Believing that Mrs. Lydia Bixby had lost three sons in battle during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln wrote her a letter of condolence in the fall of 1864.
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
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
It was later discovered that only two of the Bixby sons, Charles and Oliver, had been killed in battle. Of the remaining three, one had been captured by Confederate forces and later honorably discharged following his return to the North, one had deserted and joined the Confederacy following his capture, and the third had deserted the Northern Army and become a sailor.
Many historians disagree on whether Lincoln was the true author of the letter, some suggesting that it may have been written for him by John Hay, one of the president's secretaries. Authorship and accuracy aside, the words of the letter itself, and the intent of whomever wrote it, are perhaps more important.
After being informed of the deaths of the three Ryan brothers, and of the surviving brother's participation in the Normandy assault, General George C. Marshall reads the Bixby letter to officers who are present in his office. Although this letter is indeed real, the letter-reading scene and the involvement of General Marshall are entirely fictional.
At the request of Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan screenwriter Robert Rodat added the letter-reading scene to the script during a rewrite. It is clear that no one involved with the production of the film was aware of the true fate of the Bixby brothers during filming, or else this seemingly inspirational letter would probably not have been used.