The Most Poignant Letter of All?
Early in the Civil War, Sullivan Ballou, from Providence, Rhode Island, enlisted in the Union army. While stationed outside Washington, D.C., while awaiting orders which would take him to the First Battle of Bull Run, he sat down and wrote the most beautiful letter to his wife. In this letter he talked of many things, the Union, democracy, and the love of his wife and children, but also in writing it, he predicted his own death. Here is an video clip showcasing an excerpt from that letter which was featured in Ken Burns' Civil War special. Immediately below the video is the text of the letter...a harrowing letter everyone should read.
July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, 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 again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more...
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...
Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me 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 unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
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 for 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 grown 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, it will 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...
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 gladdest days and in the darkest nights...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 was killed a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861. When he died, his wife was 24. She later moved to New Jersey to live out her life with her son, William, and never re-married. She died at age 80 in 1917. Sullivan and Sarah Ballou are buried next to each other at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI. There are no known living descendants.
Ironically, Sullivan Ballou's letter was never mailed. Although Sarah would receive other, decidedly more upbeat letters, dated after the now-famous letter from the battlefield, the letter in question would be found among Sullivan Ballou's effects when Gov. William Sprague of Rhode Island traveled to Virginia to retrieve the remains of his state's sons who had fallen in battle.