Friday, December 17, 2010

A Soldier's Last Letter

While looking for a recipe the other day, I came across an old yellowed newspaper clipping which I had stuffed in a cookbook with some loose recipes. It features a letter dated July 14, 1861 (a week before the Battle of Manassas), which was written by a Civil War soldier to his wife.

The letter was read at the close of the first episode of Ken Burns's 1990 made-for-television mini-series called The Civil War, and, after numerous requests from readers, the Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger newspaper printed it.

Written by Major Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island, it is one of the most beautiful and inspiring love letters I have ever read, and I would like to share an excerpt of it today.

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 O 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 ....

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 .... 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 ....

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 often 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 me, 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


Sadly, Major Ballou was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run later that year.

I found this reference in Wikipedia, concerning the fate of his letter to his wife:

The letter may never have been mailed. It was found in Ballou's trunk after he died, and it was reclaimed and delivered to Ballou's widow by Governor William Sprague, either after Sprague had traveled to Virginia to reclaim the effects of dead Rhode Island soldiers, or from Camp Sprague in Washington, D.C.

3 comments:

Deb said...

wow..I can see why you kept it...and you picked a perfect time to post it...I hope your Christmas season is as wonderful as you are...I am so proud I have found your blog...I truly enjoy all your posts...

Deb
:)

Pat said...

Janie, how sweet and powerful this letter. Thanks you so very much for sharing.

All the best to you and your family, this Christmas!

racheld said...

THank you, Janie.

I'll be back to read this at another time---my heart and body are still too tender from the season and the sickness to be able to withstand the expression of this much power and love right now.

rachel