Civil War Dads


"Suffer hardship with me as a good soldier of Christ Jesus..." II Timothy 2:3-4


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Sullivan Ballou Letter


Few letters from the Civil War are more famous than that of Major Sullivan Ballou (left) of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers to his wife Sarah. An excerpted version, with minor word modifications, was featured prominently at the conclusion of part one of Ken Burns's landmark PBS documentary "The Civil War" and touched the hearts of millions of viewers. Due to the length of the original letter, Civil War Dads also features an excerpted version but with the original wording.


To put the letter in context it is helpful to understand a little more about Sullivan's background. His father had died when he was very young and he was raised by his mother in absolute poverty. Yet, Sullivan managed to get an education and become a successful lawyer. He was eventually elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives where he twice served as Speaker of the House. He was married to Sarah and had two young boys by the time he entered the Union army in June 1861.


When Sullivan wrote his letter, he was camped with his regiment near Washington, D.C. Rumors of an expected move south into Virginia against the Confederates had been circulating all summer. Those rumors were about to come true. Everyone expected one big battle to settle the dispute between north and south. That battle would take place near Manassas Junction, Virginia but with an unexpected result. An innocent nation, split in two, was about to launch into 4 bloody years of bitter fighting. 


 Below is the full, unedited text of Sullivan's letter. We won't spoil Sullivan's story by telling you what happened to him. Enjoy the letter and let your imagination go to work. Or, you may continue your research online or order our video to find out.


_____________ Sullivan's Letter _____________


July 14, 1861


Camp Clark, Washington


My Very Dear Sarah:


The indications are very strong that we will 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.


Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure – or 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 on 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 the principles I 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 for me it is 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 times 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, oh 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 our mothers I call God’s blessing upon them.


O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.


- Sullivan





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