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Posted: October 18, 2017

Letters to grieving families are a presidential tradition. Here are some famous ones.

Allan Pinkerton, President Abraham Lincoln, and General John A. McClernand at Antietam, Maryland, October 1862.
Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG/Getty Images/Universal Images Group
Allan Pinkerton, President Abraham Lincoln, and General John A. McClernand at Antietam, Maryland, October 1862.

By Debbie Lord, Cox Media Group National Content Desk

By any measure, it’s one of the toughest jobs a president can have -- writing to the family of a soldier killed in action.

The issue of presidential condolences has come to the forefront in the past week as  President Donald Trump incorrectly claimed that his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, failed to write letters of condolence to the families of slain soldiers.

While Trump has not backed down from the claim, he has found himself being accused of indifference by the family of an Army sergeant killed in Niger two weeks ago.

According to the mother of La David Johnson, President Donald Trump showed “disrespect” to his loved ones by saying that the solider “knew what he signed up for” before he was killed in action.

The president has denied saying that, while Rep. Frederica Wilson, (D-Florida), said she was in the car when the president spoke toJohnson’s widow as they went to the airport to receive Johnson’s body.

Letters from Commanders-in-Chief to the families of those who are killed in war is not new. 

Perhaps one of the most famous condolence letters sent by a president was a letter sent by President Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, a widow whose five sons served in the Civil War.

While the letter has been often quoted, the facts of. Bixby’s story has been questioned. It’s believed that at least two of Bixby’s sons were captured during the war, one deserted and one was killed.

Lincoln did not know that when the letter was written. Some believe it may not have even been written by Lincoln, but, nevertheless attributed to him.

Here is that letter and a few others sent by presidents to grieving families.

Lincoln’s letter to Lydia Bixby:
Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 21, 1864
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 words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to 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,
Abraham Lincoln

Another letter from President Lincoln to the parents of a man killed in the Civil War:
My dear Sir and Madam, In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own.
So much of promised usefulness to one's country, and of bright hopes for one's self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew.
And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse.
My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit.
To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.
In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.
May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction --
A. Lincoln

From President Lyndon Johnson to the parents of astronaut Gus Grissom:
Men of your son's utter dedication to country and cause are rare. The loss of such a man is humanity's loss.
On each of the happy occasions when I met with Gus, I was impressed by the strength of his spirit and his cool confidence in the success of our space program. He was a leader who shared his strength and faith with all who knew him. By his courage, skill and dedication, he has guaranteed future generations a knowledge of the universe that will enrich their lives on earth.
Your sacrifice is beyond measure. But I hope you can take some comfort from your knowledge that your pride can be without limit. 
Mrs. Johnson and I mourn with you as we pray for God's blessing. Millions share our debt to you for giving Gus to man, and inspiration to mankind.
Lyndon Johnson

From President Richard Nixon to the parents of a young man killed in the Vietnam War:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Cummins:
It is with great sorrow that I have learned of the death of your son, Specialist Five Richard L. Cummins.
Of all the hardships of war, the cruelest are the losses of men such as your son. The only consolation I can offer is the profound respect of the nation he died to serve, and the humble recognition of a sacrifice no man can measure and no words can describe. Those who give their own lives to make the freedom of others possible live forever in honor.
Mrs. Nixon joins me in extending our own sympathy and in expressing the sympathy of a saddened nation. You will be in our prayers and in our hearts.
Sincerely,
Richard Nixon
From Richard Nixon to Jacqueline Kennedy on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:
Dear Jackie,
In this tragic hour, Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.
Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world to him.
But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You brought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in heart which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.
If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
Sincerely,
Dick Nixon 

Several weeks later, the former First Lady responded to Nixon’s letter. 
(Punctuation, phrasing, and spelling is as it was in Kennedy’s original handwritten letter.)
Dear Mr. Vice President –
I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter –
You two young men – colleagues in Congress – adversaries in 1960 – and now look what has happened – Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country –
I know how you must feel – so long on the path – so closely missing the greatest prize – and now for you, all the question comes up again – and you must commit all you and your family’s hopes and efforts again – Just one thing I would say to you –if it does not work out as you have hoped for so long – please be consoled by what you already have – your life and your family –
We never value life enough when we have it – and I would not have had Jack live his life any other way – thought I know his death could have been prevented, and I will never cease to torture myself with that –
But if you do not win – please think of all that you have – With my appreciation – and my regards to your family. I hope your daughters love Chapin School as much as I did – 
Sincerely
Jacqueline Kennedy

From President George W. Bush to the brother of a man killed in combat:
Dear Thad:
Johnnie Yellock passed along the copy of your book, My Brother In Arms. It looks like a moving tribute to your brother, Senior Airman Mark Andrew Forester, USAF. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and kind inscription.
I know you miss your brother dearly, and I wish there was something I could do to heal your broken heart. Mark's noble service in the United States Air Force helped preserve the security of our homeland and defend the liberties America holds dear. Our Nation will not forget Mark's selfless sacrifice and dedication in our efforts to make the world more peaceful and more free. We will forever honor his memory.
Laura and I send our respect and appreciation. May God bless you and your family.
Sincerely,
George W. Bush

From President Barack Obama:
I was deeply saddened to learn of the loss of your son, Chief Petty Officer Nicholas H. Hull, USN, and it was a solemn honor to join in saluting him as he returned home to his final resting place. Our Nation will not forget his sacrifice and we can never repay our debt to your family.
A simple letter cannot erase the pain of losing a child, but I hope you take solace in knowing that his brave service exceeded all measures of selflessness and devotion to this country. We pay tribute to him not only as a guardian of our liberty but also as the true embodiment of America’s spirit of service to a cause greater than ourselves.
Michelle and I offer our heartfelt sympathy and pray that God’s grace gives you comfort as you grieve. In life, you son was a shining example of all that is the best in our land. In rest, may he find the peace we all seek.
Sincerely,
Barack Obama


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