Sullivan Ballou Letter
August 8, 2006 6:18 AM   Subscribe

A soldier in War. A letter home. Nobody will ever top Sullivan Ballou's. (Youtube Video) A week before the battle of Bull Run, Sullivan Ballou, a major in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote home to his wife in Smithfield. The actual letter begins @ 2:25 into the video. But it's far from a waste to watch the whole six minutes.
posted by thisisdrew (16 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can't get the youtube link to load
posted by ob at 7:04 AM on August 8, 2006

Thanks, this was worth reading/listening to.

A comment, however.... The patriotism expressed by Sullivan Ballou in this letter is fitting for the cause he was fighting for, the preservation of a country, his own country, and the extension of freedoms to his fellow countrymen.

My thought as I listened to this is how very different that war was from the war in which we are currently engaged. My fear is that the stirring words from the past can be used to promote, justify, and facilitate the continuance of our invasion into Iraq.

I hope that those that take the time to listen to this, hear the touching last words of a husband to his wife, as of today there are 2,591 letters just like this to be read by wives, mothers, fathers, and children of those that have died in our present conflict.
posted by HuronBob at 7:14 AM on August 8, 2006

Letter-writing is an art, for sure. One that's very much nearly dead, at least in North America. Though it's easy to blame the internet and telephone (cell phones in particular), I'm often curious if the culprit is not, more specifically, a lack of wonder itself.

Whenever I get a good letter--or on those rare days when I manage to write one--they come at times most humble or from friends or lovers who best embody humility. My experiences reveal that those absent of this seemingly unteachable character trait cannot (or will not) conjure or send heartfelt words, nor do they seem to appreciate them.

Perhaps it's the romantic in me, but I imagine humility was much more common in the days Ballou wrote his wife--certainly Burns' documentary contains many glorious examples of the well-written letter--when nature and the acts of men, both awe-inspiring and deadly, were not 10-times removed by technology, apathy, and convenience.
posted by dobbs at 7:20 AM on August 8, 2006

More on the music, Ashokan Farewell, that accompanies the letter.

and makes me sad
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:32 AM on August 8, 2006


And I remember Ken showing us the Sullivan Ballou letter. It was a tattered piece of paper – of course, not from a 150 years ago. It was one that Ken had typed out himself and been carrying in his wallet for probably 10 or 15 years. So, it was a letter that always meant a lot to him, and it means a lot to millions of people now.
posted by thisisdrew at 7:38 AM on August 8, 2006

Ahah, I got it to work -well worth watching and very moving.
posted by ob at 8:10 AM on August 8, 2006

Yes, I remember Burns' movie leaving me with the impression that everybody of the time, even the untutor'd mud-booted soldier, knew how to write like an angel. But, lest we forget, from the second link:

Ballou was educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.; Brown University in Providence, R.I. and the National Law School in Ballston, N.Y. He was admitted to the Rhode Island Bar in 1853.

Besides, let's not forget that for every beautiful letter we read, there's a "well mama hope you are in good helth food poor but oh well" etc.
posted by argybarg at 8:19 AM on August 8, 2006

A beautiful letter, both to the ears and eyes. How sad that Sullivan Ballou's wife Sarah never received it:
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.
Apparently no pictures of Sarah exist, and they have no descendants.

The First Battle of Bull Run was a major defeat for the Union Army. More Americans died in the Civil War than in all of our other wars combined.
posted by cenoxo at 8:49 AM on August 8, 2006

This site has some background information on Major Ballou. He and his horse were hit by a cannonball while he was trying to rally his troops; the horse was killed and he lost a leg. He was captured by the Confederates and died of his wounds a week after the battle.

Sullivan Ballou: The Macabre Fate of a American Civil War Major: "Not so well known is that after he was mortally wounded in that fight, Confederates dug up, decapitated and burned his body."
Interestingly, however, the letter was never mailed, but was instead supposedly discovered in Ballou's trunk. Also perplexing is that of the five copies of the missive known to exist, none is in handwriting that matches Ballou's penmanship. Both factors call into question the document's authenticity.
His gravestone has a quote from the letter.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:00 AM on August 8, 2006

From the historyNet link: (the letter)
I find it somewhat better if you read it rather than listen to it. If I remember correctly the heat and the flies were horrid where they were camped...

July 14, 1861.
Camp Clark, Washington

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 movements may be 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 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 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 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 their only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, that while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, underneath 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 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 those I love, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have so often advocated before the people -- "the 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 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 those 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 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 boys 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, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how 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 my 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 days and 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, or the cool air cools 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 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, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work.

Tell my two Mothers I call God's blessings upon them new. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me, and lead thither my children.


posted by fluffycreature at 9:28 AM on August 8, 2006

When the story is bigger than the man, you print the story. Many mysteries are better left unsolved.
posted by cenoxo at 9:39 AM on August 8, 2006

Wow, I knew instantly what this was about without clicking on the links or reading other comments. Remember it vividly from Burns' docu.

And I better not read/ listen to it now. I'm at work, and easily prone to verklemptedness.
posted by NorthernLite at 10:53 AM on August 8, 2006

Cenoxo, I think she received it after his death, he just never mailed it (but had mailed letters that he wrote after that one). Perhaps he thought it was too grim.
posted by witchstone at 1:51 PM on August 8, 2006

I LOVE the sound of this letter from Burns' documentary. Makes me weepy.
posted by etaoin at 3:18 PM on August 8, 2006

Continuing HuronBob's comment about how that war was more just than the war in Iraq, well if you look at all America's wars since the year dot, there seems a continuous undeniable trend towards moral ambiguity.

The Revolution was, for Americans at least, the ideal war as the cause was just, the conduct reasonably civilized (!) and the consequences generally agreed to be positive in all aspects.

Civil war was justified by the threat to the Union and the need to stop slavery spreading but it wasn't civilized (March to the Sea, massive death rate, etc) and the consequences not so demonstrably good. After all, slavery was the cause of the war but in all but name it continued for many years. The rapid industrialization (admittedly already in process before) that such a war encouraged, put America on the road to economic superpower and the awkward burden of global hegemon.

Philippines (sheesh).

First world war - entry on economic grounds. Delay enabled vast numbers to die perhaps unnecessarily. Forced allies into penury. Vast slaughter. Not civilized at all. Consequences? Failure to join League of Nations, forced payment of vast sums to the US, Weimar Rep. Nazism (damn it... Sorry!)...

Which led to Second World war. Often seen as the just war and I'd agree it needed to be fought, it was still not as just as Revolution. Economic strangling of Japan, delayed entry into war in Europe, siding with Soviets, use of A-bombs. All of these can be explained without challenging America's fundamental idealism but they certainly introduce a bit of ambiguity, moral murkiness, no?

Cold war... Well the examples there of decidedly dubious morals are legion: Vietnam, support for various governments in 3rd world which any American would be loath to live under, near participation in global nuclear holocaust, etc. etc.

I guess I'm labouring the point, but still I find it interesting that America's price for being so successfully a democratic state is to be the world's policeman and thus often, profoundly undemocratic. I'm sure many Americans who oppose the war in Iraq so bitterly would, without a second's hesitation volunteer for the just wars of before. Your forebears had it good!
posted by pots at 4:38 PM on August 8, 2006

I like the version of this letter parodied in The Ol' Negro Space Program, a film not by Ken Burns.
posted by blasdelf at 7:26 PM on August 8, 2006

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