Monday, February 8, 2010

The Sullivan Ballou Letter

I love words and I love history. And when I think of love letters, what immediately springs to mind is this lovely missive. This well-known letter was written by Sullivan Ballou, a Union Major, to his wife, Sarah, a week before being mortally wounded in the (1st) Battle of Bull Run.

There are some fascinating insights into what was happening in the day to day life of a solidier waiting between battles, as well as a thoughful look at where his sense of duty springs from, and how he justifies his eerily precscient knowledge of his permanent separation from his family.

His words of love come through so strongly, they just leap off the page and have lost nothing in the passage of time. What is particularly poignant to me is his absolute faith that he will see her following death and will eventually be reunited with Sarah and his boys. Gets me every time.

(On a personal note, a distant cousin of mine, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, who is also well known for his wartime writings, fought with Sullivan Ballou in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers.)


July the 14th, 1861

Washington DC

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 0 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?

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 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 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.



  1. Devon,

    Wow! I hadn't come across this letter before. It's powerful and emotive stuff.

    Thanks for sharing this through your post.



  2. Thank you so much for sharing this letter! I had never read it, and it is absolutely beautiful. I'll have to share it with our American Lit. teachers.

  3. I first heard this letter in a sermon by Ravi Zacharias. I can't remember the specifics of his sermon, but this letter stuck with me. It's amazing how elegant his words are. I wish people still talked like that.

  4. Devon,

    This is amazingly beautiful. Hard to believe that someone could compose something so elegant, graceful and yet intense on the battlefield.

    The letter also demonstrates the awesome power of faith.

    A perfect addition to this week's collection of epistles.

    By the way--congratulations on your release today!!


  5. Shucks you beat me to that one. I know that letter.

    No way out for me to get out of this now.

    I'll have to think about it . .


  6. Ash and Eyre, I'm very pleased to have shared this with you both, and quite surprised you haven't run across it! I'm somewhat of a history buff though, so maybe I'm a bit slanted in that direction.

  7. Hi Michael, I know what you mean about the grace of the language, it's very beautiful and it would be nice to hear it more often, not just in old writings.

  8. I do love the elegance and power of the letter, Lisabet, and I imagine him writing this in the dim light, without knowing what was to come. It gives me goosebumps.

    Thanks for the congrats too! Yours and my print version of Gaymes is out next week as well, busy month.

  9. Uh oh, Garce, I hope I didn't poach your post! So sorry if I did, truly a classic case of great minds thinking alike.


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