A Reading by Chief Curator Sara Willen: Abraham Lincoln’s Condolence Letter
One of the greatest letters of consolation ever written. Chief Curator Sara Willen narrates the story of Abraham Lincoln’s many personal losses and of his condolence letter to young Fanny McCullough. The original manuscript and transcript can be viewed here.
Lincoln said that all that he was or ever hoped to be he got from his mother. Now, his mother died when he was nine years old. Lincoln never talked about the loss of his mother. There’s a poem in which he refers to it at one point, and then there is this letter, which is probably one of the great letters ever written of consolation, especially to a young person. It’s called the Fanny McCullough letter.
Dear Fanny, it is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave father, and especially that 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 cannot 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 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. Lincoln.
It’s important to Lincoln Scholars because he mentions his own deep grief, which just less than a year before had been compounded again by the death of his second son. Meanwhile, of course, men are dying around him day and night, in terrible, terrible battles. He is wallowing in death. It tells us how Lincoln survived in the past and at that particular moment.