150 Year Old Letter
July 28, 2011
is sacrifice and love of country really mean? What is the burning spirit of
America's early people that forge a nation to rise to greatness in the 20th
century? In a letter written 150 years ago, Major Sullivan Ballou captured
what many people in this country cherish. Family, Country and God. Perhaps
written late at night when all was quiet in the Union Army's Road Island 2nd
Infantry encampment - by candlelight or moonlight, he wrote about what was truly
important to him. He knew not what the days ahead held, and in one letter to his
wife Sarah he expressed a nations spirit and convictions that will be carried
down for centuries after his passing.
July 28, 2011 is Sullivan Ballou's 150th anniversary of his
death. His letter was found in Ballou's trunk after he had been killed during
the Battle of Bull Run. The letter was delivered by Governor William Sprague to
Ballou's widow and later published with permission from Sarah Ballou.
Ballou was born the son of Hiram and Emeline (Bowen) Ballou,
a distinguished Huguenot family in Smithfield, Rhode Island. He lost both of his
parents at a young age and was forced to fend for himself. In spite of this, he
attended boarding school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
Following his graduation therefrom, he attended Brown University, where he was a
member of Delta Phi, and went on to study law at the National Law School, in
Ballston, New York. He was admitted to the Rhode Island bar and began to
practice in 1853.
Ballou was active in public service. Shortly after being admitted to the bar, he
was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives, where
he served as a clerk, and later as the speaker. He was a staunch Republican and
supporter of Abraham Lincoln.
When war broke out, Ballou immediately left what appeared to be a promising
political career and volunteered for military service with the 2nd Rhode Island
Infantry. In addition to his combat duties, he served as the Rhode Island
militia's judge advocate.
Ballou and 93 of his men were mortally wounded at Bull Run. In an attempt to
better direct his men, Ballou took a horse mounted position in front of his
regiment, when a 6-pounder solid shot from Confederate artillery tore off his
right leg and simultaneously killed his horse. The badly injured Major was then
carried off the field and the remainder of his leg was amputated. Ballou died
from his wound a week after that Union defeat and was buried in the yard of
nearby Sudley Church. After the battle the territory was occupied by Confederate
forces. According to witness testimony, it was at this time that Ballou's corpse
was exhumed, decapitated, and desecrated by Confederate soldiers possibly
belonging to the 21st Georgia regiment. Ballou's body was never recovered.
In place of his body, charred ash and bone believed to be his remains were
reburied in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island. His wife, Sarah,
never remarried. She later moved to New Jersey to live out her life with a son,
William. She died in 1917 and is buried next to her husband.
You can listen to a reading of Sullivan Ballou's letter on
Highlander Radio's Civil War program played every Sunday morning! Check our
programming in your local time zone.
Sullivan Ballou's letter to his
wife Sarah written July 14, 1861 in Washington D.C.
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 you again, I feel impelled to write
lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure -- and it
may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be
If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield 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 upon the triumph of the
Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the
blood and suffering 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 -- when, after
having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer
it as their only sustenance to my dear little children -- 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. A pure love of my country and of the principles I have often advocated
before the people and "the name of honor that I love more than I fear death"
have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you 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 battlefield.
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 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 grow 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 battlefield, it
will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless
and foolish I have oftentimes been!
How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness,
and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my
children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and
hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight,
and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
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 garish day and in the
darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours -- always,
always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or
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
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's
love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed
Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood.
Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of
Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God's blessing upon them.
O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
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