There is nothing to suggest that Major Sullivan Ballou did anything to distinguish himself from other soldiers in the Civil War. Until those of us who saw PBS's recent distinguished series on the Civil War heard Ballou's unusual letter home to his wife.
It was captivating.Historian Don Fehrenbacher, professor emeritus at Stanford, who used the letter in his teaching, sent it to filmmaker Ken Burns when he heard about his documentary project. Burns was so impressed with it that he carried it in his wallet for four years - until his project reached fruition.
He thought it an excellent example of how the war touched ordinary people.
A week before the Battle of Bull Run, Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island unit wrote to his wife back home in Smithfield. Ballou wrote about love and death and patriotism in a way that only a man surrounded by cannons could write.
The letter seemed to be a premonition. Ballou had never served in battle, but one week after he wrote the letter, he was killed at Bull Run.
Ballou was born on March 28, 1827, in Smithfield, R.I. His family moved to Rochester, N.Y., where he spent most of his youth. Then he entered Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He attended Brown University for two years, then studied law at the National Law School in Ballston, N.Y. He was admitted to the Rhode Island bar in March 1853 and practiced law in Smithfield and Providence.
He became a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives and even served as speaker.
Ballou married Sarah Hart Shumway in Connecticut in 1855. They had two sons.
Here is the letter, an unusual example of Civil War eloquence:
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.
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 on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings 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 . . .
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 unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
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 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. 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 and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and the unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as 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.