HONORABLE MANHOOD: MAJ. SULLIVAN BALLOU, 2D RHODE ISLAND INFANTRY
His parents died when he was a small child. He managed to educate himself well: Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Brown University for undergraduate work, National Law School in New York. He was called to the bar in 1853 at the age of 24.
He was elected to the Rhode Island legislature and eventually served, briefly, as Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was a strong Republican and aligned himself closely with the cause of emancipation and of Lincoln. When the war broke out, he signed up for service with an infantry regiment and was in Washington, DC, in July of 1861, where his unit prepared for deployment–the First Battle of Bull Run.
Ballou is famous for his last letter to his wife, which was movingly read in The Civil War, the 1990 Ken Burns history series.
The letter, given here in full with spelling as the original, best transmits the profound ambivalence of one of the Tattered Remnant who must choose between the love of his life and the fulfillment of his duty.
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. Our movements may be 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 battle field 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 your’s, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows, when after having eaten for long years the bitter fruits of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, that while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, underneath my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children should struggle in fierce, though useless contest with my love of Country.
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm Summer Sabbath night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying perhaps the last sleep before that of death while I am suspicious that Death is creeping around me with his fatal dart, as I sit communing with God, my Country and thee. I have sought most closely and diligently and often in my heart for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have so often advocated before the people — ‘the name of honor, that I love more than I fear death,’ has called upon me, and I have obeyed.
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 irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battle field.
The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you, come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and you that I have enjoyed them so long. And how 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 boys 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 battle field, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes 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 buffit the storm, 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 gladest days and the darkest nights, advised to 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 cools 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.
As for my little boys — they will grow up 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, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work.
Tell my two Mothers I call God’s blessings upon them new. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me, and lead thither my children.
"Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the First Battle of Bull Run."
It must be noted: after its burial, his body was dug up and desecrated by Georgia troops who wanted a Yankee officer's skull as a souvenir. What they left behind–charred bones, a blanket, and a shirt–were returned to Rhode Island. They were given burial with the highest state honors.
Sarah never remarried. She lived to the age of 80 and now lies in the grave next to his at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI.
They left no living descendants.