Bixby To Kelly: A Call To A Fallen Son
In 1864, after Antietam but before Appomattox, President Abraham Lincoln penned what came to be known as his “Bixby Letter”. Posterity places it with reverence amongst his best and most moving pieces. Surpassing its impact and immortality, only two speeches stand ahead: these are, of course, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The former, delivered some seven score and fourteen years ago, was the trite but enduring three-minute commemoration of the Union’s fallen sons. The latter, set to his presidency’s short-lived second act, was a divinely-infused plea, in which he insisted that the country’s sanguinary past yield to a forgiving future. That prayers from both Union and Rebel soldier couldn’t be answered fully was his everlasting lament.
While the words of those two speeches are inscribed forever where Lincoln sits stolidly in statuary form, the Bixby Letter remains a lesser-known relic. Neither the Gettysburg Address nor the Second Inaugural combines in equal parts the president’s sentiments so deeply, personally, or succinctly. Lincoln wrote it in 1864 and it was addressed to a one Lydia Parker Bixby. She was a New England widow who, after being bereft of a husband, saw five sons succumb to the ravages of war. Forlorn and missing spouse and son, President Lincoln sought to console her in the only way he could.
He wrote to her this message:
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,
His condolence is hesitant, but perfectly heartfelt. In one paragraph, and one alone, he combines parsimony and poignancy. It’s his epistolary idiosyncrasy; Raphael worked on canvas, Michelangelo on marble, and Lincoln on parchment with pen in hand. His letters were his finest art. The Bixby words convey his decency and decorum in their highest forms. Praised as such, some question the letter’s author and authenticity. Historians believe it to have been the scribbling of John Hay, President Lincoln’s personal assistant. Others consider Madame Bixby’s tale incredulous and the circumstances of her sons’ deaths unreliable. In either case, lacking persuasive corroboration, we’ll have to err on the side of Lincoln and eschew apocrypha.
I was reminded of Lincoln’s letter to Lydia Parker Bixby after seeing what’s transpired this week. It began Monday, when speaking before reporters in the Rose Garden, President Trump was asked to comment on the circumstances surrounding four American soldiers who were killed in action two weeks ago. These American Special Forces soldiers were surveying the border between Niger and Mali—one of Earth’s many inconspicuous crannies we so often forget house our bravest men and women. The American squadron, which was allied at the time with local African troops, was ambushed at the Niger’s western border. The hostilities erupted without expectation. The affair was intended to be one of reconnaissance and not aggression.
Unfortunately, though, this wasn’t the case. Within thirty minutes, a French helicopter arrived to the Americans’ aide but their air support was too late. Mali, you’ll recall, is a former French dependency, itself—along with Senegal and Sudan and so many others—a victim of Europe’s avaricious “Scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century. But the victims on this day weren’t locals or colonialists, but the four American troops stationed to promote peace abroad.
The ambush took place on October 4th. A day later, the remains of the first soldier arrived in Dover, Delaware, whose Air Force base houses the military’s largest mortuary. By week’s end, all four soldiers’ identities had been disclosed publicly. In the intervening twelve days, not a word of recognition or commemoration came from the White House. Trump’s administration, known to be garrulous and glib, was peculiarly mute. The press was as well.
It wasn’t until the twelfth day that the silence was interrupted. Monday’s press conference in the Rose Garden marked the first time Mr. Trump was asked to comment on the African atrocity. Perhaps fault lies with the reporter for not seeking his response sooner, but the president tends to be preemptively forthcoming on matters such as these (while being frustratingly furtive on others). Many observers were surprised that, heretofore, Trump hadn’t commented. Considering his proclivity to tweet and share with the world his panoptic view, it was strange that he missed messaging about this story. On most occasions, he takes great pride, and perhaps takes away some humility, in venerating our military. It’s one thing he does with uncharacteristically unforced sincerity. Other gestures, by and large, appear empathetically devoid.
The cause for his costiveness remains unclear. The White House claimed it hadn’t received a fully verified report on the circumstances in Niger from the Pentagon until that day (the Monday of Trump’s press conference), but this appears to have not been the case. Supposedly, a statement was prepared much sooner, but laid undelivered.
We learned of this information late Monday afternoon. Before the White House could respond, however, the president had to address his inquiring interlocutor. He began by assuring us that indeed he had written letters to the affected families. His intention soon after was to phone them directly.
Then, with a completely gratuitous jab, Trump compared his compassion for dead soldiers and his unique style of commiseration with their families with that of his predecessors. It was an entirely tactless and unnecessary critique. Comparing his approach to fallen soldiers with presidents past, Trump said “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate”. Trump later softened his tone slightly, when he said that “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes (make calls) and maybe sometimes he didn’t. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals”.
And of said generals, President Trump saw it appropriate to evoke the eminently sad tale of General Kelly’s son’s death. In 2010, Kelly’s son, Second Lieutenant Robert Kelly, aged twenty-nine at the time, stepped on a IED in Afghanistan. He was immediately killed. His father, the current Chief of Staff, was then the Marines’ lieutenant general and commander of the U.S. Southern Command. The loss was unutterably tragic. Kelly lost not only an essential piece of his Afghan personnel, but an inextricable piece of his own person. Since his son’s death, Kelly has seldom if ever mentioned the event publicly. What’s more, he should never have to. Having not lived through the experience, I can’t imagine the daily anguish a father bereft of his boy endures. If I try, I see a boundless grief gnawing at each day’s wakeful moment and each night’s torturous toss and turn. This is a despair beyond description, and it is embedded for life.
Surely, howsoever short my words fall, this must approximate General Kelly’s torment. The last thing he would want would be for his son’s death to become topical—he would want even less for it to become political. But so far as President Trump concerns himself, his Chief of Staff isn’t privy to his own privacy. The president acted shamelessly aloof to Kelly’s sorrow.
To Brian Kilmeade, who is a host on Fox News Radio, Trump said that as far as other presidents were concerned, “I don’t know…you could ask General Kelly…did he get a call from Obama?”
In trying to make an expedient political point, Trump doubled-down and dragged Kelly into the fray; he swiveled the spotlight and shone it directly on Kelly's sorrow. The natural next step would be for Kelly to support or refute his boss’s claim. He'll now be forced to speak to a pain he wanted perpetually kept private. It leaves one to wonder...what would Lincoln say?