I watched every episode of Ken Burns’ epic documentary series, The Civil War, but no story or photograph was more poignant than the letter Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife shortly before the conflict’s first great battle at Bull Run.
An attorney in civilian life, Sullivan served with the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry. On July 14, 1861, the 32-year-old husband and father wrote an if-I-should-die letter to his wife Sarah from their encampment in Washington, and placed it in his trunk.
“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.”
Sullivan believed strongly in the Union cause, “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 am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government…”
150 years later, his love for his wife and family humanizes all the fathers and sons, brothers and husbands, cousins and friends who left for the war but never returned.
“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.”
“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.”
Sullivan was briefly famous during the war when an outraged North discovered that Confederate soldiers had dug up his grave and desecrated the body, believing the major was actually his commanding officer. But the war was long and bloody, and the incident was forgotten as losses continued to mount over four long years.
A scholar sent the letter to Burns when he was researching his documentary, and its inclusion in the first episode of The Civil War resurrected Sullivan’s story.
“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.”
More than 3,000,000 Americans fought in the Civil War, and 600,000 of them died of wounds and disease, 2% of the country’s population. Read more about Major Sullivan Ballou and the complete text of his letter on the National Park Service website.