to Faust. Such ballads “represented an interchange, a nationwide conversation between soldiers and civilians, between men and women, as they worked together to reconstruct the Good Death amid the disruptions of war, to maintain the traditional connections between the dying and their kin.”
“The inability to witness the last moments of a brother, husband, or child shattered expectations about an appropriate earthly conclusion to these important human connections,” Faust continued.
One example of a ballad constructed for these purposes is “Be My Mother Till I Die.” Written from the perspective of a nurse tending to the wounded, the song pleads: “Let me kiss him for his mother,/ Or perchance a sister dear.”
An “Answer To” this ballad was later published. From the perspective of women on the home front, the “Answer To” begs of nurses caring for their sons, husbands and fathers: “Bless the lips that kissed our darling,/ As he lay on his death-bed,/ Far from home and ‘mid cold strangers/ Blessings rest upon your head.”
In 1862, the second year of the war, the United States Christian Commission established a Hospital Directory for the purpose of centralizing information on the whereabouts of Union soldiers.
Ideally, the directory would have included “information on the name and condition of every soldier admitted to a Union military hospital,” according to Faust. It would serve as an important tool for mothers in finding the locations of their fighting sons.
The superintendent’s mentioning of the “federal altar” is very similar to a notion advanced by President Abraham Lincoln in November of 1864, when Lincoln responded to a letter from Gov. John A. Andrew of Massachusetts that informed the president of the death of five brothers, all of whom were sons of Mrs. Lydia Bixby (in reality, it was later determined that two of the five brothers died in battle, while one deserted, one was honorably discharged, and the other either deserted or died while in Confederate hands as a prisoner of war, but Lincoln was ignorant of this fact).
On Nov. 21, 1864, Lincoln penned a personal letter of sympathy to Mrs. Bixby, a piece of writing which today is held in as high of a regard as his Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses.
“Dear Madam,” Lincoln’s letter began. “I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement from the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are a mother of five sons who 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 a loss so overwhelming,” he continued. “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 our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement,” Lincoln calmly acknowledged, “and leave you only with 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.”
He then signed it, “Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, A. Lincoln.”
One year prior to (almost to the day) this letter being written, Lincoln delivered his now-most-famous speech at Gettysburg. Preceding Lincoln that day was Edward Everett, the nation’s premier orator. Using his ever-poetic rhetoric, Everett acknowledged the importance of mothers to their sons and the overall contributions of women to the nation—Lincoln’s “Republic they died to save.”
“When…was there ever so gracious a ministry as this?” he asked. “It has been said that it is characteristic of Americans to treat women with a deference not paid to them in any other country. I will not undertake to say whether this is so; but I will say, that, since this terrible war has been waged, the women of the loyal States, if never before, have entitled themselves to our highest admiration and gratitude.”
Everett first acknowledged “those who at home, often with fingers unused to the toil, often bowed beneath their own domestic cares, have performed an amount of daily labor not exceeded by those who work for their daily bread.” He then expressed appreciation for “those who, in the hospital and the tents of the Sanitary Commissions, have rendered services which millions could not buy.”
“Happily, the labor and the service are their own reward,” Everett continued. “Thousands of matrons and thousands of maidens have experienced a delight in these homely toils and services, compared with which the pleasures of the ballroom and the opera-house are tame and unsatisfactory.”
“This on earth is reward enough, but a richer [reward] is in store for them,” Everett predicted. “Yes, brothers, sisters of charity, while you bind up the wounds of the poor sufferers,—the humblest, perhaps, that have shed their blood for the country,—forget not WHO it is that will hereafter say to you, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my BRETHREN, ye have done it unto me,’” a direct quotation from the King James Version of Matthew 25:40.
According to Martin P. Johnson in Writing the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s eyes reportedly welled with tears upon hearing Everett’s usage of the phrases “suffering soldiers” and “angels of pity.” If this is so, “Lincoln’s tears linked him in sympathy with the assembly” of some 20,000 people at the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery, “a communal affirmation of shared values, common sacrifices, and united purpose,” wrote Johnson.
Everett’s description of—and Lincoln’s supposedly emotional response to—the contributions of American women serve to “underscore…how important it is to recognize the emotional impact of the place and the moment on those who experienced the consecration ceremony,” according to Johnson.
It may also be reasonable to believe that Lincoln was crying based on memories of his birth mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died when he was just nine years old, and his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, who Abe believed was his "best friend in this world." Sarah, in turn, complimented Lincoln with such things as, “I can say what scarcely one woman—a mother—can say in a thousand and it is this—Abe never gave me a cross word or look and never refused in fact, or even in appearance, to do anything I requested," and, "His mind and mine, what little I had, seemed to run together, move in the same direction." Lincoln, according to his former law partner William Herndon, went so far as to say, "All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."
Soldiers’ National Cemetery was set aside as a piece of the Gettysburg battlefield where 3,500 U.S. soldiers were to be forevermore laid to rest—men who died in defense of the American republic and, as of the Emancipation Proclamation's official release on Jan. 1, 1863, in favor of the eradication of slavery. By paying “homage to American womanhood,” as Johnson called it, at that very place on the western face of Cemetery Hill, south of Gettysburg, Everett and his audience forced themselves—and in turn, one another—to reflect upon and cope with the impact of the battle at Gettysburg.
In a larger sense, though, Everett demanded that his onlookers ponder the impact that the war itself had in its entirety—not only the men who fought through it, but also on the individuals and groups of men and women who exhibited patience and courage in the aftermath of Gettysburg, and all battles.
By writing from the home front, by tilling the fields of their absent husbands and sons, by nursing thousands upon thousands of young wounded men back to health, and by comforting those whose days were numbered, American women—American mothers—assisted the war-torn nation through the arduous process of physically and mentally healing itself.
This vocal realization by Everett, and the positive emotional response apparently exhibited by Lincoln, unearthed a heartfelt sentiment far ahead of its time—a time when the everyday societal contributions of women, especially in a male-controlled setting such as war, were not yet fully appreciated.
Lincoln’s Bixby letter was especially made popular after the release of the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, in which a colonel at the U.S. War Department (portrayed by Bryan Cranston) presented a piece of correspondence to Gen. George C. Marshall (portrayed by Harve Presnell) stating that Margaret Ryan, mother of four, lost three of her sons during the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944.
“Any contact with the fourth?” asked Marshall, before receiving the unfortunate response from the colonel, “No, sir. He was dropped…deep behind German lines.” Marshall shook his head, walked to his desk, and grasped a sheet of paper before saying, “I have a letter here. It was written a long time ago to a Mrs. Bixby in Boston. Bear with me.”
Marshall then read the letter in its entirety—just 139 words excluding the heading—using it as his evidence for saving James, the missing Bixby son. “If that boy is alive, we’re going to send someone to find him and get him the hell out of there,” Marshall demanded.
The clip below features this powerful scene. The discussion and reading of the Bixby letter begins at approximately five minutes, 50 seconds. Please be advised that the opening moment of this particular clip features a graphic depiction of the aftermath of the D-Day invasion: