Friday, May 26, 2017

Friday Video: Maj. Sullivan Ballou's Final Letter to His Wife, 1861

Friday, May 26, 2017

Susan reporting,

It's hard to believe that Ken Burns's monumental documentary, "The Civil War", is now nearly thirty years old. Debuting in 1990, it captured the tragedy of the American Civil War with words, music, and images that many of us still haven't forgotten.

This is one of the most memorable segments: the final letter that Major Sullivan Ballou wrote home to his wife Sarah. Ballou served with the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, and like many of the war's soldiers on both sides, he'd left behind not only a wife and sons, but also a prospering career. He had been a respected lawyer and was House Speaker in the Rhode Island legislature when he enlisted to defend his country and his beliefs. This letter was never mailed, but was found in his belongings after he died from injuries after the First Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861. Ballou was 32 at the time of his death; Sarah was only 24, and never remarried. His words to her are eloquent and achingly beautiful, and so full of love that it hurts.

This weekend we mark Memorial Day in the United States. I hope that, in the middle of the picnics, sales, and pool openings for the holiday weekend, you'll pause for a moment and think of Major Ballou and all the other soldiers, from every war, who have made such sacrifices for us. More than ever, it's a message we need to remember, especially in an era where the world seems more unsure by the day.

If you received this post via email, you may be seeing a black box or empty space where the video should be. Please click here to view the video.


Unknown said...

I love the way you make history come alive.

Quinn said...

Thank you for posting this!

Gail said...

I remember the first time I heard this way back when it was first on PBS...I wept....and now again I wept

Annette Naish said...

What a wonderful man was Major Ballou. To love his country so well and treasure his wife so. I do remember this letter being read, I do remember thinking how sad it was. I have been to Gettysburg and I have recognized the spirits and emotions of those who lost their lives - from both sides. I come from a family who lost members in that war and the losses to those left behind were enormous.

This is what Memorial Day is, a remembrance of loss and lost love.

Roger said...

Please, I don't need to see the video, but I sure would like to read that letter.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Judith, thank you - that's high praise. For me, history IS alive, so I'm glad I'm able to share it.

Annette, I, too, have ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Some lived, some died, some were so badly injured that they were never the same afterwards. This letter has always touched me deeply, and I only hope it brought some comfort to Sarah Ballou.

Roger, You can read the entire, unedited transcript of the letter here:

Unknown said...

I too was very moved by this heartfelt letter. I am actually related to Sullivan's wife, Sarah Hart Shumway. She is my 4th cousin 3x removed. I recently read this letter to a group of reinactors; making a few of us teary- eyed. Thanks for posting.

Quinn said...

Had to come back to say a little more...
Noticing some differences in the narrated letter and the transcription you linked to, I looked for a digital image of the the original handwritten letter. As you probably already know, the original has never been found, but two ms copies are archived. Unfortunately, I could find no images of those either. But the first known publication of the letter was 1868 - it's been touching hearts for a very long time!
Ballou's body was eventually interred at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, and many years later his wife was buried with him under a stone that quoted the letter.
(I hadn't been to Providence in about 30 years, but by an odd coincidence that only seems meaningful to me, I photographed trees and stonework a couple of weeks ago at the gates of Swan Point Cemetery.)
Thanks again for posting this :)

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