Friday, March 30, 2012

A Letter of Love and Duty

An email:

Byter Doug sent me a variation on last words, to wit, a last note.  He comments that “a Union soldier wrote this to his wife to be delivered in the event of his death. It wasn't sent, but was found on his body. Beautiful and unlikely to be surpassed in this Twitter age.”

It is coincidental that his email should arrive at this time in that my wife and I have been watching the complete series of North and South, the American Civil War drama that was produced in 3 parts in 1985, 1986 and 1994.  It features a very young Patrick Swayze and Kirstie Alley, plus a host of big name stars in smaller parts.

Sullivan Ballou and Sarah Shumway:

Here are some comments on the letter and its author.

Sullivan Ballou (1829 –1861) was a lawyer, politician and major in the United States Army.  Despite losing both his parents and having to fend for himself at an early age, he graduated in law and began practice in 1863.  Ballou had an interest in politics, was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives and served as speaker.  He was a staunch Republican and a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and a strong believer in the Union.

Ballou married Sarah Shumway in 1855 and they had two sons, Edgar and William in 1856 and 1858 respectively.

When the American Civil War broke out, Ballou immediately volunteered for military service with the Rhode Island Infantry.  He and 93 of his men were killed in the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.  At the forefront of the battle mounted on a horse, he was badly injured by cannon fire which took off his leg.  The rest of his leg was also amputated but he died a week later and was buried in the yard of a nearby church.  His body was subsequently exhumed by Confederate soldiers, decapitated and desecrated.  The body was never recovered.  In place of his body, charred ash and bone believed to be his remains were reburied in a cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.

About the letter:

Ballou’s letter to his wife was never mailed.  It was located in his trunk after he died and was delivered to Sarah by William Sprague, the Governor of Rhode Island, after he had travelled to Virginia to collect the effects of dead Rhode Island soldiers.

Sarah, aged 24 at Ballou’s death, never remarried. She later moved to New Jersey to live out her life with a son, William. She died in 1917 and is buried next to her husband.

The original letter no longer exists but there are handwritten copies.  It is believed that these handwritten copies were given by the sons of Sullivan and Sarah to their fiancĂ©es.

In the letter Ballou expresses his worry, fear, guilt, and sadness, and the pull between his love for Sarah and his sense of duty.

The letter is now considered to be one of history’s most beautiful and moving love letters (although I must confess I found the comments about spirits hanging around and watching to be a bit creepy and a bit stalkerish).

The letter is sometimes set out in a condensed version but I have elected to post it in its entirety.  To quote only Sullivan Ballou’s expressions of love towards Sarah is to do him a disservice, the paragraphs about duty, love of country and  likely death are equally important.

The letter:

July the 14th, 1861
Washington D.C. 
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. 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. 
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 brightest 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. 


  1. Do you know where the picture of Sarah comes from ? I am very interested. Will you please email me at



  2. Hi Ana

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