Sullivan Ballou

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Sullivan A. Ballou
Sullivan Ballou.jpg
Lithograph of Sullivan Ballou
Born(1829-03-28)March 28, 1829
Smithfield, Rhode Island
DiedJuly 29, 1861(1861-07-29) (aged 32)
Sudley Church, Virginia
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnited States Army
Union Army
Years of service1861
RankUnion army maj rank insignia.jpg Major
Commands held2nd Rhode Island Infantry
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War

Sullivan Ballou (March 28, 1829 – July 29, 1861) was a lawyer and politician from Rhode Island, and an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He is remembered for an eloquent letter he wrote to his wife Sarah, one week before he was killed in the First Battle of Bull Run.

Early life[edit]

Ballou was born the son of Hiram (1802–1833) and Emeline (Bowen) Ballou, a distinguished Huguenot family in Smithfield, Rhode Island.[1] He lost his father at a young age. In spite of this, he attended boarding school at Nichols Academy in Dudley, Massachusetts and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After graduation from Phillips, he attended Brown University, where he was a member of Delta Phi, and went on to study law at the National Law School, in Ballston, New York. He was admitted to the bar in Rhode Island and began practice in 1853.

Ballou married Sarah Hart Shumway on October 15, 1855. They had two sons, Edgar and William.[2]

Ballou was active in public affairs. In 1854, soon after beginning his law practice, he was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He was chosen as Clerk of the House, and later as the Speaker. He was a staunch Republican and supporter of Abraham Lincoln.[3]

Civil War[edit]

After the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Lincoln called on the states to provide 75,000 militia troops to put down the rebellion.

Ballou promptly volunteered, and encouraged others to do so as well. He was commissioned a major in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment.[4] He was third in command of the Regiment, after Colonel John Slocum and Lieutenant Colonel Frank Wheaton. He was also appointed judge advocate of the Rhode Island militia.

The 2nd Rhode Island soon moved to Washington, and joined the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia. On July 21, 1861 the regiment took part in the First Battle of Bull Run.

As a senior officer, Ballou went in front on horseback to better direct his men. He was hit by a cannonball from a Confederate six-pounder cannon, which tore off part of his right leg and killed his horse. He was carried off the field, and the remainder of his leg was amputated. The Union Army was defeated and retreated to Washington, and Ballou was left behind.

Ballou died from his wound a week after the battle, and was buried in the graveyard of nearby Sudley Church. He was one of 94 men of the 2nd Rhode Island killed or mortally wounded at Bull Run. He was 32 at the time of his death; his wife Sarah was 24.

The battle area was occupied by Confederate forces, and Ballou's body was allegedly exhumed, decapitated, and further desecrated by Confederate troops (though most historians attribute this story to Northern wartime propaganda); his body was never recovered.[1] In place of his body, charred ash and bone believed to be his remains were reburied in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.[5]

Sarah remained a widow and never remarried. She later moved to New Jersey to live with her son, William. She died at age 82 in 1917; her remains are buried beside her husband's.[3]

Letter to Sarah Ballou[edit]

In his now famous letter to his wife, Ballou endeavored to express the emotions he was feeling: worry, fear, guilt, sadness, and the pull between his love for her and his sense of duty to the nation.

The letter was featured prominently in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, where a shortened version of it was paired with Jay Ungar's musical piece "Ashokan Farewell" and read by Paul Roebling. The documentary excluded many of Ballou's personal references to his family and his upbringing.

July the 14th, 1861

Washington D.C.

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.

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.

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.


The letter may never have been mailed; it was found in Ballou's trunk after he died.[6] It was reclaimed and delivered to Ballou's widow by Governor William Sprague, either after Sprague had traveled to Virginia to reclaim the effects of dead Rhode Island soldiers, or from Camp Sprague in Washington, D.C.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b Jones, Evan C. (November 2004). "Sullivan Ballou: The Macabre Fate of an American Civil War Major". America's Civil War. TheHistoryNet. Retrieved 2015-08-30.
  2. ^ "Dispatch Delayed", Washington Post, July 8, 2001. Transcribed at Accessed October 20, 2006.
  3. ^ a b The Sullivan Ballou letter. (2002)
  4. ^ Combined Military Service Record
  5. ^ "A History of Swan Point Cemetery". Swan Point Cemetery. Retrieved March 26, 2014.
  6. ^ Brown University in the Civil War. A Memorial. Providence Press Company: Providence, 1868. OCLC 457190959.

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