Monday, April 04, 2011

Sullivan Ballou's Civil War Letter to His Wife

Most of us recognize that letter writing is a dying art. A number of things can probably be cited as contributing to this, most of them related to advances in technology. The decline in the art of letter writing may have begun with the introduction of the telephone. E-mail has certainly contributed to it. It seems to me, though, that the death blow has probably been dealt by the phenomenon of texting, which seems to seek to use as few actual words as possible, while still communicating a thought.

These technological advances, while providing some very positive enhancements to our lifestyle, have cost us something.

Following is a letter written almost 150 years ago by Sullivan Ballou, a soldier in the Union Army during America's Civil War, to his wife, Sarah. It not only provides a look into the heart of the man who wrote it, but it is a wonderful example of what letter writing used to be.

July the 14th, 1861
Washington DC

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 0 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?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death -- and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and "the name of honor that I love more than I fear death" have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

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 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. 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 garish 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 thee, 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 as a result of wounds received during the ensuing battle.


  1. Oh --what a fabulous letter, Linda. Almost made me cry.

    I love reading the old letters. Since I do Family History, I love reading the old letters written by some of my ancestors. SO interesting...


  2. Oh my, I'm almost speechless, so sad, yet so beautifully, beautifully written.

  3. Betsy - Mr. Ballou's letter brought a little moisture to my eye, too. :)

    Deborah - Considering your own talent with words, I'm not surprised that you enjoyed this. It's a bit of word art, isn't it?

  4. Sad tale , PBS has started the Civil War series again. Last night they mentioned lots of letters were sent, the frenzy made many want to get their thoughts to the family least they not return.

    I sent my grandmother a letter every week while she was alive starting when I was a teen.My roomate in college sent one every day to his sweetie. They used penny stamps so some could be reused if they didn't get postmarked. Sounds silly since stamps were 6 cents then.

  5. Steve - Actually, it was while watching that PBS Civil War series that I first heard this letter. That's what gave me the inspiration to look it up on the internet and republish it here.

    I love that you faithfully wrote to your grandmother all those years. And I, too, can remember trying to salvage stamps that the postmark had missed.

  6. I write this through misty eyes.

    This letter was so moving that I could almost see Sullivan's hand and surely beautiful script. I saw the men sleeping around him, saw the flickering lantern light as he paused to wipe tears from his cheek, lest they fall onto the paper. And with your last sentence, I saw Sarah, inconsolably weeping as she held the letter in her hands, little hands tugging her long skirts: "What's wrong, Mama? Why are you crying?"

    I was so very moved by the story that I forgot for a minute why you had posted it.

    Yes, I most definitely agree. Just as calculators have taught a generation that need not know how to add and subtract, word technology has been detrimental to our skills as conveyors of the written word. We haven't the time for such prose; we don't need to spell, for we have SpellCheck; we don't need to polish our penmanship, for we use keyboards; we don't even have pencils that need sharpening.

    How sad for all of us.

  7. Well, I completely forgot that I came here to say thank you for the sweet compliment on my Elvis sketch!

  8. ethelmaepotter! - You have a wonderful way of painting pictures with your words. I suspect that you have perfectly described the scene as Sullivan was penning this final letter to his beloved and then, later, as Sarah received and read it.

    You're very welcome for the compliment on your Elvis sketch. I think it's very good. I was a huge Elvis fan as a teenager. He made my heart sing. :)

  9. Wow, what-ever happened to men anyway Not enough well-spoken-from-the heart ones left hanging around :}

  10. Entre Nous - Sadly, it's not just men who have lost the ability to communicate so intimately through the written word. I think most women would also find it difficult to express themselves so well. Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  11. So eloquent and touching. You're right about that kind of letter writing going out of style, but just think -- we're writing for many to read! So, okay we may not be eloquent, but we are still leaving a recorded history. Maybe we wouldn't consider it a FAIR exchange, but at least there IS one. :)

  12. Sandra - Hmmmm. Hadn't really thought about that history thing in regard to my trivial stuff. That's a little intimidating. :)


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