Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sullivan Ballou's Civil War letter

** Bumped up from original 29OCT04 posting in honor of Veterans Day 2010. **

US Army Major Sullivan Ballou wrote this letter to his wife Sarah on July 14, 1861, made famous by Ken Burns' poignant presentation in the Civil War documentary series with the backdrop of the haunting Ashokan Farewell. On July 21, MAJ Ballou was mortally wounded in the First Battle of Bull Run (aka Battle of First Manassas). His letter has become definitive of the American citizen-soldier, as well as great romantic literature.

Add 29MAY11: youtube clip from the Ken Burns documentary:

Link to the full letter (there are slightly different versions on other websites)

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

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

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.


- Eric

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