Of all the letters associated with the American Civil War, two stand out as arguably the most beautiful and touching – certainly the best known. Abraham Lincoln’s poignant, comforting note to a certain Mrs. Lydia Bixby, who had lost five sons to the conflict, is the first.
Perhaps even better known, and certainly as poignant, is the letter from Union Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah. Written one week before the First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run – as it was called in the North, the words are all the more heartbreaking when you realize that Ballou did not survive to go home again.
Below is the famous letter in its entirety. It deserves to be read and re-read not only for its bittersweet sentiment, but also for its sad acceptance of the realities of war and the perception of duty. It was a highlight of the PBS series, Ken Burns’ Civil War. Abridged versions of the letter have been preserved on recordings by numerous artists including, but not limited to Liam Clancy and this author.
July the 14th, 1861
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.
In most of the numerous writings about the letter, there is little mentioned about the man and the woman. Who were they? What happened during the battle? More importantly, what happened afterward? What follows will answer those questions and relate the story of the sad, ironic fate of Sullivan Ballou.
Sullivan Ballou was a direct descendent of Mathurin Ballou, an educated French Huguenot, who immigrated to America in the 1640s. Sarah’s ancestor, Peter Shumway, also from France, arrived with a group of refugees in the 1670s. The Shumway family history has it that Peter was on the same ship as Benjamin Faniuel, whose son, Peter, would go on to present the city of Boston, Massachusetts with its first centralized market, Fanuiel Hall, which still stands today.
Public service was a long standing tradition in the Ballou family. A cousin, Jabez Bowen, was married to Sarah Brown, of Brown University fame. Bowen had been Deputy Governor of Rhode Island from 1778 until 1787. For a time during the American Revolution, he had been an officer in the colonial army. He counted both the French Count de Rochambeau and George Washington as close friends. In later years, Bowen became Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
Sullivan was born on March 28, 1829 on the outskirts of Providence, Rhode Island in an area known as the Cumberland, to Hiram and Emeline Bowen Ballou. The Smithfield area was especially popular with Ballou relatives and became known as the “Ballou Neighborhood”.
Losing both his parents at a relatively early age, Sullivan was cared for by numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. For a time he was educated at the local school. Then, as an upperclassman in secondary school, he attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Upon graduation, he matriculated at Brown University, back in Providence.
He read for the law while teaching elocution at the National School of Law in Ballston, New York. In 1853, Sullivan was admitted to the Rhode Island bar and began his life in the legal profession.
Sarah Hart Shumway Ballou was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1836. She also lost her father during her childhood. Her family, like Sullivan’s, somewhat well to do, looked after her in different ways. She had an uncle who ran what was then known as a “female academy”. Although there are precious few details of her formal education, it is known that she was well read and intelligent. It can be reasonably assumed that even if she did not officially register at the academy, she probably did attend classes there. Even though we have no physical description of her from those days, she was recognized as being impartial, courteous, diligent and faithful by her contemporaries. These traits would certainly contribute to her being a desirable catch for a young man on his way up. By the mid 1850s, Sullivan Ballou was just that.
In 1854, with only one year of experience under his belt as a practicing attorney, Ballou began what would be a short, yet impressive career in public service when he became clerk of the Rhode Island House of Representatives at the age of 25.
Somewhere along the line, the paths of the up and coming representative and the attractive, proper, young Victorian lady crossed. On October 15, 1855, Sullivan and the 19 year old Sarah were married.
In August of the following year, their first son, Edgar Fowler was born. By this time another son, William Bowen, came along in January of 1859, Ballou was serving as Speaker of the Rhode Island House. He had been unanimously elected to that post in 1857. By any measure, the young man was a success. He was so popular that 1860, Ballou was nominated by the Republican Party to run for State Attorney General. Although he lost, as did all Republicans state-wide that year, his future looked bright.
Talk of secession and states’ rights had been around for a while by the time of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. The talk was loud and about to get louder. That Lincoln saw it as his duty to preserve the Union at any costs and vowed to do so in his inaugural address, pretty much guaranteed that there would be civil war. The only question was how long that war would last.
Two days after the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 volunteers who would enlist for 90 days to put down the rebellion. This was, in fact, the declaration of war. The 90-day enlistment period was indicative of the overall naiveté as to the gravity and reality of the situation.
According to Harper’s Weekly of April 27, 1861, William Sprague, the 31-year old “Boy Governor” of Rhode Island, who had been swept into office with the Democratic victories in 1860, sent a telegram that he would raise a regiment of 1000 men, with himself as leader, in answer to the national emergency.
West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, Ambrose Burnside was named Colonel of the State Militia, with immediate command of the 1st Rhode Island. Sullivan Ballou had been appointed Judge Advocate of the State Militia just prior to the war.
According to a table prepared by the War Department, the state only had to provide one regiment. However, in a show of patriotic fervor, Rhode Island immediately raised a second. With more realistic heads prevailing, the men of the 2nd Rhode Island were enlisted for three years rather than three months. A veteran of the Mexican War, the handsome and dashing John S. Slocum was promoted from Major to Colonel and named commanding officer of the 2nd Regiment. Slocum had been a prominent attorney and was a nationally known, outspoken abolitionist. As an ardent Union man and supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Ballou harbored no doubts as to his duty. He enthusiastically became second in command under Slocum.
On June 11, 1861, Ballou wrote to his cousin, Latimer:
Governor Sprague has tendered me the commission of Major…in the 2nd Regiment and I have accepted it.
The regiment trained for about a month at a camp outside Providence. On June 19, 1861, with Slocum and Ballou at the head of the column, the volunteers paraded down South Main Street to Fox Point. There they boarded a side-wheeled steamer and headed to New Jersey. From Port Elizabeth, they took the train south to Washington, DC. They arrived in the nation’s capital ─ full of excitement ─ a couple of days later.
The 2nd set up camp just off New York Avenue, NE, where the National Arboretum is located today. They christened their bivouac ‘Camp Clark’ ─ after the Episcopal Bishop of Providence, and settled in to await orders.
Shortly after their arrival, Ballou wrote to Sarah.
We are encamped in paradise. There certainly never was a more beautiful spot. It is an oak grove – trees all tall and large and the ground free of shrubs.
There followed several weeks of parading about for appreciative crowds and some little training. Ballou and other freshly minted officers spent their time studying Hardee’s Drill Manual, trying to learn how to be effective line officers. On July 11, President and Mrs. Lincoln paid a visit to the camp to keep morale up and to offer encouragement and thanks.
As in all military camps, nerves were on end and rumors ran rampant. Speculation about the location of what would be the first ─ and hopefully last ─ battle of the war centered on the railroad junction at Manassas, Virginia, 35 miles southwest of Washington. This railhead was of prime strategic value. Whoever controlled it would control the flow of materiel into the heart of the Confederacy.
On the 14th, Ballou would write to Sarah twice. In the first letter, he expressed the thought that he might be able to bring Sarah to Camp Chase for a visit as some of the other officers planned to do. There was hope that the regiment would remain at Washington for a while, and this was an accepted practice.
Later in the day, Ballou learned that in all probability they would not remain in camp very much longer. He realized that a visit from Sarah was out of the question. He was awakened to the sobering realities of war and to the possibility that he might not live through it. With these and many other thoughts tumbling over him, he went back to his tent, picked up his pen and wrote the letter that every soldier wished, indeed still wishes today, he had written. Once done, he opened his trunk and placed it inside with the letter he had written earlier. With that, he went back to the business of preparing for war.
Under the urging of his friend, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, West Point graduate Irwin McDowell, a staff officer who had never led men in battle, was promoted to Brigadier General and picked to command the Union Forces. Mc Dowell received his appointment only after Colonel Robert E. Lee had turned down the position, resigned his commission and went south to Virginia. Though his plan to seize Manassas was sound, his hope for a sweeping, one-stroke victory was unrealistic – especially considering the lack of experience in all quarters.
Ballou’s fatalistic letter notwithstanding, most on the Union side thought that the confrontation at Manassas would quash the rebellion in good order. Civilians packed lunches and made plans to ride out from the district in order to watch the proceedings. It would be a lovely day’s outing. Then, back in Washington, there would be all sorts of parties to celebrate the glorious victory. People were stirred up by editorials and front page stories. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune shouted ‘On to Richmond!’ Why, of course, they would be on to Richmond. But it would just be a mere formality, a mopping up ─ just a little walk in the sun.
In General McDowell’s favor, he did have some misgivings about the operation and asked the president for more time to train. President Lincoln, spurred on by forces around him that called for a quick victory, turned the general down. He reasoned, “You are green and they are green. You are all green alike.” Marching orders were given on July 16th. It wouldn’t be long now.
The 2nd Rhode Island was fully equipped. They even had their own cannon. They were also perceived to be better behaved, more steady, and better drilled than some of the other regiments. Therefore, they were given the honor to lead the march out of camp and to be in the vanguard in the movement to contact. Accompanying the troops, Governor Sprague was dressed in military uniform and wore a yellow plumed hat. Sitting astride a white stallion, he rode beside Colonel Burnside, who led the advance. This fact alone indicates how loose an attitude prevailed at this point. For although he had raised the regiments, William Sprague was still the governor of Rhode Island. He was a civilian ─ in uniform or not. In fact, one month later, Sprague turned down a brigadier’s commission to remain in office. In 1863 he would resign as governor, go on to become a U.S. senator for 12 years, and marry Salmon Chase’s daughter, Kate.
The Federals approached Manassas before dawn on July 21st.
The gallant young men of Rhode Island
Are marching in haste to the wars:
Full girded for strife, they are hazarding life
In defense of our banner and stars.
Of all the hosts that New England can boast,
From down by the sea unto highland,
No state is more true or willing to do
Than Dear little Yankee Rhode Island
Loyal and true, Little Rhody
Bully for you, Little Rhody
Governor Sprague was not very vague
When he said, “Shoulder arms, Little Rhody.
Reference: “High Road to Zion”, Mathias Harpin.1976
At about 9:15, the regiment had forded the stream named Bull Run and was facing Matthews’ Hill on the opposite side of the Centerville Turnpike. Shots were fired. The 2nd Rhode Islander charged up the hill toward the firing. They were alone at the front. The volume of fire increased. The 1st Rhode Island was put into action in support of the 2nd. The Confederate fire from Evans’ South Carolina Brigade and the 6th Louisiana intensified. On the opposite slope and waiting for the Yankees were the 8th Georgia, the 4th Alabama and the 1st Virginia.
As in most battles, confusion ruled the day. The 2nd continued to advance and return fire. At some point, Colonel Slocum dismounted and stood atop a rail fence at the crest of the hill in order to see what was going on and in order to be seen by his men so that he might rally them. The Confederates saw him as well. He was hit three times: in the ankle, the body and the head. His men managed to carry their mortally wounded commander off the field to a hospital that had been hastily set up at Sudley Church.
It was now about 45 minutes into the battle. At the top of the hill, Major Ballou tried to reposition some of his troops on the left flank of what appeared to be the battle line. Eyewitness accounts have it that when struck, he was on his horse, in front of his men with his back to the enemy, attempting to create some order out of the chaos. Sullivan never saw what hit him. It is believed that it was probably a rifled cannon shot, from a battery of Lynchburg Artillery. The shell blew a hole 7 inches in diameter through his horse’s body and reduced his right leg to pulp. Severely wounded but alive and conscious, Ballou was removed to the Sudley Church hospital, where his mangled leg was amputated.
By late in the day, Confederate reinforcements had arrived by rail from the valley of the Shenandoah. They advanced in force and managed to turn the right flank of the Federals. The Yankee line collapsed and all but evaporated. Along with it, hopes of a short war evaporated as well. The 2nd Rhode Island lost 93 – killed, wounded, or missing.
As it was reported by General McDowell, the battle turned from a mere defeat into a total rout of the Union troops. The road back to Washington, made worse by a driving rain, became clogged with a disorganized, panicked exodus of carriages full of congressmen, reporters, ordinary civilian men and women, and of course soldiers. The only reason why the Confederates didn’t pursue was that they were nearly as disorganized as the Yankees. Nearly, but not quite.
The Rebels did surge back and re-took the Sudley Church hospital. Dr. James Harris came out with a white flag to surrender the field hospital, its staff, and its complement of wounded to the victorious Confederates. Colonel Slocum and Major Ballou were among those left behind in the hospital.
On July 23rd, Colonel Slocum, who had been lapsing in and out of consciousness, succumbed to his wounds. He was taken outside and buried in a shallow grave on the hillside. One week later, after having been comforted in his final days by Episcopal Chaplain John F. Mines of the 2nd Maine, Major Ballou passed away. Orderlies removed his body and laid it to rest next to Slocum.
Back in Washington on the 24th, Colonel Burnside filed the following report.
Our loss has been very severe. The Second Regiment particularly
suffered greatly. The death of Colonel Slocum is a loss not only to
his own State, which mourns the death of a most gallant and
meritorious officer, who would have done credit to the service, while
his prominent abilities as a soldier would have raised him high in the
public estimation. He had served with me as major of the First
Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers, and when he was transferred to a
more responsible position I was glad that his services had been thus
secured for the benefit of his country. His associate, Major Ballou,
of the same regiment, was deserving of the highest commendation as a
brave soldier and a true man.
By March 19, 1862, the Confederates had withdrawn form the area in order to help counter General George McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Union troops were able to return to Manassas. Accompanying them was Governor Sprague and an entourage of seventy. They were on a mission to retrieve the bodies of those Rhode Island boys killed in the battle and hastily buried. They were to be returned to their home state for proper interment. Among Sprague’s group were Josiah Richardson, John Clark, and Tristan Burgess, who had been privates in the 2nd Rhode Island. They had voluntarily remained behind at Sudley Church to tend to the wounded and had been paroled back to the North.
It was Richardson who directed the exhumation party to the spot where he had participated in the burial of Slocum and Ballou. The men dug first for Slocum. They found loose earth but no body.
Standing nearby, was a young black girl who lived in the area. She told them that Colonel Slocum had been dug up by some Georgia boys, who then decapitated him, burned his body and used the coffin to bury a Negro civilian who had been killed in a recent skirmish. She pointed out where the body had been burned. The fact that the ashes were still there indicated that this act had taken place fairly recently. There were human bones in the ashes. There was no skull. Ironically however, in the nearby bushes, there were some clothes ─ two distinctive shirts ─ such as a Union officer might wear. Governor Sprague, who had known both men well, was certain that these had not belonged to Colonel Slocum, but to Major Ballou. Private Richardson agreed with the Governor.
The party returned to the site of the grave and dug for the other coffin. At just two feet, they struck wood. Opening the box, they found and were able to recognize the remains of 37-year old Colonel John Slocum. It was Slocum, alright. There was no mistaking his bright red moustache. Ballou was full bearded and brown haired. The realization of what must have taken place horrified the now suddenly silent party. To quote Dr. James B. Greeley, of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, who was among the exhumation detail:
Pretty obvious what happened. The 2nd Regiment cut up those Georgia boys rather badly, and they were sore at Slocum, the commanding officer. They just got the wrong body.
Another theory holds that although the Confederates were indeed ‘sore at Slocum’, it was more for his well known stance as vocal, adamant abolitionist in the ante bellum days than for any of the damage he had done to their ranks. Further, according to eye witnesses, it was troops from the 21st Georgia who wreaked their vengeance on the unfortunate Ballou. The 21st was not on the field at the First Manassas. It appears they were acting on behalf of the 8th Georgia, who did indeed fight there and were in direct contact with the 2nd Rhode Island.
Governor Sprague spoke with a woman who had acted as a nurse at the Sudley Church. She further testified about the depredations committed. She also presented the governor with a lock of hair, which she claimed to have cut from the major’s head.
Sullivan Ballou’s skull was never found. Colonel Slocum’s body and the remaining bones of Major Ballou were gathered up, as were those of as many of the regiment that fell that day as could be located. The personal effects of the two officers were collected and readied, along with their remains, for the trip back to Rhode Island.
There is one more ironic twist to the story. Major Ballou’s trunk was opened in order to place what remained of his uniform inside. Sitting where he had placed them on July 14th were the two letters Sullivan had written. Neither one had been mailed! It was Governor Sprague’s sad duty to hand carry what became famous as “The Sullivan Ballou Letter” back to Smithfield where he personally delivered it to the grieving Sarah.
But there is just a bit more. When Governor Sprague gave the letter and Sullivan’s effects to Sarah, she already had in her possession other letters from him. This would not be unusual save for the fact that they were all dated after July 14th , almost up to the point of his entry into battle. For some reason, Sullivan chose not to mail his beautiful letter. Maybe he meant it as a last will: in testament to his love of life, of God, of his country and of course, his family. Maybe it was meant to be read only after his death. It was certainly meant for Sarah’s eyes only. Such was not to be the case. And, in final irony, we are all luckier for the fact.
This loving couple, whom we know through the strength and beauty of one letter, has come to symbolize the conflicting feelings of duty, love, honor, and country. Sullivan and Sarah have no descendents today. However, that wonderful, marvelous letter speaks for us all. Maybe, therefore, in some way, we are all descendents of Sullivan Ballou.
Sarah never remarried. Eventually she left Rhode Island and moved to New Jersey where she lived quietly with her son Willie until her death in 1917 at the age of 80. At that time, she and Sullivan were reunited when she was laid beside the remains of her beloved husband beneath a fine obelisk in the Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.
- The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. II, p.400
- Brown University Alumni Quarterly (Nov. 1990): pp.38-42
- Virgil Carrington Jones, Gray Ghosts and Rebel Raiders, (New York, New York; Galahad Books, 1956), pp. 66-73
- R.U. Johnson & C.C. Buel, ed., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,(Edison, Hew Jersey; The Century Co, 1883), Vol. I
- The History Net
- William Safire, Freedom; A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, (Garden City, NY; Doubleday & Co, 1987)
Frank Emerson: “I’m a freelance writer specializing in history, humor and folk music. I’ve been published on sites and in magazines and publications such as Military History Now, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Learning through History, Bend of the River and On Patrol. For five years I was a researcher/writer for Remilon/Study.com. I am the co-author of Wythe County Virginia during the War Between the States and Clean Cabbage in the Bucket and other Tales from the Irish Music Trenches. I am the author of Frank Tells Tales and Wythe Bane Graham, 8th Virginia Cavalry, C.S.A.: Letters and Narrative of a Son of the Old Dominion.”