I had known of Major Sullivan Ballou from my various studies of the American Civil War, yet it did not take on its prominence until I watched the PBS series "The Civil War," produced by Ken Burns. It would be through watching and listening to this series and hearing the famous letter written by Ballou read aloud that it became all the more harrowing.
Sullivan Ballou was raised in poverty, but overcame its obstacles and started a promising career as a lawyer in Providence, Rhode Island. It was his hope and that of his wife Sarah that they build a better life than they had known growing up for their two sons, Edgar and Willie. In addition to being a successful lawyer, Sullivan also served as the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.
At this time, at the age of thirty-two, and being a fervent Republican and impassioned supporter of President Abraham Lincoln, he felt the need to serve the Union, leaving what would have been a very promising political career to enlist in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers in the spring of 1861. On June 19, 1861, he and his troops left Providence for duty in Washington, D.C.
On July 14, 1861, Major Ballou was stationed at Camp Clark, near Washington, D.C., while awaiting orders that led him to Manassas, Virginia. It would be this day that he sat down and wrote a poignant letter to his wife Sarah, whereby he predicted his own death. Ballou's letter encompasses several themes. It is first and foremost an emotional love letter, but also it embodies a profound contemplation on the meaning of freedom and the Union. The passions and sentiments written by Ballou showed to America what the defense of the Union and democracy truly meant.
On July 29, 1861 at the First Battle of Bull Run, Major Ballou and twenty-seven of his men fell mortally wounded, along with four thousand other Americans.
Major Sullivan's Original Letter to his wife is as follows:
Camp Clark, Washington
July 14th, 1861
My Dear Sarah,
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days - perhaps tomorrow. Lest I shall 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. Our movements may be of a few days duration and full a pleasure -- and it may be one of some conflict and death to me. "Not my will, but thine, O God be done." 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 your's and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows, when after having eaten for long years the bitter fruits of orphanage myself, I must offer it as the only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, that while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and fondly in the breeze, underneath my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children should struggle in fierce, though useless contests with my love of Country.
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm Summer Sabbath night, when two-thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying perhaps the last sleep before that of death, while I am suspicious that death is creeping around me with his fatal dart, as I sit communing with God, my Country and thee. I have sought most closely and diligently and often in my heart for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of all those I love, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have often advocated before the people -- another name of Honor that I love more than I fear death, has called upon me and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me in mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and burns me unresistably on with all these chains to the battle field.
The memories of all 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 battle field, I shall 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, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and your children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffit the storm, 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 gladest day and in the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, 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.
As for my little boys -- they will grow up as I have done, and never know a father's love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember my long -- and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolicks with him among the dim memories of childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work.
Tell my two Mothers I call God's blessing upon them. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children.
Sullivan Ballou is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. On his gravestone is written, "I wait for you there, Come to me and lead thither my children," from the last line of his last letter to his wife Sarah.
Copyrightę John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.