Civil War Personal Letters – the writing of Sullivan Ballou

Intro – Sullivan Ballou Letter

“Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.”

Sullivan Ballou, prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, was 32 years old. Sullivan Ballou worked in Providence, Rhode Island as an attorney. Sullivan Ballou had also served as the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. Sullivan Ballou was successful in his professional life but when the Civil War broke out, he answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to serve in the Union army.

2nd Rhode Island

In the army during the Civil War, Sullivan Ballou was assigned to the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry. In the 2nd infantry, Sullivan Ballou was given the rank of major. By the time the middle of the summer came, the 2nd Rhode Island moved on to the nation’s capital in preparation for the Civil War. While waiting to go into battle, Major Sullivan Ballou wrote a now famous personal letter to his wife. This letter was written with the shadow of Civil War battle looming. Just one week after Sullivan penned the following letter, the 2nd Rhode Island went into battle at First Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. During this battle, he was tragically shot and killed.

The Fate of Sullivan Ballou

After Major Sullivan Ballou died, Sullivan’s body was defiled by Confederate soldiers. After Bull Run, Confederate soldiers dug up the graves of the fallen Union soldiers. As further punishment, Georgian Confederates dug up the graves of the 2nd Rhode Island. The Georgians wanted to exact revenge on John Slocum who commanded the 2nd Rhode Island at the Battle of First Bull Run. The rebel soldiers dug up the body and desecrated it. The Confederate soldiers then left the body in a ravine near the Sudley Methodist Church.

A Tragic Ending

Nearly a year later, in March of 1862, with the Civil War still raging, Rhode Island leaders gathered together and went to Bull Run to bring the dead Rhode Islanders back to their home land. When the Rhode Island leaders were taken to the supposed body of John Slocum, they instead discovered the Confederates had misidentified the body and had instead defiled the body of Major Sullivan Ballou.

The following is the letter he wrote to his wife just a week before he was killed.


July the 14th, 1861

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 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 0 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 debt.

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 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 name.

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.


Works Cited

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