In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d print a post I did about the beautiful love letter of Major Sullivan Ballou.
“If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. …Do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again…”
These lines from the famous Civil War letter of Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah capture the essence of a man’s love for his wife in the 19th century and were part of the inspiration for my historical fiction novel Shades of Gray. After reading this letter, I devoured letters, newspaper articles and diaries from the War Between the States to try to discover more about the romantic side of the Civil War.
Sullivan’s entire letter is, to me, a work of art, and is written with poignancy, passion and emotion. It is just one of the hundreds of letters, diaries and articles I studied, but this sentence, in particular, caught my attention. In it, Sullivan manages to convey, not only his love for his wife, but his firm belief in everlasting life. This intriguing theme is captured in many letters home during the Civil War and was what started me on my journey into the lives of times past.
There can be no doubt, that when some hear the term “Civil War,” their eyes glaze over as they think of reading about military strategies and battlefield reports. But, as I discovered in Sullivan’s letter, there was a human element – and most definitely a romantic element. The gallantry, chivalry and valor of this period in our nation’s history is unmatched. When reading about the tremendous hardship, sacrifices and suffering that every day people endured, one cannot help but be captivated.
Another sentence of Sullivan’s letter that enthralled me and contributed to the plot of Shades of Gray shows the patriotism that men of that era felt for their country. He writes:
“My love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield.”
For all of Sullivan’s love and devotion to his wife, his bond to country and conviction for duty drove him to service in defense of his homeland. This theme is recurrent in hundreds of other letters. Men, who cherished and respected their wives with an affection seldom seen today, still rushed to the battlefield in selfless devotion to duty.
The plot in Shades of Gray reflects the tremendous emotional conflict that men – and women – of the era dealt with. Confederate General James Longstreet (on whose shoulders it fell to order Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg) perhaps put it best when he wrote: ‘In the silent passages of the heart, many severer battles are waged than were ever fought at Gettysburg.’
If you are wondering what happened to dear Major Sullivan Ballou. He was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run, one week after penning the letter to his wife. Sarah, though only twenty-four at the time of his death, never re-married.
The inscription on Ballou’s tombstone reads:
“I wait for you there. Come to me and lead thither my children.”
Here is a link for the full text of the letter from Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War documentary that made the letter famous.