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The Letter of Sullivan Ballou September 5, 2009

Posted by Alex Sawit in Stuff in General.

By Alex Sawit

06 September 2009


I was rummaging through my computer files recently when I found something that I’d sadly forgotten about, something that’s been in the laptop for a few years.  I’d originally intended to edit it so that I could share it with Cyrano friends except that I’d set it aside when I was busy and lost track of it for one reason or another.

It’s a copy of the Sullivan Ballou Letter.

I have a profound appreciation for personal correspondences of historical value.  Unlike historical documents such as treaties, decrees and other grandiose political effects, personal letters offer us a special window not only into unfolding moments in time but also into the hearts of the individuals who wrote them, allowing us to relive their thoughts and emotions as though we were there when it happened.  More than the feeling of history, it’s the human experience that really touches me.

Not surprisingly, love letters are the most compelling.  Often the most famous ones are those written by great figures whose sheer statures imbue their writing with a feeling of consequence.  Napoleon’s letters to Josephine, for example, are filled with the bullying passion of an alpha male always wanting to have his way even if love be the battlefield.  Ludwig van Beethoven’s emotionally wrenching letter to his “Immortal Beloved” was so mysterious that it inspired the fascinating premise of a movie of the same title (with actor Gary Oldman portraying the brooding composer).  And the intoxicating words that Lord Byron and his scandalous lover, Caroline Lamb, imbibed between themselves in their letters serve to transport the reader into a world of reckless mood swings and unbridled notoriety.  And so on and so on.

Sometimes, though, the most moving love letters are those written by everyday heroes whom history would deem as mere footnotes.

I first learned of the Sullivan Ballou Letter nearly twenty years ago from a magazine review about the PBS documentary by Ken Burns, The Civil War.  Acclaimed as the definitive film series about the American Civil War, this masterwork of television presented U.S. audiences with a deeply insightful yet heartrending remembrance of that bloody and decisive period in their nation’s history.  I do recall the magazine praising the filmmakers for the sensitivity with which they used long forgotten mementos to bring to life stories of ordinary people who endured the war.  And I particularly recall that, of all those resurrected keepsakes, the magazine singled out Ballou’s haunting letter as the most enduring one ever written by any soldier on either side of that great American conflict.



To learn more about the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, click here.


I’ve thought about discreetly putting it on view at the shop, framed and placed perhaps in some corner nook or quiet space on the wall where it wouldn’t be intrusive.  But I just don’t know if it would be as appropriate to display as hanging a poster of Robert Doisneau’s Le Baiser de L’Hôtel de Ville on an easel or displaying copies of Cyrano de Bergerac on our bookshelf.  I just don’t know if it’s too much sentimentality even for a place like Cyrano.

So I’ll settle for posting the letter here. I guess I’m more of a sentimental fool than I thought.





The Letter of Sullivan Ballou


   In the summer of 1861, one week before the first major battle of the American Civil War, an officer in the Union Army, Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote home to his wife Sarah as she awaited his safe return.

   The letter he wrote is presented here in condensed form.



    July 14, 1861
    Camp Clark, Washington


    My very dear Sarah:

       The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

       If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle field for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

       But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows. . . is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

       I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death – and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

       I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one . . .

       Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

       The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

       But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .




*          *          *          *          *


   A week later, Sullivan Ballou was called upon to lead his regiment against Confederate forces at Manassas, Virginia. He was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run.



POSTSCRIPT: Sullivan Ballou never mailed this letter. His wife Sarah received it along with his other personal belongings after his death. Although the original document has since disappeared, the letter survived through a few hand-written copies. It is probable that Ballou’s widow permitted those dearest to her to copy the letter for the sincerest of reasons, keeping the original safe in her possession for as long as she lived.







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