In the spring of 1861, Sullivan Ballou was a 32 year Major of the Second Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers. He was a man who had overcome his own family's poverty and had achieved significant status as a lawyer and state representative in his young life. He married his wife, Sarah, and they had two young boys, Edgar and Willie. When the war between the states became unavoidable, Sullivan volunteered out of a deep sense of love for his country and a unique conviction of honorable manhood.
We know about Sullivan Ballou today because of a letter he wrote to his wife Sarah. He, like many other soldiers, wrote a letter in the event of his death. It was never mailed home but it was found among his things and faithfully and sadly delivered. Soldiers still write these letters. They express his deepest values and his deepest love with the hope, dim as it may be, that it would never need to be read. From the date of its writing, we know that Sullivan penned it just days before the first major engagement of the Civil War, the battle of Bull Run.
The letter, when read, has a haunting beauty. There is a sense that you are reading something ultimately personal and that you should not be reading it. Yet, there is something gloriously inspiring about a man's love for his wife, children and country. People don't speak or write that way anymore, but after reading it, you will wish it was still a practice. Sullivan Ballou could be dismissed as a mere romantic, the product of his gilded age. I rather believe that, hidden in the dusty stack of history, he is an example of honorable manhood and thus worth reading.
Sullivan Ballou wrote this letter on July 14, 1861, waiting for orders to move out to the Virginia town of Manassas, where he and twenty-seven of his men would die one week later. The letter was retrieved from his things by the Governor of Rhode Island and delivered to his wife Sarah.
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?
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 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 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.
If Sullivan's letter is an example of honorable manhood, and it is, then we can benefit from his heartfelt expression. Honorable manhood has these elements: a profound and well nurtured faith in almighty God who is sovereign over the affairs of men, a deep love for a woman that is seen as God's gift to a man, and an overwhelming love for a man's children welded to a profound sense of responsibility to pass honorable manhood on to them. Honorable manhood finds it roots in the soil of God's eternal truth, the Bible. Honorable manhood believes and acts out of conviction. Sullivan Ballou lived what he believed. Honorable men are willing to fight for what is right and die, if need be, for the cause of liberty. Let living men strive to such heights and let us be willing to live what we believe.