April 29, 2013

Lincoln's Bixby Letter: A Study in Sources

The Bixby Letter has enchanted millions since its publication in 1864. The letter was reportedly written by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 to Lydia Bixby after hearing that her five sons had died in the Union army.

The letter was as follows: 

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

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 word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. 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 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,

A. Lincoln

The letter was printed in The Boston Evening Transcript the same day it was delivered to Lydia Bixby. The letter was read in the movie, Saving Private Ryan and even read at the World Trade Center site by George W. Bush during the 10th anniversary ceremony in 2011. 

 Primary sources are a historians best friend but this particular letter is a great example of why primary sources can be deceiving and should only be a part of a historians research. 

From this letter, one can get some basic facts:

1. Mrs. Bixby lost five sons in the Union army.
2. President Lincoln wrote a letter of condolence to her.  

However, through more research we find out that while five of her sons were in the Union army only two of her sons died during the war. Did Mrs. Bixby not know the fate of her sons at the time she reported they all had died? Did she exaggerate in an attempt to gain compensation? No one is sure, but the fact is that facts reported incorrectly in a primary source can trip up a researcher who might assume that primary sources are the most accurate sources. 

Another problem with the Bixby letter is that many historians dispute who actually wrote the letter. Lincoln was very busy the week that it was written and some evidence points to the probability that his secretary John Hay wrote it. 

There's even more to the story. Mrs. Bixby was living in Massachusetts but she was reportedly from Virginia and was still supporting the southern cause, despite having her sons in the Union army. One of her sons said that his mother ripped the letter up upon its receipt. No one is sure how the newspaper got a copy of it or if it received the original and the original hasn't been located, although there are many forgeries and copies. 

It is very important to analyze sources and to find corroboration with other sources of evidence. It is also important to see what other historians have written about sources you find. Sometimes other researchers realize something that you did not or propose theories that seem likely. 

It is easy to fall into these traps and new researchers frequently do. I know I certainly did when I started researching. Even today, we don't just trust one source of news. We shouldn't blindly believe every account we read unless there is subsequent evidence to back it up.   

As a side note: If you have the original Bixby letter, it's said that it would fetch millions at auction. :)    

April 25, 2013

Neshaminy Reenactment 2013

First event of the season has officially ended. It was cold but still generally enjoyable. The event is small, relaxed and located along the water.

The event typically has a long tactical in the woods before the battle for the spectators begin The boys like it because it is unscripted and over brush and leaves and is between the trees. Typically they have so much fun in the woods that the spectator battle ends up being pretty short. I decided against bringing my camera on Saturday but got it for Sunday's battle.

Our events are coming up fast this year as there are a lot of big 150th anniversary events and no one wants to miss any of them. I'll keep everyone posted and hope to post more as school dies down. I miss everyone in the blogosphere and hope we'll all get to reconnect soon.

Some of Sunday's Battle:

Of course, I witnessed most of the battle like this:

There were a lot of neat specialty displays at the event, such as this medical display:

Overall it was a fun event. Hope all the events this year go well!

April 12, 2013

Colonial Quakers and Silhouettes

In colonial times it was fashionable for wealthy Americans to have paintings or small miniatures made of loved ones. For many this was prohibitively expensive but middle class families, especially those in the country, could have silhouettes made of their family members relatively inexpensively.

A silhouette, known then as "profiles" or "shades", were line portraits with no internal detail. Many of these were cut from paper and glued to contrasting paper but some were painted. They typically were 3 to 5 inches in length. Varying methods were used to produce the profile, some used light to trace the shadow of a portrait sitter, others were drawn quickly by artists.

One popular method of creating silhouettes involved folding the paper into four so that the cutter could make four copies of the same silhouette at once. These could then be given away or exchanged. Silhouettes could also be easily traced and copied if more were needed.     

Along with country folk and the middling class, silhouettes appealed to Quakers, even wealthy ones, due to the simplistic nature of the art and the cost. Quakers felt that silhouettes did not emphasize class or vanity as many paintings did.

Silhouettes were also of interest at the time as theories of physiognomy at the time claimed that a person's character could be read through the face.  Silhouettes were popular until the invention and spread of the Daguerreotype in the 1840s.

In modern times, silhouettes are made easily using photography and computers. There are many tutorials showing how to do it. But if you wanted to do it the old fashioned way, profiles tend to be relatively easy for people to draw.  


Clark, Joanna. "Quaker Silhouettes." The Friend: The Quaker Magazine. http://www.thefriend.org/article/quaker-silhouettes (accessed April 11, 2013).

Verplank, Anne. "The Silhouette and Quaker Identity in Early National Philadelphia." Winterthur Portfolio 43, No. 1 (2009): 41-79.

April 5, 2013

New History Based Reality Show?

Today's laugh comes to us by way of Michael Lynch at Past in the Present via the American Historical Association.

There is an open casting call for a history based reality show in Washington DC. The call reads as below:

Are you a curious person, and obsessed with history? Can you recite facts inside and out, and name-drop (and even date-drop) with the best of them? Do your friends at trivia night, dare we say it, label you as the history buff? Maybe you're not a full-blown "buff" but if you like history and get psyched at the idea of even visiting a museum, or actually read those placards on your tour, then we want to meet you...virtually for now though.

Maybe the thing I should worry about is that everyone I know is at least 50x more intense than what they are looking for. "Actually read those placards"? My friends read, write and correct those placards.  

Lets hope this doesn't go in the way of "Sabers & Roses," the weird reenacting reality show whose odd premise was whoever stays in character longest wins money or something like that.

In case you didn't get enough of Sabers & Roses, there's another clip here.  :D

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