ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S FAMOUS CIVIL WAR CONDOLENCE LETTER TO YOUNG ***** MCCULLOUGH ABOUT DEATH, LOSS AND MEMORY**
Washington, December 23, 1862.
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.
Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.
Your sincere friend
A Common Bond of Grief
Feb. 12, 2016 4:24 p.m. ET
“We can not escape history,” Abraham Lincoln warned in his annual message to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862. Just four days later, as if to prove Lincoln’s point, an obscure Union cavalry commander lost his life battling a nighttime ambush deep behind Confederate lines at Coffeeville, Miss. The remote dust-up at which Lt. Col. William McCullough died heroically earned scant notice in Washington—except from the president himself.
Years before, as a circuit-riding lawyer, Lincoln had come to know McCullough and his family when the Bloomington, Ill., resident served as sheriff, and then as clerk of the county court. The two men had much in common. Both had served in their state militia during the Black Hawk War. Each married a woman named Mary. Both became Republicans. And each lost young children to disease.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln had allowed his old friend to volunteer, though, at 50, the white-haired McCullough was ancient by military standards, lacked vision in one eye, and had lost his right arm to a thresher. Now Lincoln learned that, outnumbered at Coffeeville, McCullough had clenched the reins of his horse between his teeth and galloped along his lines, saber raised in his remaining hand, rallying his men to fight.
No doubt already remorseful, Lincoln became especially concerned when mutual friends reported that the hero’s 22-year-old daughter Mary Frances—known as “*****”—was grieving with alarming intensity. The “afflicted” young woman had shut herself off in her room, refusing to eat, “pacing the floor in violent grief, or sitting in lethargic silence.” Her family feared “for her consequences.”
Lincoln was no stranger to the fragile tipping point between grief and insanity. The loss of his beloved 11-year-old son Willie earlier in 1862 still haunted his dreams. His wife’s hysterical mourning had triggered a breakdown. Earlier in his life, Lincoln had grown so despondent over the death of his New Salem, Ill., sweetheart Ann Rutledge that neighbors ordered him “locked up” to “prevent derangement or suicide.”
Informed in mid-December of ***** McCullough’s “broken hearted” state, Lincoln intervened with one of the mere handful of personal condolence letters he wrote to honor war heroes and assuage their survivors. That he penned it just days after a morale-crushing Union defeat at Fredericksburg, and only days before he had to decide, amid intense pressure, whether to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, makes Lincoln’s achingly tender composition especially remarkable. The “McCullough Letter” deserves its reputation as one of the greatest condolence letters ever written, even if it remains little-known—a tour de force in a genre that arguably required more literary dexterity and delicate persuasiveness than even a great orator’s most demanding public speech.
“In this sad world of ours,” Lincoln counseled, “sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it.” Here, with rare candor, Lincoln was reopening a painful old wound of his own: the loss of his beloved mother, who had suffered a horrible death before his eyes when Abe was only 9. Promising “some alleviation of your present distress,” Lincoln knowingly walks ***** through a multistep recovery program, from overwhelming sorrow to the “perfect relief” that would come only with time. “You are sure to be happy again,” he promised her. “The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.”
The original one-page, 166-word letter took a long journey to full public disclosure. In the 1950s, the reprinted text appeared in “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” but the original remained in McCullough family hands. Music executive Carl Haverlin acquired it in the ’60s for a then-record $60,000. Fortunately, it was ultimately acquired in 1997 (for $400,000) by public-spirited manuscript collector Benjamin Shapell. While the treasure now resides in the private Shapell Manuscript Foundation archive, its owner has generously made it available for public exhibition (most recently at the Library of Congress and the Morgan Library). Best of all, the scanned manuscript also lives online (www.shapell.org), where it can be rewardingly inspected in vivid close-up. Neatly penned in Lincoln’s legible hand on blue-lined Executive Mansion letterhead, still creased where it was folded twice to fit into a White House envelope, it appears nearly as crisp today as the moment ***** McCullough first opened it.
Lincoln signed his condolence message to *****, “your sincere friend,” and to many of the loyal thousands who lost fathers, brothers and sons fighting for the Union, the consoler-in-chief must have seemed so. But where ***** McCullough was concerned, one senses a closer, more unique connection: the bond between two soul mates who mourned inconsolably, suffered deeply, and needed desperately to recover in order to live—and, in Lincoln’s case, to lead.
In time, the once-irreconcilable ***** re-entered the world as well. Surely inspired by Lincoln, she recovered enough to overcome yet another staggering loss: A young soldier she fancied died in action, too. Eventually she married his brother and long endured. ***** kept the president’s condolence letter in her possession until the day she died, at the age of four score years.