This haunting letter is believed to have been written July 14, 1861 by Major Sullivan Ballou, a volunteer in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry during the Civil War, a week before the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia. This abridged version is excerpted from Henry S. Burrage's 1868 volume, Brown University in the Civil War: A Memorial.
Sullivan Ballou’s brief life was dedicated to public service. After his death and burial on the battlefield, his body was apparently disinterred by Confederate soldiers, desecrated and burned. His remains were recovered and re-buried near his home in Rhode Island. U.S. Army Military History Institute photo.
My Very Dear Wife:
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 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 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.
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 care and sorrows, …. 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 with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistably on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful 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 know I have but few 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, nor that, 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, how foolish I have oftentimes 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. ….
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 garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours--always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again….
Sullivan Ballou died two weeks after this letter was written, from wounds suffered at the First Battle of Bull Run. This battle also claimed the lives of 4,700 other soldiers. Ballou was 32; his wife Sarah was 24 at the time. She lived to the age of 80, but never remarried. They now lie side-by-side in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.