According to a forthcoming biography on Sullivan Ballou: “At the age of thirty-four, less than ten years after meeting the love of his life, Sarah Shumway, Ballou left his law practice and budding political career, his wife and two young sons, and took a commission as a major in the Union Army.”
Sullivan Ballou would be long forgotten had it not been for Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. As the letter was read at the end of the first episode, the background music was a lament on fiddle entitled Ashokan Farewell—a hauntingly beautiful piece that I cannot hear too many times. (You can listen to a clip in Real Player or Windows Media.)
Here is the moving letter, in its entirely, that Sullivan wrote to his wife Sarah. It was written just a week before the Battle of Bull Run.
July 14, 1861
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow. Less I shall not be able to write you again, I feel compelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am 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 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. 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 depthless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break. Yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me. I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that I have enjoyed them for so long. How hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes our hopes and future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our boys grown 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, how foolish I have sometimes 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 fly unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you on the brightest day and the darkest night. Always. Always. When the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath. When the cool air caresses your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not morn me dead. Think I am gone and wait for me. 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.
Your loving husband,
Major Ballou was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run, a week after writing this letter, and after only two months of service.
Ravi Zacharias comments:
I wonder how many in today’s work-a-day-world could pen such timeless thoughts? This skill of words and beauty is part of the good news in our world. We must learn to read again if the heart is to be kept tender.
And no good news is as good for life and tenderness as the good news of the Gospel. The tear in the eye of the woman with the alabaster ointment won her a place alongside the Gospel. Her coarsened heart broke open before her Lord’s kind words of mercy. Our Lord Jesus, Himself, wept at the grave of a friend—not because He could not raise him from the dead, but because He could—and the tear was a revelation of a life that knew good so well that it wept when it could see even the temporariness of the bad.
Hope, said Eleanor Stump, is painful because it is yet to be. With that hope, we can weep for the tragedy of a life that sheds innocent blood because it barricaded itself from hope. Only in eternity will hope be in perfect fulfillment and weeping ended. A century ago the song-writer George Matheson understood this well and expressed it in the third verse of his magnificent hymn, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go:
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
In the face of such letters of despair I thank God for these beautiful words of hope.