Outside of Washington at Camp Clark, approximately two thousand Rhode Island volunteers are drilling, preparing and waiting. Anxious and likely nervous as to their fate, many take this time to write to their loved ones.
Thirty-two year old Major Sullivan Ballou, a highly educated lawyer and promising state politician, had joined the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry over a month ago. Earlier today, Ballou had written his wife Sarah as he had been working on arrangements for her to come visit him in Washington. But throughout the course of the day the rumors about upcoming battle plans have become prominent and hard to ignore. Tonight, Ballou pens a second letter to his wife. In a more somber tone, he writes what is in his heart, as he may not have a chance to ever write or see her again.
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 again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movements may be of a few days duration and full of pleasure – and it may be one of some conflict and death to me. “Not my will, but thine, O God be done.” If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle field 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 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.
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 fruits of orphanage myself, I must offer it as the only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, that while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and fondly in the breeze, underneath my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children should struggle in fierce, though useless contests with my love of Country.
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm Summer Sabbath night, when two-thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying perhaps the last sleep before that of death, while I am suspicious that death is creeping around me with his fatal dart, as I sit communing with God, my Country and thee. I have sought most closely and diligently and often in my heart for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have so often advocated before the people – another name of Honor that I love more than I fear death, has called upon me and I have obeyed.
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 burns me unresistably on with all these chains to the battle field.
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 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 battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and your children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, 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 gladdest days and in the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, 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 thee, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys – they will grow up 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 dim memories of childhood. Sarah I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work.
Tell my two Mothers I call God’s blessing upon them. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children.
Almost 130 years later, this letter will be immortalized in Ken Burn’s documentary “The Civil War.” For many, Ballou’s words represent what countless men must have also felt as they sat in their camp at night, away from their loved ones and the life they knew, with an impending battle ahead where hundreds – and often thousands – would die, never to return home again.
Ballou does not send the letter, but instead puts it in the trunk with the rest of his personal belongings.