A Civil War soldier’s letter to his wife

I am going to make you cry.  To mark the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run, a.k.a. The Battle of Manassas, the Washington Post wrote a story about and reprinted the letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his wife a week before he was killed in that battle.  It shows a man highly devoted to his different and sometimes conflicting vocations as husband, father, soldier, citizen, and Christian:

July the 14th, 1861

Washington D.C.

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 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 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.
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 often 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 brightest 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 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. 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.

Sullivan

From Wikipedia

For background details see Civil War soldier’s heartbreaking farewell letter was written before death at Bull Run – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Rose

    Very beautiful.
    Reminiscent of Stonewall Jackson in the movie Gods and Generals.

  • Rose

    Very beautiful.
    Reminiscent of Stonewall Jackson in the movie Gods and Generals.

  • mendicus

    “How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness”

    Wow. Beyoootiful!

  • mendicus

    “How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness”

    Wow. Beyoootiful!

  • http://ladydusk.blogspot.com dawn

    NPR played a reading of this the other day. I was driving my children and trying to not bawl.

  • http://ladydusk.blogspot.com dawn

    NPR played a reading of this the other day. I was driving my children and trying to not bawl.

  • Another Kerner

    Ah…. the magnificence of Christian manhood expressed, such nobility poured out with elegance by a man who is that lovely blend of intellect and warrior and compassionate heart.

  • Another Kerner

    Ah…. the magnificence of Christian manhood expressed, such nobility poured out with elegance by a man who is that lovely blend of intellect and warrior and compassionate heart.

  • JH

    It is sad that someone of such good stock could be so deceived and murderous.

  • JH

    It is sad that someone of such good stock could be so deceived and murderous.

  • Cincinnatus

    Stay classy, JH.

  • Cincinnatus

    Stay classy, JH.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Just wondering: are we actually sure the man was a Christian? It’s not clear to me on what basis that claim is made. The letter itself doesn’t go much beyond general theism. Although it does present a potentially unorthodox view of the afterlife.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Just wondering: are we actually sure the man was a Christian? It’s not clear to me on what basis that claim is made. The letter itself doesn’t go much beyond general theism. Although it does present a potentially unorthodox view of the afterlife.

  • Jonathan

    His love for wife and family is admirable; but I think he sounds more like a Unitarian than a Christian.

  • Jonathan

    His love for wife and family is admirable; but I think he sounds more like a Unitarian than a Christian.

  • steve

    The Unitarian Universalist website claims many Universalists in the Ballou family, including one of the most famous, Hosea Ballou. They claim Sullivan was supported financially through law school by a Universalist lawyer and that he had helped to organize the Rhode Island Universalist Convention. Hosea Ballou was a Freemason and given that Sullivan’s father’s name was Hiram Ballou, it may not be too much of a stretch to assume the masonic affiliation in the family was still alive. Though, it should be said that many Universalists of the 19 Century were still Trinitarian and even the Unitarians were not nearly as divested of Christian doctrine as they are today.

  • steve

    The Unitarian Universalist website claims many Universalists in the Ballou family, including one of the most famous, Hosea Ballou. They claim Sullivan was supported financially through law school by a Universalist lawyer and that he had helped to organize the Rhode Island Universalist Convention. Hosea Ballou was a Freemason and given that Sullivan’s father’s name was Hiram Ballou, it may not be too much of a stretch to assume the masonic affiliation in the family was still alive. Though, it should be said that many Universalists of the 19 Century were still Trinitarian and even the Unitarians were not nearly as divested of Christian doctrine as they are today.

  • Richard

    Good grief. Can’t we all at least enjoy the poetry of the soldier’s sentiments without making snarky remarks about his vocation (murderous) and questioning his orthodoxy (however legitimate the question may be)? Man, some of us need to seriously chill.

  • Richard

    Good grief. Can’t we all at least enjoy the poetry of the soldier’s sentiments without making snarky remarks about his vocation (murderous) and questioning his orthodoxy (however legitimate the question may be)? Man, some of us need to seriously chill.

  • Cincinnatus

    I’m not sure I perceive the value in attempting to judge from a single letter the condition of a man’s soul who died 150 years ago, much less determine his specific denominational preferences.

  • Cincinnatus

    I’m not sure I perceive the value in attempting to judge from a single letter the condition of a man’s soul who died 150 years ago, much less determine his specific denominational preferences.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@11), if your statement is applicable, then it is equally applicable to claims made the other direction. Namely, that Maj. Ballou was a Christian and that this is well demonstrated in this letter (cf. Veith’s introduction and Another Kerner’s comment @4).

    I’m not interested in trying to “judge” the man’s “soul”. I’m interested in determining if this letter demonstrates what several people are claiming it does. To me, it is lacking in that regard.

    On the other hand, if we merely want to admire the literary or emotional qualities of the letter for what they are, then fine. And they are worth noting.

    But the ghost talk still was a bit jarring to me. Can I say that? Or was I just supposed to cry?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Cincinnatus (@11), if your statement is applicable, then it is equally applicable to claims made the other direction. Namely, that Maj. Ballou was a Christian and that this is well demonstrated in this letter (cf. Veith’s introduction and Another Kerner’s comment @4).

    I’m not interested in trying to “judge” the man’s “soul”. I’m interested in determining if this letter demonstrates what several people are claiming it does. To me, it is lacking in that regard.

    On the other hand, if we merely want to admire the literary or emotional qualities of the letter for what they are, then fine. And they are worth noting.

    But the ghost talk still was a bit jarring to me. Can I say that? Or was I just supposed to cry?

  • steve

    Sorry, didn’t mean to detract from the beauty of the moment. I thought it was interesting because I had a particular interest in the evolution of Universalist thought and had read from Hosea Ballou.

  • steve

    Sorry, didn’t mean to detract from the beauty of the moment. I thought it was interesting because I had a particular interest in the evolution of Universalist thought and had read from Hosea Ballou.

  • Another Kerner

    Mercy !!

    It’s a love letter written by a soldier to a beloved wife on the eve of battle…. believing that his love for her will not cease with his death.

  • Another Kerner

    Mercy !!

    It’s a love letter written by a soldier to a beloved wife on the eve of battle…. believing that his love for her will not cease with his death.

  • JH

    I will agree that it was written at a high level.

  • JH

    I will agree that it was written at a high level.

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  • Mountain girl

    Any woman would hold such precious words from her love close to her heart forever. Perhaps only a woman could understand the pure love that is written here from a man so in love and desperate to give comfort that would last a lifetime without him. What more could he give her but words. Words meant to sustain her through whatever travails that she may encounter in life and to assure her that his love would always be with her. Don’t try to analyze these words of love and sorrow for what would not be. Just accept them as she surely did.

  • Mountain girl

    Any woman would hold such precious words from her love close to her heart forever. Perhaps only a woman could understand the pure love that is written here from a man so in love and desperate to give comfort that would last a lifetime without him. What more could he give her but words. Words meant to sustain her through whatever travails that she may encounter in life and to assure her that his love would always be with her. Don’t try to analyze these words of love and sorrow for what would not be. Just accept them as she surely did.