(WOMENSENEWS)–When President Obama went to Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan and to meet with their families on Oct. 28, he was continuing a presidential tradition of offering solace and consolation to those whose children have died at war.
In November 1864, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a condolence letter to Lydia Bixby of Boston, which has become one of the most famous documents of his presidency. The adjutant general of Massachusetts had asked Lincoln to personally write to Bixby because all five of her sons had been killed in Civil War battles.
"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," the letter said. "But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to serve."
The adjutant general hand-delivered the letter to Bixby, whom he described as the "best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman I have known." Before making the delivery, he dropped off a copy of Lincoln’s letter at a Boston newspaper. Within two weeks, it was running in papers throughout the North and being passed along in personal letters between Union supporters. The deaths of the heroic Bixby sons were depicted as a necessary sacrifice for freedom.
‘Gold Star Mother’
Bixby was styled as a prototype of the virtuous Gold Star Mother who sends her valiant sons off to die for a worthy national cause. But the truth was far from it. According to her descendants, she was a Confederate sympathizer and destroyed the president’s letter in anger shortly after she received it.
Moreover, not all her five sons were killed in battle, according to Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame. Two sons were killed; one at Gettysburg, the other at Fredericksburg.
A third deserted.
A fourth son was discharged.
The fifth was a prisoner of war and possibly deserted as well.
The grieving mother went to the adjutant general seeking money, and she may have deliberately said that all her sons were dead in order to receive higher payments. She owned a house of "ill repute" and was described by a Boston matron as "bad as she could be."
Burlingame and other historians have since cast doubt that Lincoln ever wrote the condolence letter at all, instead attributing it to the hand of John Hay, his personal secretary.
But those details were quickly lost to history. The Bixby letter is considered one of the finest examples of Lincoln’s exalted and poignant prose and it has been read for generations.
‘Piece of American Bible’
Poet Carl Sandburg called it a "piece of the American Bible." President Theodore Roosevelt framed a copy and hung it in the White House. In the 1998 hit film "Saving Private Ryan," an early scene depicts Gen. George C. Marshall reading the letter to his staff and vowing that a mother should never lose all her sons again.
In World War II a mother did lose five sons, all on the U.S.S. Juneau. The Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, enlisted together and had requested special permission to serve on the same ship, according to the Naval Historical Center. When the ship was torpedoed in November 1942, four of the brothers were killed immediately. The fifth was among 115 survivors who were stranded at sea for days. He died either from exposure or a shark attack.
Their mother, Alleta Sullivan, had no official word that her sons were dead, but other servicemen returning to Waterloo began to spread the news. She wrote to the Navy and asked them to confirm the rumor. "It is all over town now," Sullivan wrote, "and I am so worried."
The reply came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "I want you to know that the entire nation shares in your sorrow," he wrote. "I offer you the condolences and gratitude of our country. We who remain to carry on the fight must maintain spirit, in the knowledge that such sacrifice is not in vain."
The story of the Sullivan brothers became a national sensation and a point of patriotism. It was quickly made into a Hollywood movie and a photo of the brothers on the deck of their ship was made into a war propaganda poster. Their sister, Genevieve, enlisted in the Navy as a recruiter. Allete Sullivan remained a strong supporter of the war and soon traveled to Portland, Ore., to christen another battleship.
The first sheet of commemorative Gold Star Mother stamps was presented to Sullivan in 1948.
Sullivan’s Story Not the Rule
Her story was by no means the rule.
For many women with children killed in war, grief and anger, like that of Bixby toward Lincoln, has welled up frequently into public view.
In today’s war, Cindy Sheehan has evolved from a self-defined soccer mom into a leading anti-war activist following the death of her son, Casey, in Iraq in 2004. Her rage was partly fueled by a meeting with President George W. Bush two months after her son’s death, in which she says the president treated her disrespectfully and failed to console her.
And Mary Tillman, mother of football player Pat Tillman, killed in Afghanistan, has outspokenly criticized the cover-up of the details surrounding her son’s death in 2004 and accuses the Army of using his story to promote support for the war.
In between the Sullivans in World War II and the current wars of today came the disenchantment of Vietnam, as well as daughters who joined sons in giving their lives in battle. During the Vietnam era, strong anti-war activism developed among mothers of sons drafted into service. These included Peg Mullen, whose son Michael was killed in February 1970. Already filled with misgivings over Vietnam, upon his death she became a leading opponent and prominent member of the organization Another Mother for Peace, founded in 1967. Mullen hounded officials for the truth about how her son was killed in an incident of "friendly fire."
When Mullen received a condolence letter from President Richard Nixon, it came in a thick manila envelope, paper-clipped to a packet of the president’s speeches about Vietnam, according to journalist C.D.B. Bryan.
In red ink on the outside she wrote, "Return to Sender. Not interested."
Official condolences poured in to the Mullen farm in Iowa: from the secretary of the army; from Gen. William Westmoreland; and from the commander of her son’s battalion, Lt. Col. Norman Schwarzkopf. She usually met those letters with disgust.
But she did accept letters sent by complete strangers, who had read of her son’s death in Iowa newspapers. There were so many, she found even more reason to fight the war. One letter came from the parents of a soldier killed several months before her own.
"We’re so sorry that you, too, have lost a precious son."
Jennifer Thurston is an independent journalist based in New York.