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John Wilkes Booth Writes of His Plans to Kidnap Lincoln

November 21, 1864/2014
Volume 5, Issue 47 (215 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Lincoln’s Condolence Letter to Mrs. Bixby

Executive Mansion, Washington, November 21, 1864.

Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Massachusetts:

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.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

Abraham Lincoln

This is the eloquent letter that, in the movie Saving Private Ryan, General George Marshall reads aloud to his officers. Without telling them that the letter came from Lincoln, he asks his staff to listen to a letter “written a long time ago.” Having read the letter to them, including reciting the conclusion from memory, he orders them to find Private Ryan, whose three brothers had been killed in combat, and bring him home safely.

But the story of the famous Bixby letter is not exactly as it appeared: the War Department had given the White House inaccurate information: although Mrs. Bixby had represented to others that she had had five sons killed, two of her sons were killed; three survived the war. Second, Mrs. Bixby was hardly an ideal model of a grieving Union mother. She had moved to Boston from Richmond, Virginia, and was an ardent Southern sympathizer. Some contemporaries said she ran a brothel and was wholly untrustworthy. Finally, while most Lincoln scholars believe that the president wrote the letter, some argue, for a variety of reasons, that the epistolary masterpiece was authored by his private secretary John Hay; for example, the word “beguile” appears thirty times in Hays’s writings and nowhere else in Lincoln’s; Lincoln supporters counter that this proves nothing. Unfortunately the original letter disappeared just days after Mrs. Bixby received it.

The uncertainty as to the letter’s author has, fortunately, not diminished the regard in which the letter’s prose and sentiment are quite rightly held. But even more rare than its exquisite language is its substance, its sensitive sentiment, which, like the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, speaks eloquently to the singular character and empathetic spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter A. Gilbert.

 John Wilkes Booth Writes of His Belief in Slavery, Love for the Confederacy, and Plans to Kidnap Lincoln

On November 25, 1864, John Wilkes Booth wrote from Philadelphia to his brother-in-law: “I have ever held the South were right. The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln four years ago, spoke plainly — war, war upon Southern rights and institutions. His election proved it.”

John Wilkes Booth, Library of Congress, 1865

John Wilkes Booth, Library of Congress, 1865

Booth declared his belief that slavery was beneficial for both races. “This country was formed for the white not for the black man. And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint, held by those noble framers of our Constitution. I for one, have ever considered it, one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and for us,) that God even bestowed upon a favored nation. Witness therefore our wealth and power. Witness their elevation in happiness and enlightment above their race, elsewhere. I have lived among it most of my life and have seen less harsh treatment from Master to Man than I have beheld in the north from father to son.”

At this point, Booth was only planning on kidnapping Lincoln to prompt the resumption of prisoner exchanges. “My love (as things stand today) is for the South alone. Nor, do I deem it a dishonor in attempting to make for her a prisoner of this man, to whom she owes so much misery.”

Booth closes the letter calling himself “A Confederate, doing duty upon his own responsibility.”

– Submitted by Dwight T. Pitcaithley, New Mexico State University


Sheehan-Dean, Aaron, ed. The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It. New York: The Library of America, 2014, 479-482.

Southern Soldiers: Disaffected or Fired Up?

November 25, 1864.

Diarist Mary Chesnut wrote,

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

“. . . Mrs. Cuthbert gave us this contribution to the conversation. ‘All the troops from the mountainous parts of South Carolina, and from North Carolina’s mountains, too, are disaffected. They want peace; they say this is a rich man’s war, that they want no part in it, and they would gladly desert in a body. Our returned prisoners are broken-spirited, and say they have had enough of it.'”

“I sat dumb, but then came in Mr. Howell who said, not knowing anything of the preceding talk: ‘Our returned prisoners come back fired with patriotism, and they will fight this thing through to the death.’ He was in such excellent spirits that mine rose too. Then he showed us maps and traced with his finger how and where Sherman was sure to be bagged. I absolutely found myself believing him. . .”

– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter A. Gilbert.


Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, Ben Ames Williams, ed., p. 454.

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