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The Civil War Love Letter of Sullivan Ballou

Rhode Islander's last letter home was as deathless as his love

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Just before he died, Union Army Maj. Sullivan Ballou sat down in Washington, D.C., to write a love letter to his wife of six years, Sarah Shumway Ballou.

Sullivan Ballou

Sullivan Ballou

His regiment, the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, was about to go into battle. He did not have a good feeling about the outcome.

The date: July 14, 1861. He had 15 days to live.

Sullivan Ballou

Sullivan Ballou was born on March 28, 1829, to a prominent Huguenot family in Smithfield, R.I. His father died when he was four years old, and his mother subsequently struggled to support Sullivan and his two sisters.

He managed to graduate from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and attended Brown University for two years. He then went to the State and National Law School in Ballston, N.Y. The school moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1853. That’s probably where Sullivan Ballou fell in love with Sarah Shumway, who lived in that town.

He then eturned to Rhode Island, where he was admitted to the bar. He and Sarah married in 1855, and they soon had two sons.

Sullivan had an extremely bright future until the Civil War broke out. He was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives, chosen as clerk of the House and later as Speaker. He was a staunch Republican who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Sullivan Ballou Goes to War

When the war started, he felt he had to go. He enlisted on June 5, 1861 in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment and was commissioned a major. The regiment moved to Washington, D.C., where it joined the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia in Camp Clark.

When Sullivan Ballou got word they would march soon, he sat down and wrote his letter. It would survive for more than a century and become the centerpiece for filmmaker Ken Burns’ series The Civil War. He declares his love for Sarah and for his country in the poignant missive:

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.

A week later, Sullivan Ballou was fighting the First Battle of Bull Run. It was the first major battle of the war and a disaster for the Union. As he tried to rally his men, a cannonball struck him in the leg, tearing it off and killing his horse. He was carried to a field hospital where he died an agonizing death on July 29.  He was then buried next to his commander, Col. John Slocum.

The Letter

Sarah Shumway Ballou

Sarah Shumway Ballou, widow of Sullivan Ballou

He had never mailed the letter. He left it in his trunk, which was sent back to Sarah with the rest of his effects.

The Confederates left the battlefield in March 1862, which allowed Rhode Island Gov. William Sprague and 70 troops to retrieve the bodies of Union soldiers. They discovered the enemy had dug up the remains of Sullivan Ballou. In addition, they decapitated, desecrated and burned it.

The Rhode Island delegation gathered what remains of him they could find and took them home.  Thousands of people viewed his flag-draped coffin at the Armory of the First Light Infantry. He was then buried in Swan Point Cemetery.

Sarah never married again. She lived on a $29-a-month military pension and earned money teaching piano to young boys in Woonsocket. Eventually, she moved to New Jersey to live with her son. She died in 1917 and was buried next to Sullivan. The original letter, never found, probably accompanied her into her grave.

‘My very dear Sarah’

Here is the entire letter written by Sullivan Ballou:

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.

First Battle of Bull Run

Deathless Love

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.

Wait for me

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.


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Read more about Sullivan Ballou and his famous love letter, plus 14 more love stories of legendary people, in Love Stories From History. Click here to order your copy. 








This story about Sullivan Ballou was updated in 2024.

1 comment

Catherine Gilmore February 9, 2014 - 2:45 pm

What a beautiful, eloquent and sad letter

Comments are closed.

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