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Voices From the Grave
Maj. Sullivan Ballou’s Last Letter to His Wife

| May 30, 2016

Maj. Sullivan Ballou

Maj. Sullivan Ballou

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.

–Pierre Tristam

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.

Sullivan

sullivan-ballou

Originally published on Memorial Day in 2013.

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8 Responses for Voices From the Grave
Maj. Sullivan Ballou’s Last Letter to His Wife”

  1. NortonSmitty says:

    What a beautiful and eloquent letter. Full of the questions and soul-searching reflections that every honorable soldier eventually asks about the horrible duties his country has asked him to perform in it’s name. To ask the primal reason he has sacrificed his soul for by breaking the First Commandment he was taught to worship from the from the he could speak, “Thou Shall Not Kill”. No asterisks or exceptions for doing it in any Bible I heard of because your Government and Politicians said it was ok. So if you have committed this Primal Mortal SIn, was it worth burning in Hell for eternity for? Was what your Country sent you to kill for really worth your immortal soul? That’s a pretty high bar.

    And that’s a pretty good question to ask as how today is Memorial Day. The day set aside to remember those of us who died trusting in the fact that our country needed us to try to kill the Enemy du Jour for it. Today, we are supposed to reflect on the fact that we sent some of our Brothers to roll Snake Eyes in this great martial crap game and their buddy next to them didn’t. And we should for this one day a year, remember that they died because we sent them in Harms Way for us. And to think deeply about how fucking downright wrong it would be if we sent them to their deaths for a cause that was not worth it, Not just.
    And across this great Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, it’s a joke to think that there is a measurable percentage of the population that had any resemblance of this silly thought cross their minds. If they think at all it is to make sure they perform the ritual Hero Worship of all things military. Because they’re Patriots.
    But today is for the fallen, not those of us who came back. I personally hate Memorial day. If I have one more person come up to me and thank me for my service I just may knock them on their ass. It;s not Veterans Day, it’s for the ones that didn’t come back. Those of us who did that I talk to want another holiday especially made for us. I’m thinking National Forgettin’ Day. The veterans need this. One day to say “It don’t matter what you saw, what you did or didn’t do, it’s in the past and you can’t change it, so forget about it already and force yourself to move on. One day a year. I don’t know if it will help, but it got to be better than forcing us to remember once a year.

    And it’s not only for us old farts like me. If we made it this far we have either come to grips with what we have done, are insane, or have no soul. But you may have read lately that there is a higher percentage of Iraqi and Afghan veterans committing suicide than even the VietNam vets of my day. I hate to say it, but when I read about the Sunni’s marching Shiite women and children across the bridges leading to Baghdad at gunpoint during the glorious Operation Iraqi Freedom and how our Abrams tank crews had no choice but to machine gun them and run over their bodies I kind of suspected some of those tankers might remember this in their future. As well as many others fighting a war in cities and towns that are one big Free Fire zone, where the only orders are to keep our casualties low so the American People won’t force us out of Iraq like the did in VietNam. because they are all sub-human terrorists that want to kill us all because they hate our freedoms. (Question: did you ever see a photo of one dead American or a close up of one dead Iraqi on the evening news? This is what caused the ordinary people to get fed up and force us out of VietNam. Who says the Military doesn’t learn?)

    So the Media is asking why these Hero’s would be killing themselves at this rate. And why aren’t getting the support they need to handle the horrible things the Muslims forced them to see? I’m afraid I know the answer to this mystery. These suicides are the good ones with a conscience. The ones who come home and reflect on what they saw, what they may have even done, what they were an undeniable part of, and it eats them alive.
    After getting away from the hype, the propaganda, the groupthink they thought was camaraderie, they look back at the horrible acts they performed against men, women and children, they remember the sights and smells (especially the smells) of dead, splattered human bodies and they have time to think about it. I won’t get into the particulars of what they did and considered normal, but if you look online you can find examples for days. War is hell, all of them, but this one seems to have been particularly brutal.
    But after coming home slowing down and reflection, it sinks in what they did. In our name. And the more they think, the more the only two emotions they feel are guilt and shame. And they can’t justify, can’t rationalize and most of all can’t forget. And they would do anything to make amends on the scale of their shame. So they kill themselves, thinking it will prove they really are human, really do have a sense of honor. It’s hard to understand. But if you have lived through it, it makes sense. To me anyhow.

    Here is but one example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rXPrfnU3G0 Watch the whole thing. I dare you.

    Now, how would you like to be one of the crew of that Apache? How would you like to think back on that day, let alone watch this video the rest of your life? Thinking about how you cheered and joked about killing unarmed men as your comrades laughed and made jokes about crushing the dead bodies under tanks? How would you feel when the little kids you begged to be allowed to open up on with your 30mm chain gun were carried out of the mini-van and the orders came down to let them die at an Iraqi police station instead of having a chance at life at an American military hospital?

    After living with that a few years, what could you possibly do to make amends? Knowing you could drink a quart of Draino at your families Christmas dinner and die foaming from every orifice and this still wouldn’t make a dent in the evil you have done, but maybe it would be a start. And that’s all you got to give.

    Anyhow, Happy Memorial Day! And don’t forget to support our troops!

  2. Rick Stevens says:

    Beautiful, Pierre …… Thanks for sharing this letter and your views on war and its losses. I for one concur on all counts.

  3. Magnolia says:

    We honor and thank all our veterans for their service and for their sacrifice in keeping us all free.

    Let Freedom Ring.

  4. Stuart says:

    though thats your pov. That shalt not kill – well that was given in a society that was involved in military conquest. Did Jesus rebuke the centurión or Peter either and tell them to get anothet job. If breaking any of the 10 Commandments is a mortal sin then we are all stuffed (and actually whrte does it say that thou shalt not kill is the 2nd Commandmentnt). The only good soldier is one who commits suicide? Which is of course by some lights also a mortal sin. Guess with your pov no point in evangelising any serving or ex military or police if they have ever discharged their weapon, been a FOO or RTO that has transmitted a fire plan or the intell officer for an attack as they are screwed.

  5. yellowstone says:

    What is particularly appalling is the idea that I an 18-year old kid right out of High School has any f***ing idea what he has just signed up to do “give my life in its defense” Just what did that mean?
    Well, years later, and many friends lost, it meant that I was able minded enough to stand up for America and get shot – like fodder. Blinded by patriotism!
    The really troubling aspect as I look back on VNam. As this war was promoted by those who had ‘no skin in the game’ themselves. As I have reached this old age of 70+ I am constantly met with guys my age who never served. Where were they when God, Honor, and Country called?
    All this war business is just that – business. There are profits to be made by killing. The collateral damage is our youth. Murder is MURDER!
    God bless America.

    Now go thank a Vet today – at the VA – or at a cemetary.

  6. Sherry says:

    Thank you Pierre and thank you Norton Smitty.

    With tears stinging my eyes. . . one thought looms. . . those of our political leaders who authorized the killing of others do so much more easily because it is, unfortunately, extremely rare that their personal children, brothers, sisters or dear ones are sent off to fight for our country. That needs to change!

  7. Veteran says:

    Those of you against war, remember, if not for wars we fought we would all be slaves, communists, or under some totalitarian rule, but not free. Their sacrifices allow you anti war folks the freedom to spout your unpatriotic crap.

  8. My thoughts says:

    Ya’ll dust off those Bibles and thumb on over to Exodus Chapter 20, verse 13. Seems “Do not murder” (Holman Christian Standard Bible translation) is #6. Number 1? The hardest – love God.

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