Allison Tombstone
Presbyterian Cemetery
Port Carbon, Pennsylvania


The story told in the motion picture “Saving Private Ryan” is well known.  Although fictitious there is factual basis for such an event occurring in the American Civil War.  Actually there were two such events but one has since been debunked as partial myth.  The first was the widely circulated story of a Lydia Bixby of Boston whose five sons had all served in the Union Army.  In 1864 the Governor of Massachusetts had written President Lincoln telling him that Mrs. Bixby had lost all of her sons in battle and perhaps the President could honor her sacrifice with a letter of condolence.  A letter was written although historians cannot agree whether it was actually written by Lincoln or by his secretary John Hay.  Whoever the author, it eloquently captures the solemn and patriotic nature of the sacrifice.

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 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

What transpired next was surely an embarrassment to the War Department. After the death of Lincoln and the end of the Civil War it was discovered in the official records of the War Department that while Mrs. Bixby did indeed have five sons who served in the Union Army only two had perished in battle. A third had been imprisoned as a POW and due to health issues was subsequently honorably discharged upon his release. The remaining two had not only not died in battle but were listed as having deserted their ranks and supposedly survived the war. It was also learned that Mrs. Bixby had earlier relocated from Richmond, Virginia to Boston and harbored deep Confederate sympathies and a personal dislike for the President. It is also believed but unproven that Mrs. Bixby, far from playing the honored mother of slain soldiers, destroyed the letter shortly after its receipt.

A similar story was also being played out at the same time in Pennsylvania and has been documented as totally factual. In Port Carbon, Schuylkill County, a widow named Agnes Allison, a Scot immigrant, had raised six sons to adulthood with four serving and subsequently being killed in the Civil War all within the period of just over one year.

A son John died first having been killed early in the Battle of Salem Church in 1863 in a major side action to the bigger battle of Chancellorsville. The very same day an older brother Alexander was mortally wounded on the same battlefield and died two days later in a Union field hospital. Alexander was buried in an identified grave at what became Fredericksburg National Cemetery. James was left near where he died to be later buried in an unmarked grave by Confederate soldiers in possession of the battlefield. After the war ended a massive search for these graves ensued with all recovered remains being brought to Fredericksburg. If James’ grave was discovered he is then buried in the same cemetery as his brother but would be in a section for unknown identities.

Within the year a third son George was killed at Spotsylvania not far from Salem Church. Interestingly his remains were returned to Port Carbon for burial arriving some two weeks following his death. On the day following his committal at the Presbyterian Cemetery, Agnes learned that her fourth soldier son James had been killed at Cold Harbor, Virginia. His remains never came home and he was subsequently buried in the Richmond National Cemetery.

Agnes Allison’s loss went unnoticed on the national level and there was no letter of condolence from the President. Twenty-three years later in 1887 Agnes passed away and was buried next to the one son who had come home to Port Carbon. By 1900 with many surviving veterans now in their 60’s or older, there was a surge in interest for establishing commemorative Civil War soldiers’ monuments throughout the country. Such an effort occurred in Port Carbon in 1904 when the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (a veteran’s fraternal organization) spearheaded plans for a local monument and subsequently followed up two years later with plans for a memorial on the Allison gravesite. The following July 4th a simple monument to her memory and that of her four sons was unveiled following a dedication ceremony. It is an all metal white bronze grave marker popular at the time and is fronted by four American flags for her slain sons.

A footnote to the story is that Robert Sodat, screenwriter of the “Saving Private Ryan” script was passing through Port Carbon in 1994 and visited the monument. According to local legend Sodat credits this visit with providing the inspiration for penning a World War II drama depicting the same kind of loss. Whether this supposed inspiration is folklore or fact, this lone grave marker in Port Carbon’s Presbyterian Cemetery marks an event of unusual circumstance. Simple in size and design but powerful in the message it delivers, the monument stands as a daily reminder of the sacrifice of a mother whose loss must have produced personal sadness and grief and perhaps even bewilderment at the cruel hand of fate dealt her. It can only be hoped that in her despair she also felt a sense of honor and pride in that all four of her soldier sons in answering the call to duty had laid down their lives in defense of their country.