Civil War – Sullivan Ballou’s letter
Camp Clark, WashingtonMy 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 gladest 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 frolicks 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. Sullivan
Sullivan Ballou fought for the Union at Bull Run. His letter home, though never sent, said it all.
By Michael S. Zbailey
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 8, 2001; Page F01
IN WHAT IS NOW THE NATIONAL ARBORETUM, 140 years ago this week, Maj. Sullivan Ballou sat in his tent among 2,000 other Rhode Island volunteers. The spot was no less beautiful then than now. He gazed at the tranquil, parklike setting where the white, conical Sibley tents of the soldiers looked like tepees gleaming in the moonlit night. Overwhelmed by thoughts of what loomed ahead, Ballou began to write a letter to his wife in Rhode Island:
“July 14, 1861, Camp Clark, Washington
“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 — [or] it may be one of some conflict and death to me. . . . And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government. . . . 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.”
The Civil War had begun three months earlier in a brief clash in South Carolina at Fort Sumter. There had not as yet been any pitched battle between the North and South. Many had the untested view that the war would be more an adventure than a bloodletting. But Ballou was not among them. Even in this lovely spot on a calm summer night, his feeling of doom was powerful. He wrote to his wife of six years as if he were a condemned man:
“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.”
Sarah Hart Shumway was an intelligent, proper young lady in the way of her time. Born in New Preston, Conn., she was 19 when she married the sensitive and stalwart 26-year-old attorney from Rhode Island on Oct. 15, 1855. Their first child, Edgar Fowler Ballou, was born just 10 months later, and their second, William Bowen Ballou, two years after that. By any measure, Ballou had been a success.
Now 32, he had a thriving law practice and was already a former speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, and was an ardent supporter of Abraham Lincoln. He had every reason to hope to return, and return quickly — most of his comrades thought the war would be short, and a rout in the Union’s favor — but his words suggest he believed his death in battle was a foregone conclusion:
“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! . . . 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 . . . 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.
“O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children.”
Ballou finished writing and placed the finished note in a large trunk with some of his other personal belongings. Though he obviously had some strong premonition about his own fate, Sullivan Ballou could have never imagined what would become of his letter.
On Sept. 23, 1990, the desperate letter to Sarah Ballou was read to viewers in 9.1 million homes at the conclusion of Part 1 of Ken Burns’s landmark television documentary “The Civil War.” The letter touched contemporary Americans, and Sullivan and Sarah became celebrities.
“Sullivan Ballou’s letter to Sarah expresses what every man wishes he could say to his wife and it is what every wife would like to hear,” Burns says now. Burns never expected the letter to have quite the impact it did, but he placed it at the climax of the first episode for a reason: “It communicates what the stakes in the war really were,” he says.
Though millions were moved by the letter in just the way Burns had hoped, viewers would never learn the details of what happened in the fateful two weeks after Sullivan Ballou put down his pen.
Enlisting With a Heavy Heart
Like thousands of others in the first flush of patriotic fervor, Ballou, who had no prior military experience, made the leap. He wrote to his cousin Latimer Ballou on June 11, 1861: “Governor Sprague has tendered me the commission of Major . . . in the 2nd Regiment and I have accepted it.”
The First Rhode Island Volunteers began as an emergency assemblage of three-month enlistees, formed by the wealthy, flamboyant 31-year-old governor, William Sprague. Ambrose Burnside, a transplanted West Point graduate from Indiana, was placed in command. A second Rhode Island volunteer regiment, with a three-year enlistment, followed. Col. John Slocum, who had been commended for bravery in the Mexican War, was given command.
But even in the first flush of enlistment, Sullivan, who was raised by a single mother after his father’s death, could not share the naive enthusiasm of many of his comrades. “The bare thought of leaving my wife and boys is full of intense pain,” he wrote. “I have seen too many trials of the widowed mother not to fear for my own little boys . . . and my wife.”
After less than a month of training in Providence, the 2nd Regiment was deemed ready to go to war. Wearing their newly issued uniforms — blue flannel shirts, gray pants and forage caps, a uniform designed by the stylish Burnside — the freshly minted troops marched out of camp on June 19. Huge crowds lined the streets of Providence to see them off. With Col. Slocum and Maj. Ballou in the lead, they paraded down South Main Street to Fox Point and boarded the side-wheel steamer State of Maine, headed for Washington and the war. From Port Elizabeth, N.J., they completed the journey by train.
“Hurrah we are in Washington and what a city! Mud, pigs, geese, . . . palaces, shanties everywhere,” wrote a 19-year-old corporal, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, as he arrived with the 2nd Rhode Island on June 22. The troops immediately marched to Gales Woods and set up camp. They called it Camp Clark, after the Episcopal bishop of Providence, Thomas Clark. To Sarah, Sullivan wrote: “We are encamped in paradise. There certainly never was a more beautiful spot. It is an oak grove — the trees all tall and large and the ground free of shrubs. At the back door of my tent . . . my good horse Jennie.”
Today, Ballou might have the same reaction: The camp was located on what are now the grounds of the National Arboretum just off New York Avenue NE. With flowers, shrubs and trees everywhere, this is still one of the most beautiful natural spots in Washington.
The 2nd Rhode Island hardly had time to get settled when the parades and cheering began again. On June 24, the brigade marched to the White House and was reviewed by the president. Cpl. Rhodes commented: “As we passed the White House I had my first view of Abraham Lincoln. He looks like a good honest man.” Drills and parades continued throughout the week and, on July 11, President and Mrs. Lincoln visited the 2nd Regiment at Camp Clark.
The Confederates occupied territory just south of Washington, and the populace, the press and the politicians, including Lincoln, were demanding quick and decisive action by the Union army under the command of Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell. McDowell had never commanded troops in battle, and he was pleading for more time to train his raw and inexperienced army. Lincoln responded: “You are green and they are green also. You are all green alike.”
The first great battle of the war was expected to take place about 30 miles to the southwest of Camp Clark, near the important railroad junction at Manassas, which would be defended at a meandering, muddy little stream called Bull Run.
Early on July 14, Sullivan wrote the first of two letters that he would write to his wife that day. With a friend, Capt. S. James Smith, Sullivan was making plans for Sarah to visit him in Washington: “As long as our camp remains here, though we leave it for a short time, I shall live in hope of having you here. Capt. Smith of Woonsocket and I have formed a plan to bring our . . . wives here, and we have not given it up.”
That evening, as the rumors of the movement into Virginia became more intense, Sullivan went to his tent and wrote the other letter to Sarah, the one Ken Burns would immortalize.
Crossing Enemy Territory
The marching orders were finally given on Tuesday, July 16, and Camp Clark bustled with activity. The troops filled their haversacks with three days’ worth of salt pork and hard bread. Ballou readied Jennie and stored his remaining belongings, including the trunk with the letter. The largest field army ever assembled in North America was on the move as 35,000 soldiers rose out of the camps around Washington and marched out of town.
Col. Burnside commanded the lead brigade, made up of the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island regiments, the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers and the 71st New York Militia. Crowds waved and cheered on the streets of Washington as the troops departed.
Gen. McDowell joined the brigade as it crossed the Potomac over the Long Bridge at 14th Street, and the 2nd New Hampshire’s band derisively played “Dixie” as the troops stepped onto Virginia soil. Fort Runyon protected the bridge on the Virginia side. Nothing remains today of the bridge or the fort. Busy interstates at this place now carry speeding traffic across the river, and the currently named Long Bridge is a railroad bridge.
On Wednesday, the blazing sun beat down on the troops as the 2nd Rhode Island moved out in heavy uniforms poorly suited to the summer heat. The troops trudged down the Columbia Pike and the Little River Turnpike to Annandale, where they camped in a beautiful meadow. From there, the road to Fairfax Courthouse was especially pleasing, with plenty of blackberries for picking. Ballou wrote to Sarah, “We expected a fight at Fairfax and approached with extreme caution [but] the enemy departed in great haste leaving most everything.”
One of his men climbed to the roof of the courthouse and removed the Confederate flag. After a strenuous chase in a nearby yard, Cpl. Rhodes captured a rooster for his supper. Now obliterated by the sprawl of the suburbs, the rural setting is long gone, but the stately brick courthouse remains as it was in 1861.
Unaccustomed to conserving food, the troops consumed their rations too quickly and Sullivan lamented to Sarah, “I would give one hundred dollars if I could get a good meal.”
Private citizens were milling around the camps — congressmen, newspaper reporters, picnickers and society ladies from the capital. Gov. Sprague was also traveling with the troops. Small and thin, he wore military dress and a large hat with a yellow plume.
The Rhode Islanders advanced to Centreville on July 20. That evening, Gen. McDowell held a final council with his senior officers. A new crisis had arisen: The three-month enlistments, including the 1st Rhode Island, were expiring the next day. Though the Rhode Islanders chose to remain on duty through the battle, regiments from Pennsylvania and New York refused, breaking camp to return to Washington. Against Burnside’s recommendation that there be no advance given the loss of manpower and the inexperience of the remaining troops, McDowell gave the order to move in the morning.
That night, as they lay awake scared and excited only a few miles from Manassas Junction, the soldiers could hear the Confederate trains bringing in reinforcements. By day, the opposing army would be equal in size to the invading force.
An Ill-Timed Assault
McDowell’s plan was straightforward but required precision in its execution. He would feint an attack at Stone Bridge in front of the Confederate line and then sneak two divisions, 13,000 men, to the west across Bull Run at Sudley Ford to fall on the left flank of the Confederate line. The critical flanking movement would be led by the men of the 2nd Rhode Island, which had come into existence only six weeks earlier.
The drums beat assembly at 2 a.m. on Sunday, July 21, and Sullivan Ballou formed up the troops in moonlight. Even before sunrise the heat was becoming oppressive and the movement of the troops was slow and ponderous. Choking dust hung in the hot air. Soon the road became little more than a cart path, and the 2nd Rhode Island had to use axes and shovels to clear trees and underbrush so that the rest of the division could pass. The night march with inexperienced troops, already fatigued from the earlier marches, became a confused mass of men and equipment. A wrong turn added three unnecessary miles. Ballou and his fellow officers struggled to keep the troops moving as men dropped out of the formation to rest or to pick berries.
Col. Nathan “Shanks” Evans commanded the left side of the Confederate line. Evans was a 37-year-old West Point graduate who had seen service in the West. “If Nathan is the best officer in the Confederate army,” wrote a member of his staff, “he is at the same time about the best drinker, the most eloquent swearer and the most magnificent braggart I ever saw.” Evans’s orderly carried around a gallon drum of whiskey, which Evans freely utilized.
Early in the morning, Evans’s brigade sparred with the Union forces feinting at his front. Very quickly he surmised that the enemy had no intention of attacking him. At the same time a lookout noticed movement toward Sudley Ford and reported it to the colonel. On his own initiative, Evans pulled two cannon and 1,100 men from his already small force and charged toward Sudley Ford to cut off the Federals. Due to the slow pace of the Union advance, Evans had time to get his troops to the ridge along Matthews Hill. They now had a clear field of fire down the slope to the road that the 2nd Rhode Island would use to advance.
Col. Slocum and Ballou were at the head of the column as the fording of Bull Run began. Both men and horses, thirsty and hot from the long hot march, stopped to drink from the muddy stream and the nearby Sudley Spring. It was 9:15 when they emerged from the woods about one mile from the ford. Shots rang out. Slocum’s regiment was ordered to attack. The regiment advanced up the hill alone and unsupported.
The fire was heavy from both sides. Charles Hutson was on the hill firing down on the Rhode Islanders: “Never have I conceived of such a continuous, rushing hailstorm of shot, shell and musketry as fell around and among us.”
Hunter personally led the attack but was quickly wounded and carried off the field. Gov. Sprague and Col. Burnside had their horses shot out from under them.
Col. Slocum began to climb over a split-rail fence and was shot in the head and ankle. Slocum fell near Cpl. Rhodes, who helped carry him to a nearby farmhouse.
“With the sponge from my cap,” Rhodes said, “I wiped the blood from his head. . . . I took the door from its hinges with my gun screw driver and assisted in carrying him on this door to the ambulance.”
As men melted to the bloody ground all around him, Ballou gripped his reins and urged his troops to advance. Just minutes into his first battle, a large ball burst from one of the Confederate cannon on the hill and struck Ballou, killing his horse and smashing his leg to pudding.
He and Jennie fell heavily to the hot, dusty, blood-soaked ground. Ballou was carried by his men back to the field hospital at Sudley Church, where the surgeons were just beginning the grim task of attending to the wounded. Ballou’s case took little consideration: They cut off his mangled leg.
The battle raged for hours. The much larger Union contingent forced a Confederate retreat, but Evans’s bold maneuver had bought valuable time as reinforcements continued to arrive. Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson and his Virginia troops finally turned the tide of the seesaw battle on Henry Hill. An officer named Barnard Bee encouraged his troops by pointing at the stalwart figure atop a white horse and shouting, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”
Now Confederate troops surged back toward Sudley Church, and Dr. James Harris cautiously approached the rebels with a white flag of surrender. Ballou and Slocum, desperately wounded, were in Confederate hands.
The Union army was forced to retreat. The troops — still mixed with the horror-stricken remnants of the picnickers and congressmen — joined in a mad dash toward Washington. McDowell reported that “the retreat soon became a rout, and this soon degenerated still further into a panic.”
Confederate Capt. Delaware Kemper and his artillery came to a rise overlooking the confused mass of Union troops crossing the bridge at Cub Run and opened fire. Capt. Smith, the officer who, with Ballou, had planned to bring his wife to Washington, was in the retreating army. Cpl. Samuel English of the 2nd Rhode Island described the scene: “As we neared the bridge the rebels opened a very destructive fire upon us, mowing down our men like grass. . . . Our artillery and baggage wagons became fouled with each other, completely blocking the bridge, while the bomb shells bursting on the bridge made it rather unhealthy to be around. As I crossed on my hands and knees, Capt. Smith, who was crossing by my side at the same time, was struck by a round shot . . . and completely cut in two.”
Today, where the busy four-lane U.S. 29 passes the Assembly of God church, it makes a slight dip as it crosses Cub Run. The small stream is not visible from the highway, and a traveler cannot tell that a bridge is there. A historical marker, impossible to read at highway speeds, stands at the side of the bridge. The rise above the highway, now the site of Bull Run Elementary School, is where Kemper opened fire.
The disorganized flight continued through a driving rain, which continued into Monday as the bedraggled troops recrossed Long Bridge and slumped back into Washington. Soldiers slept on sidewalks, lawns and porches. Citizens ladled out soup.
Back at Sudley Church, Slocum was conscious but could not speak. He died two days later. Ballou, the tough achiever and romantic poet, clung to life.
He lasted one day more than a week, and died on July 29. His body was removed from the church and buried in a shallow grave near his commanding officer. Sudley Church, rebuilt twice since the Civil War, still commands the hill overlooking Sudley Ford, which can no longer be seen through the thick forest. Matthews Hill, where Ballou and Slocum fell, slopes gently upward and gives no hint of its significance in the first major battle of a long and agonizing conflict.
In all, 2,896 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or missing at Manassas, including 114 of the 1,000 men in the 2nd Rhode Island.
A witness to the battle told President Lincoln that the federal troops really won a victory and that he should not be discouraged. Lincoln responded, “So it’s your notion that we whipped the rebels, and then ran away from them?”
Horace Greeley, the powerful New York newspaper editor, who had encouraged the war, now wrote to Lincoln pleading for an armistice. Many in the South thought that they had won the war.
Mistaken for a Colonel
Eight months after the battle, the Union again sent a large army toward Manassas. This time, the Confederates did not contest the area and quietly withdrew. Gov. Sprague immediately went to the battlefield with Pvt. Josiah Richardson and several others to recover the bodies of Col. Slocum and Maj. Ballou.
Sprague described the events: “We commenced digging for the bodies,” he said. “Some Negro women said that ‘Colonel Slogun’ had been dug up by the rebels, his head cut off, and his body taken to a ravine thirty or forty yards below, and there burned. We went to the spot designated, where we found coals and ashes and bones mingled together. . . . We returned and dug down at the spot indicated as the grave of Major Ballou, but found no body there; but at the place pointed out as the grave where Colonel Slocum was buried we found a box, which . . . was found to contain the body of Colonel Slocum. The soldiers who had buried the two bodies were satisfied that the body which had been taken out, beheaded and burned, was that of Ballou.” The grief-stricken governor then recounted: “We gathered up the ashes containing the portion of his remains that were left, and put them in a coffin.”
On March 31, 1862, bells tolled, cannon boomed and flags were lowered to half staff in Providence. Businesses closed to honor Slocum and Ballou. Bishop Clark presided at the funerals in Grace Church, and, with full military honors, the men were buried the same day, three days after what would have been Sullivan Ballou’s 33rd birthday.
Ballou was among the first casualties of a war that would claim the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers. His name and personal sacrifice would eventually be submerged into those numbers. As the war escalated, a second Battle of Manassas, also called Bull Run, was fought over the same ground 13 months later with 19,500 killed or wounded, dwarfing the numbers of the first battle.
After Bull Run, the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment became one of the most illustrious units in the Union army. The 2nd participated in every major engagement in the East, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Sailors’ Creek and the Defense of Washington, and it was at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.
In 1863, William Sprague, one of the wealthiest men in the country, was elected to the Senate. That fall he married the beautiful and vivacious Kate Chase, the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. President Lincoln attended the wedding, the highlight of the social season in Washington.
Sprague became a heavy drinker, and Kate was linked by gossip to another member of the Senate. In 1879 Sprague attacked Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York with a gun while Conkling was a guest at Sprague’s estate in Narragansett, R.I. Kate and William divorced in 1882.
Ambrose Burnside moved up in rank quickly after Bull Run, becoming a major general with command of the entire Army of the Potomac in late 1862. At the time Burnside insisted that he did not have the ability to command such an army, and he proved himself correct with his bungling of the attack on Fredericksburg in December 1862. He was immediately removed from command, but after the war, he was elected governor of Rhode Island.
After Ballou’s death the personal effects in his trunk, including the letter that was never mailed, were delivered to Sarah. The power of the letter was recognized even then, and handwritten copies were made. Many of those copies exist today, with slight variations from one to the other. The letter also appeared in publications shortly after the war. The location of the original letter is unknown.
“To this day I have never stopped getting mail about The Letter,” Burns said. “I have kept my now worn-out copy in my wallet for the last 11 years, but actually I don’t need it because I have the letter memorized.”
Burns has his own theory on the location of the original letter. “I think,” he says, “that Sarah showed it to some friends who copied it, but the original is still with Sarah. Wouldn’t you take a letter like that to the grave with you?”
At the age of 25, the widowed Sarah was forced to make do on the $25 per month and $2 per month for each child granted by a grateful government. Sarah taught piano and, in 1875, became the secretary of the Providence School Committee, where she served until 1899. She eventually moved to East Orange, N.J. to be near her grown son, Willie. She died in 1917 at the age of 81. She never remarried.
On a pleasant spring day with a light rain falling, Sarah was laid to rest in Swan Point Cemetery next to her husband. “Sarah,” Sullivan once wrote, “do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.”
from The Washington Post, Sunday, July 8, 2001
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