Sullivan Ballou’s Letter

30 Jul

This is a break from all the snark, but I think it’s worthwhile. Sullivan Ballou was a Union soldier in the Civil War. If you’ve never heard of him, take the time to read this letter he wrote to his wife; it is one of the most moving things I’ve ever read, and the man’s feeling cuts like steel as he speaks to her. Better yet, slow down and read it aloud.

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 Ballou died in the first battle of Bull Run a week later. I wonder how many of us today would write so eloquently. My guess: none.


Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “Sullivan Ballou’s Letter

  1. maxhomer

    July 30, 2014 at 5:32 am

    Thank you for enhancing my day with this, kinda puts whats important in perspective.

  2. tyrannocaster

    July 30, 2014 at 5:40 am

    Yes; I find that I can only read the letter once before I have to stop – I don’t seem to be able to re-read it (if I am actually thinking about what it says, I mean). That’s some very strong writing, the kind of thing that is impossible to do unless you are really passionate, as he obviously was. I’d like to be able to write like that…only I don’t really want to be in a position that might provide the necessary intensity.

  3. Jack Flacco

    July 31, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Sullivan was an incredibly deep-feeling man. His writing is very lyrical and poetic. To know he had died a week after writing it gives the words all the more impact to their meaning. I’m pressed into researching more into his life. Thanks for sharing!

  4. tyrannocaster

    August 1, 2014 at 4:40 am

    Yes, that’s pretty much a one-of-a-kind post because there just aren’t a lot of similar things out there, at least not that I’m aware of, although admittedly I’m not a Civil War scholar. The first time I encountered the letter I was floored and I’ve never forgotten it. It really makes you want to find out about his wife and children, doesn’t it? The elegance of the writing contrasts so strongly with the strong subject matter, it’s just unforgettable for me.


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