When I was about 14, Ken Burns’ weeklong documentary The Civil War aired on PBS. I was already in love with the Civil War (and Abraham Lincoln) so of course I watched every moment of it. It’s an absolutely wonderful piece of filmmaking, whether you’re initially interested in the period or not.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m posting a love letter from Civil War soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife, which I first heard on the documentary and which, so moved, I quickly transcribed that night onto a brown paper lunch bag, having no other paper near me (I’m not sure why I did have a lunch bag near me).
In any event, here is my all-time favorite love letter, with apologies to my husband:
July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington
My very dear wife:
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 a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more . . .
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 on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings 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.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me 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 with all those chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how 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 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 and foolish I have sometimes been.
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 gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always. And if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; as 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.
Sullivan Ballou was killed one week later at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.
*To hear the letter read aloud beautifully as heard on the documentary click HERE.
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