When not hazed by barbecue fumes or the din of box-store sales, Memorial Day ceremonies tend toward the deification of soldiers, dead or alive. The worship is not entirely blameworthy. But it is more mask than reality. Soldiers never suffer the most in wars. Civilians do, disproportionately so. Yet we have memorial days and veterans’ days but no civilian victims’ days, just as almost every war grows monuments lush with glory and triumphalism, but no memorials to brutality, to the waste of human lives by way of inhuman means and mindless ends, to the losses the dead leave behind for their survivors to cope with.
At the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, visitors go through the trivialized “Decision Points Theatre,” where they get to virtually joystick their way to decisions about Iraq or Afghanistan based on a set of “intelligence.” That intelligence is limited to what’s provided to them, of course, to the exclusion of information, much of it known even then, that made neither war, particularly Iraq, necessary. The exhibit diminishes the president’s responsibility for the resulting horrors by buddying up to Everyday Joe’s judgments, creating a seducing but fraudulent equivalence, and again masking the hundreds of thousands of casualties that Bush’s war provoked.
We have always treated our wars as theater, the way Washington’s chic set massed to the first Battle of Bull Run on horseback and in carriages for a good spot, the way CNN created the same effect in people’s living rooms for the opening blasts of the first and second Gulf wars. It’s voyeurism. We want to see the bombs explode but not the body parts fly. It’s entertainment posing as information, as long as we don’t have to contend with the consequences. The memorials that follow are like the wars’ credit sequence, played to the sounds of a John Williams soundtrack. If we can’t exactly celebrate the wars themselves, so many of which have been lost of late, the soldier can always be celebrated in what Oliver Wendell Holmes described in a Memorial Day speech of his own as “a national act of enthusiasm and faith.” And if the soldier is implicitly taken to be beyond reproach (on faith, not on fact), then what reproach the wars’ execution deserve can be buffered by their reinvention through the marbled memories of museum exhibits.
There are exceptions to the schlock, like Ronald Reagan’s Boys of Pointe du Hoc speech in 1984 or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address six score and a year earlier. But even those speeches have a hard time humanizing the loss of a life at a personal level. By consecrating the dead with their larger purpose they exalt both, beautifully so, but they also give sorrow a sacred–a national–purpose, severing it from the grave and the once-beating heart within it. Hindsight hardens the distance. We have the benefit of knowing how the story ended. For the better, in both cases. The dead are all silenced stepping-stones to the nation’s triumph.
The rare exception is the voice of the soldier himself–the dead soldier, what he knew he was leaving behind, what sorrow he feels, and makes us feel, for the wife and children he will not only no longer see, but (what he grieves most) no longer support. That’s the farewell letter of Sullivan Ballou to his wife, on July 14, 1861, a week before he was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run.
Ballou knew a few things about sorrow firsthand. Born in 1829, he’d been orphaned early but went on to the elite Phillips Academy in Andover and Brown University, becoming a lawyer and rising to House speaker in the Rhode Island legislature. He might have been governor, or more. He had campaigned for Lincoln in 1860. Instead, he enlisted in the Union Army as soon as war broke out. He was felled by a piece of artillery during the Union rout at Bull Run, where Union soldiers lost 2,900 men, Confederates about 1,900. Ballou died a week later. Cpl. Samuel J. English, who served in the same 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, described in a letter to his mother the sort of conditions Ballou agonized and died in: “As I emerged from the woods I saw a bomb shell strike a man in the breast and literally tear him to pieces. I passed the farm house which had been appropriated for a hospital and the groans of the wounded and dying were horrible. I then descended the hill to the woods which had been occupied by the rebels at the place where the Elsworth zouaves made their charge; the bodies of the dead and dying were actually three and four deep, while in the woods where the desperate struggle had taken place between the U.S. Marines and the Louisiana zouaves, the trees were spattered with blood and the ground strewn with dead bodies.”
Ballou had married Sarah Hart Shumway in 1855. They had two sons, Edgar and William. Ballou struggled with the paradox of devotion to home and country. He remembers being an orphan himself and fears, as he writes his letter to his wife, that legacy for his own sons, “while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze.” But he could not see another way. “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.” He writes the letter as if to buck himself up for the battle ahead, but mostly as a eulogy, a justification for the unjustifiable, and for the unavoidable.
The letter was never mailed. He’d left it in a trunk in camp, though his widow received it shortly after his death. Ballou’s words draw their power not out of any pity we may feel for him. There is none–he wouldn’t hear of it and has none for himself–but from the awareness of sorrow that will survive him, and the tragedy, in the truest sense of the term, of his competing duties. As a memorial to the victims of war, who include survivors, especially civilians, the letter has few equals.
The full text is below.
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.
Originally published on Memorial Day in 2013.