Sullivan Ballou’s letter
It wasn’t until the month of July that the Civil War would see its first major land battle at Manassas, VA otherwise known as the First Battle of Bull Run. One soldier, Sullivan Ballou, wrote a heartfelt letter home to his wife and children before heading south to protect Washington DC.
The hot summer months of 1861 were primarily spent recruiting and organizing the newly-formed armies of the North and South, moving troops to protect valuable resources, and fighting a handful of smaller land engagements and naval battles. It wasn’t until the month of July that the Civil War would see its first major land battle at Manassas, VA otherwise known as the First Battle of Bull Run.
The prevailing opinion during these first months was that the Civil War would consist of one big land battle after which the war would come to a quick close. Many newspapers, soldiers, and citizens on each side predicted a strong initial victory and assumed the other would lose their taste for war shortly afterward. There were some, most notably U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and C.S. President Jefferson Davis, who seemed to recognize the war would be a prolonged struggle from the outset. After Bull Run, the rest of the public would soon come to understand and share this view.
Later in July, I’ll be going into detail about the battle and its impact on Richmond. In the meantime though, I wanted to share a story of one soldier in particular. This soldier, Sullivan Ballou, had a promising political career in Rhode Island before the war but quickly volunteered for the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry after the war began. He was given the rank of major and had to leave behind his wife, Sarah Ballou, and two young children as his unit moved south to defend Washington DC. It’s not totally clear whether Ballou thought the war would end quickly or not, but it’s clear that he understood the significance of the fighting ahead of him and the risk to his own life.
Just a week before the First Battle of Bull Run, Ballou wrote a letter home to his wife Sarah. It’s one of the more beautiful letters I’ve read from a soldier and I couldn’t let the date pass without sharing it here. The letter, reproduced many times after the war, is probably best known in recent years from being featured in Ken Burn’s documentary The Civil War on PBS. As you read the letter, try to imagine Ballou 150 years ago this month, far from home and missing his family but ready to go to battle and defend the Union.
July the 14th, 1861
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 done. 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.
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 often 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 brightest 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 me, for we shall meet again.
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 their characters. 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.
Just one week after writing this letter, Sullivan Ballou received a mortal wound at Bull Run and died shortly after. He was 32 years old.
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