God in the ‘Sullivan Ballou letter’ (updated)

When it comes to filmmaker Ken Burns and “The Civil War,” I am a total, raving, unrepentant fan.

While it’s hard to single out any particular element of those amazing broadcasts, I am especially fond of the way he used letters from that period of time — especially those written by the soldiers — to weave real voices deep into the fabric of the narrative. Thus, I was excited when I started reading a new Washington Post feature about the justifiably famous “Sullivan Ballou letter” that was written just before the Battle of Bull Run.

Here is how this beautiful story opens:

In 1986, filmmaker Ken Burns received a copy of a long-forgotten Civil War soldier’s letter that a scholar thought he might find interesting.

Burns, then working on his award-winning PBS documentary about the war, began to read it out loud to his wife, brother and another staff member in his Walpole, N.H., headquarters.

“My dear Sarah,” the letter began, “the indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days. … Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines which will fall under your eye when I shall be no more.”

The letter, written in Washington on July 14, 1861, continued, as the author bade a heartbreaking farewell to his wife. Burns could barely finish it, and when he did, he looked up and found the others in tears. It was the now-famous “Sullivan Ballou letter,” written by the Union officer a few days before his mortal wounding at the Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861 — 150 years ago Thursday.

As the story notes, the full text of the letter was read at a crucial, summary, moment in “The Civil War.” Viewers were stunned and demanded copies. One newspaper published the full text of this short letter. The soundtrack included the full text, with music in the background as in the film. You may notice that I keep using the words “full text.”

The letter had a profound and permanent impact on the filmmaker.

After Burns finished reading the letter aloud, he made two photocopies. He gave one to his staff, for inclusion in the film. He folded the other and put it in his wallet. Twenty-five years later, as the country marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Bull Run, the now-tattered copy of the letter is still in Burns’s beat-up wallet.

“It’s the most beautiful letter I’ve ever read in my life,” he said. “It’s a Grand Canyon of a letter. You can read the strata of meaning. It’s all about love. First and foremost is love of country. … It’s about love of government. … It’s a love of cause. … It’s a love of family.”

All of that is true.

However, the one element of the Post story that disappointed me — this is not a surprise, I am sure — is that it totally ignored the fact that the letter is also about eternal love, faith and a husband’s profound sense of gratitude to God for the gift of his marriage and his family. Indeed, at the heart of the letter we read:

“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 for 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 grown 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.”

There’s more, of course. I know, I know. That is how people used to talk back in those days.

This element of the letter made it into this famous series of documentary films. It didn’t make it into the Post, and that is sad. It’s literally the one thing the newspaper left out.

UPDATE: In a way, this is a semi-correction. As GetReligion readers may know, I live in a rather blue-collar neighborhood just outside of Baltimore, near the BWI Airport. It’s not a wealthy enough neighborhood, it seems, to justify delivery service for the Washington Post. Thus, I normally see the tree-pulp Post at my office on the Hill. Truth be told, I am often so busy that I do not get to the physical paper until I head back home on the train.

So, I need to say that the online version of this story that I saw did not contain the full text of the “Sullivan Ballou letter.” Riding home tonight, I discovered that the tree-pulp edition of the paper contained a sidebar — the letter itself.

The texts of the actual stories were the same and, thus, my comments about that story stand. Clearly, the sidebar does offer needed context.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • CarlH


    Thanks for the reminder on this solemn anniversary. The fact that our forbears wrote and talked “that way back in those days” only adds to a sense of melancholy of what nobility we have lost living in an age where flippancy and even coarseness seem to be the tone of too much interpersonal communication (assuming that we do it at all).

    And sadly, the omission by the Post is expected, rather than surprising.

  • Jerry

    I’m a bit surprised that the web site did not contain the sidebar given how much newspapers have cut back on actual content and how cheap it is to put content online. I wonder if that was an omission, a deliberate decision to try to drive people to the newspaper itself or ???

  • Dianne Gardner

    I am a committed atheist..the kind who subscribes to the “higher power” concept yet denies any sort of intervening supernatural God..I find nothing in the Sullivan letter that offends me…I too was touched to the point of tears…am reading the Sharra books, “The Killer Angels”, etc..Coddington book on Gettysburg…I think sometimes believers see fear of “religion” when there is none…

  • steve hansen

    it is a gloomy reminder how crass and ugly our culture has become in 150 years.

  • Elijah

    Terry, I too am “a total, raving, unrepentant fan.” Never cared much for Civil War history before his program. Now I almost know it by heart…

    And the letter is a magnificent reminder of what sustained many soldiers in the face of terrible danger.