Lincoln’s unsteady Indian diplomacy (Article 8)

Abraham Lincoln was noted for his reasonable approach to personal conflicts and, as he grew into the Presidency, his willingness to listen and not act in haste was helpful when faced with serious diplomatic problems. However, Lincoln was not at his best when dealing with Native American issues and it may have been a result of his family history.

Lincoln’s grandfather, also named Abraham, had been killed in a Shawnee raid in 1786, and Lincoln’s father, Thomas, then only five years old, witnessed the murder. Thomas himself narrowly escaped death in the same incident when his older brother shot and killed an attacker who was ready to strike young Thomas. After the death of the elder Mr. Lincoln, the surviving family lost their Kentucky homestead, and the story was told and retold with some bitterness by Thomas to his young son Abraham. Although there were several small tribes near their later homes in Indiana and Illinois, the Thomas Lincoln family had little interaction with Native Americans for many years.

However, in 1832, a group of several hundred Sauk and Fox Indians crossed the Mississippi river and raided settlements in Northern Illinois. At the request of the U.S. Army Commander in the area, the Illinois governor called for volunteers for the State Militia to attack and expel the Indians. Abraham Lincoln, then 23 years old, was elected as the Captain of a unit, the customary way to select officers in militias, and he led his men in preparation for what became known as the Black Hawk War. His unit never engaged in battle but he did see the aftermath of the conflict. One of his friends said later that Lincoln could not understand why the first response by so many Indians was often violent; as if he could not recognize that the Indians may have endured prior indignities by White settlers. Lincoln’s narrow view of the issues facing the indigenous tribes was certainly learned at an early age from his family and others who had immigrated to the frontier.

During the period from 1840-1860, Lincoln resided in Springfield, Illinois where almost all Native Americans had left the area, moving farther west and north; so he only had a few contacts with individual Indians, and almost no encounters with tribal issues for those years. In letters from that time, he only made minimal references to Indian affairs, but clearly he believed that that the White expansion westward was a benefit to the Country; and he accepted the fact that the tribes would be impacted. Actually, Lincoln, like many of his countrymen at that time, believed that the “civilizing influence of the culture of the new Americans” would eventually prove advantageous for the Indian societies.

In 1862, however, he was forced to face a serious situation when, as President, he sent Union troops to Minnesota and the Northwest Territories to quell an uprising by a force of several combined tribes of Sioux. General Polk’s U.S. Army units captured over 500 Indian warriors and, through military courts, condemned 303 to death; and then he planned a mass execution. When Lincoln read the dispatches from General Polk, he intervened and ordered that no executions were to occur until he could personally examine the charges against each man. Lincoln said that he wanted to assure that, “only those who were directly involved in killing, mutilation, and rape” were subject to the death penalty, and he eventually reduced the sentences of most of those who were convicted. However, he did not commute the sentence for 38 of the men in what then became the largest mass execution in American History.

Soon thereafter, Lincoln was scheduled to host a delegation of Indian Chiefs from different parts of the country at the White House, arranged by Indian Agents who were government representatives to the various tribes. The meeting’s purpose was to diffuse conflicts arising because some tribes were assisting the Confederate forces and others were expected to oppose the new intercontinental railroad and telegraph systems. In a planning session to discuss protocols, before the actual meeting, Lincoln said he intended to ask those Chiefs who had tribal members supporting the “rebels” if they had considered their fate when the Union won the war; however the Agents suggested a “softer tone.” Then Lincoln, in an undiplomatic moment, said that it might be difficult to reach agreements with the the Indians because “we are not as a race so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren.” Most in the planning session thought it was an incongruous statement considering the terrible loss of life continuing on both sides in Civil War battles. Lincoln quickly realized the gaffe and began to speak of the nobility of the tribal leaders. Later, at the official meeting, Lincoln was cordial and respectful to the assembled Chiefs but allowed the Agents to cover the more serious matters. However, his earlier comments probably reflected his true sentiments.

Like all of us, Abraham Lincoln had a few “blind spots” where even his usual calm and compassionate nature could not overcome deeply embedded perceptions.  By 1864, however, through dispatches from reliable Western Generals who honestly explained the Indian perspectives, discussions with honorable civilians, including missionaries, who worked with various tribes, his ongoing conversations and growing respect for Cherokee Chief John Ross (in Cherokee “Guwisguwi” or “Little White Bird”), and probably his own introspection about his uncharacteristic bias against American Indians, Lincoln began to seek to improve relations with the tribes and to explore ways the government could provide assistance.

It seems that even good people, with honorable intentions, may have a paternalistic attitude toward those who are different, rather than what should be respect and tolerance. Lincoln usually sought to become better acquainted with those with whom he disagreed or anticipated conflict, once saying, “I don’t like that man, I think I should like to get to know him better.” It was only late in his life, however, that he was able to apply that philosophy to American Indians.  But, he did finally change!

Perhaps there is a message here about overcoming personal biases, even if the epiphany is somewhat delayed.

contact the author at



Lincoln’s Mrs. Bixby letter (article 7)

Most of us have read or listened to this famous letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Lydia Bixby on November 21, 1864 and had it hand delivered by William Schouler, the Massachusetts Adjutant General.

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

Historians consider this letter to be one of Lincoln’s most eloquent commentaries and parts of the letter appear on numerous Civil War memorials; and it was used to frame the reason for the mission behind enemy lines in the fictional movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

However, as with all things “Lincoln” the story is not as simple as it seems. Although Lincoln was told that Mrs. Bixby’s five sons had died when he penned this heartfelt letter, in fact three of her sons survived the War. At the time she received the letter, she knew that two of her sons had been killed in action and their bodies returned for burial and that two other sons were missing in action and could be presumed dead; however she knew that her youngest of the five sons was safe. What she did not know was that the two sons who were missing were actually alive and held as prisoners of war by the Confederate Army. No one knows for sure why the War Department records were so incorrect and it seems to be just one more example of the “fog of war;” but that should not diminish our appreciation for Lincoln’s sincere condolences and for Mrs. Bixby’s sacrifice and grief.

However, some authors have exploited the circumstances surrounding the letter and have clouded the history with speculation.

One claim is that perhaps Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, may have written the letter, citing that Mr. Hay could closely mimic Lincoln’s distinctive handwriting and that Hay used the word “beguile” more frequently than Lincoln in personal correspondence. However, both Hay and John Nicolay, Lincoln’s other secretary, noted that Hay was very cautious and respectful about using his ability to write in a manner similar to Lincoln’s and usually only did so when the President requested assistance; but never to circumvent him. Also, Lincoln and Hay used the word “beguile” differently with Lincoln using the definition “to distract” but Hay using the alternative meaning “to charm” and, to me,  Lincoln’s definition seems appropriate in the letter while Hay’s would not. This controversy erupted after Hay’s death when an acquaintance conveniently “remembered” a conversation when Hay confided that he had written the letter. But almost all Lincoln historians point out that both Hay and Nicolay  wrote extensively about Lincoln, were the guardians of the “Lincoln Papers,” and neither left any personal indication that Hay may have been the author.

Others charge that Mrs. Bixby was actually aware that “only” two sons had been killed in action but that she managed to convince a Massachusetts official that she had lost all five sons. Her reason, they speculate, was to gain a larger survivors’ benefit. However, I think it seems callous to even suggest that the loss of “only” two sons would somehow cause the mother to grieve less.

Some authors add the claim that Mrs. Bixby was really a deceptive individual who was well known to the Boston Police Department for other schemes, but of course, these stories only circulated after most of the principals had died.

Finally, other writers, noting that Mrs. Bixby had been born in Virginia, speculate that she was sympathetic to the Southern cause and that she destroyed the original copy of the letter out of anger at Lincoln and the War. Since the original has never been found, we cannot discount the story about its destruction; but we do have a lithograph of the original letter, which was made on November 24, the same day she received it. Also, The Boston Evening Transcript printed the complete text on the following day and implied that the editor had seen the letter and received permission to re-print it from Mrs. Bixby.  Further, General Schouler noted that she only spoke of her gratitude when he delivered the letter to her. With this in mind, I do not believe she destroyed the letter in a fit of anger and I still hope that the original copy is found some day.

I do believe Mrs. Bixby knew that her youngest son was alive but she still must have mourned the deaths of four sons until months later, after Lincoln’s death, when she received word that two other sons would be coming home.

And, I believe the letter, with the sentiments so eloquently expressed, was written by Abraham Lincoln.

Contact the author at