Correcting The Record: The Sullivans and Bixbys


Pictured are the Sullivan brothers who died during World War II.

The Musings of A Simple Country Man

By Hobie Morris

(Brookfield, NY – Jan. 2012) The hand -written letter expressing the writer’s sincerest condolences at the death of her five sons”…who have died gloriously on the field of battle” was sent from the Executive Mansion to a Boston widow named Lydia Bixby. The letter was signed “A. Lincoln” and dated Nov. 21, 1864. Four days later the Boston Evening Transcript newspaper reprinted the entire letter.

This letter, the original copy allegedly destroyed by Mrs. Bixby, who was a Confederate sympathizer who disliked Lincoln, has produced tremendous controversy over the years. Did President Lincoln, for example, compose the letter or did John Hay, one of Lincoln’s White House secretaries? (In 1904, Hay said that Lincoln had authored this letter).

Lincoln’s condolence letter had been prompted by information sent to the President by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew.

Recently Lincoln’s famous letter was prominently featured in the award winning World War II blockbuster movie Saving Private Ryan.

Their names were Joseph, Frances, Albert, Madison and George. Five tough Irish brothers, the sons of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa. Tom was a hard pressed railroad worker.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7,1941 one of the Navy men killed was Bill Ball of Fredericksburg, Iowa. Bill was a close friend of the Sullivan boys. When they heard of Ball’s death all five brothers enlisted (or reenlisted) in the US Navy, determined to avenge Bill’s death. The Sullivans insisted they must serve together. The Navy granted their wish. It was war time and men were desperately needed.

On Nov. 14, 1942 the light cruiser USS Juneau was torpedoed by a Japanese sub. It broke in half and disappeared in a flash. Out of a crew of nearly 700 men only 10 survived. It would be almost two months before Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan got the horrible news that all five sons were missing and presumed death. Four died quickly when the Juneau exploded. George, the oldest, died four or five days later at sea.

The Tom Sullivans and Lydia Bixby had several things in common. They each had sons named George; each had five sons who served in a war and each, according to some accounts, had five sons killed.

The death of the Sullivan brothers in naval action off of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific is irrefutable.

The alleged Civil War death of the five Bixbys needs careful examination.

In November, I923, the Oswego (NY) Palladian newspaper contained a short article entitled “Boston House of Famed Civil War Mother Condemned.” The article goes on to say”…the house…which Abraham Lincoln immortalized during the Civil War…will be razed shortly…the spot once occupied by Mrs. Lydia Bixby…whose five sons died on Civil War battlefields.” (author’s emphasis)

More recently in the 1980s Time/Life published a nearly 30 volume history of World War II. In the volume entitled The Home Front; USA there is reference to the death of the five Sullivans noting “…not since Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Boston lost five sons in the Civil War in 1864 (Author’s emphasis) had any one American family suffered so many deaths in the service of its country.”

Are these accounts accurate?  Some clarification is necessary.

A clerk in the Adjutant General’s office jotted down some information that was passed on to Governor Andrew. The Governor relayed it to President Lincoln who in turn penned the condolence letter to widow Bixby. While Lincoln’s anguish was unquestionably sincere, he had been informed incorrectly; an unintentional mistake about the five Bixby sons. This is what actually happened to them.

Only two were killed in battle.

*Sergeant Charles N. Bixby, 20th MA Inf. killed May 3, 1863 at Fredericksburg, VA

*Private Oliver C. Bixby, 58th MA Inf. killed July 30, 1864 at Petersburg. VA

*Private George Way (Bixby), 56th MA Inf. Enlisted under an assumed name. Captured on July 30, 1864. Imprisoned in Richmond later at Salisbury, NC. He was reported to have deserted to the enemy and to have died in prison. George used his middle name “Way” as his last name so his wife would not know of his enlistment.

*Corp. Henry C. Bixby, 32nd MA Inf. was honorably discharged at Boston Dec. 17, 1864 (died 1871). It was reported that Henry was killed at Gettysburg. He wasn’t. He was captured, spent some time in prison, escaped and made his way to Cuba.

*Private Edward C Arthur Edward) Bixby, 1st MA Heavy Artillery, deserted May 28 or 29, 1862 (died 1909). Edward was erroneously reported as killed in South Carolina (confused with desertion?) He was honorably discharged and moved to Boston

The Sullivans’ tragic record remains intact and unchallenged. Today siblings are prohibited from serving in the same unit. The brothers paid the ultimate price for this seemingly common sense policy. Sometimes we learn too slowly, often with deadly consequences.

Hobie Morris is a Brookfield resident and simple country man.


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