When Judy and I traveled home for our first furlough, Ken Burns had just released his epic film series on the Civil War. As I recall, we rented the first episode from Blockbuster and took it to my mom’s house, where we were visiting, to watch.
Of course, Burns captured our attention immediately with his groundbreaking effort. However, it was near the end of the first installment that we were hooked. The narrator read a letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou of the Union Army.
Ballou was a young lawyer and politician who had served as Speaker of the House in Rhode Island. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he left politics and his law practice behind to volunteer.
Ballou was anticipating a battle that we refer to today as the Battle of Bull Run. Aware of the dangers, he penned a letter to his wife, Sarah, to whom he had been married only a few years.
I have copied the words and share them with you here. As you read, I hope you note the deep love Sullivan holds for Sarah and his two small sons:
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.
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 on 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 pay that debt….
Sarah, my love for you is deathless: it seems to bind me with mighty cables and 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 all the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God, and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how 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.
If I do not [return], 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, how foolish I have oftentimes been….
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 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 cools your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sara, 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…. O Sarah, I [will] wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
Major Sullivan Ballou died seven days later at the First Battle of Bull Run. Sarah died in 1917. She never remarried.