Commentary

Saunders: Soldier’s 1861 letter reminds us of the power of eloquence

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJuly 13, 2014 

  • More from Ballou’s letter

    This is more of the text of Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his dear Sarah.

    “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.

    “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 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. 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. ...

    “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 frolicks with him among the dim memories of 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 blessing upon them. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children.”

    Sullivan

Mark Twain. Langston Hughes. Ernest Hemingway.

If there’s a holy trinity of American writers, that would be mine. They are, to paraphrase another great American writer – Barry White – the first, the last, the everything of American literature.

None of them, though, wrote anything more beautiful than the letter written on this date, July 14, in 1861, by a Civil War soldier from Rhode Island named Sullivan Ballou. In one brief letter, he wrote the greatest love letter ever written to a woman or to a country.

After writing to say that his Union troop may be moving soon from Washington, D.C., he told his wife, Sarah, that he had “no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged.

“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. ... 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.”

Upon first reading the letter, it’ll strike you as remarkable that an unlettered Army grunt could wax so poetically romantic. Turns out, though, that Ballou was very much lettered, having attended a prestigious academy and graduated from Brown University and then from law school. Because he loved his country and wanted it to survive, he volunteered and enlisted with a commission as a major.

That made his battlefield missive even more impressive, because you wonder why someone that erudite didn’t try to get a deferment or send some poor slob to fight in his place – a common practice during what some called The Battle of Northern Aggression.

As he lay dying, North Carolina Col. Isaac Avery of Burke County wrote an equally eloquent, though briefer, note. At Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, Avery was shot in the neck and paralyzed on his right side, so with his left hand he scrawled on a piece of scrap paper stained with his blood, "Major, tell my father that I died with my face to the enemy. IE Avery".

He died the next day. Avery had attended UNC for one year but dropped out to run his father’s slave plantation in Yancey County before going off to war. Avery’s brother, Alphonso, who also fought, later served as head of the law school at Trinity College – now Duke University.

Not all Civil War soldiers were as educated or wrote as poignantly as Ballou and Avery, and if you read some of their letters to the homefolks you find out that they’ve been in the “horsepittle” or had to fire their “rafel.” That makes them even more poignant.

Even the ones who had not mastered the language or the rules of grammar and spelling, though, were able to express themselves with a clarity that is missing from text messages sent by supposedly educated people. There were no OMGs, no LOLs, no ROFLMAO. (If you have to ask, don’t ask.)

“Blogging” wasn’t even a word during that period – it shouldn’t be one now – so soldiers writing to their loved ones didn’t use emoticons to express their emotions. They used words. Imagine that.

That doesn’t mean you can’t read a Civil War battlefield blog. LeRae Umfleet of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources has been sending actual letters as tweets for three years and will continue until 2015, which will be the 160th anniversary of the war’s end. They are from the soldiers, but also to the soldiers from wives, mothers and fathers.

“We were trying to think of different ways to share stories of the Civil War with citizens of the state,” Umfleet told me. “Civil War stories are usually the stories of the soldiers and the battles, but I wanted to give a perspective from the people of the homefront. ... They didn’t have CNN or Twitter to tell them what was going on. These letters were the only way” to stay abreast of what was happening, she said.

Whether the subject was love, loss, heartache or flirtation, Umfleet said, “The spoken word and the written word were a bit more formal than it is today.”

Ain’t it the truth?

Umfleet’s blog, which can be read at www.civilianwartime.wordpress.com, has been popular.

“I’ve heard more than once that it’s presenting history in a text, not a textbook,” Umfleet said. “People don’t read books anymore, so I’ll take whatever I can get to share North Carolinians’ story with folks. ... People all over the world ... are reading my blog and they care about North Carolinians’ experiences in the Civil War.”

Ballou, realizing that death could arrive with the next Confederate musket ball, wrote, “If I do not (survive) 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. ...

“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.”

OMG.

Sullivan Ballou was killed at the Battle of Bull Run a week after penning that masterpiece. It was never mailed, but was discovered among his possessions after Rhode Island’s governor went to the battlefield to retrieve his state’s fallen soldiers.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service