He’d come a long way in a short time – this son of New England.
Born in Smithfield, Rhode Island and educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he had committed his life to public service. He attended Brown University in Providence and the National Law School in Ballston, New York.
He was admitted to the Rhode Island Bar in 1853 and elected to the state legislature. The next year was elected clerk of the state House of Representatives. Soon he was chosen its speaker.
A teacher of rhetoric and oratory, Sullivan Ballou was a bright and gifted leader with a promising future.
He married Sarah Hart Shumway in 1855. They had two sons, Edgar and William.
Then the war came.
A strong opponent of slavery, Ballou immediately volunteered to fight for the Union cause. His friendship with Rhode Island’s governor got him commissioned as a major in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry and judge advocate of the state militia.
The Rhode Island 2nd was soon moved to Washington and joined up with the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia.
Surrounded by the hectic preparations for imminent battle, Major Ballou somehow found time to write his wife a letter. Whether driven by a premonition or simply an acute awareness of the uncertainty of his situation, Ballou penned his true heart to the woman he loved.
Filled with heartbreaking pathos and uncommon eloquence, this young soldier’s words elegantly express the shared feelings of devotion, fear, sacrifice, courage, loyalty and love that have been felt by every man and every woman who has ever gone to war for his or her country.
Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife Sarah has entered the pantheon of American history and literature as arguably the most famous and certainly the most beautiful letter ever written home by a soldier.
Major Ballou begins with direct candor:
“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 …”
The gallant major shares his devotion to his country and places it in the larger context of America’s unique history.
“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 …”
Then comes the angst of every soldier who faces battle – the competing love of family and country. The inner struggle of heart and soul; of gain and loss.
“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 battlefield.”
Ballou writes to Sarah of “the memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you … 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.”
Like any soldier, Major Ballou hopes and prays he’ll make it home alive – knowing, as anyone ever in a fox hole has known, that his survival is in God’s hands.
“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.”
The major concludes his extraordinarily beautiful letter with a poignant affirmation of his endless love – and an appeal to the comforting wonder and mystery of an unseen eternity.
“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 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 flit 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 …”
Major Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the First Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861.
He was 32 years old.
Sarah was 24.
Sarah lived on until 1917 and died at the age of 80.
She never remarried.
Sullivan and Sarah are buried side by side at the Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.
“ Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”