Sullivan Ballou — The Letter

In July of 1861 Rhode Island native Major Sullivan Ballou wrote home to his wife Sarah for the final time. He was killed a week later at the First Battle of Bull Run. Both Sarah and Sullivan Ballou are buried in Swan Point Cemetery. The letter reads in part:

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 bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The letter, which was never sent home, was featured in the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War” and created something of a sensation. PBS was inundated with requests for copies of the letter.

Born March 28, 1829, in Smithfield, Rhode Island, Ballou was educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and the National Law School in Ballston, New York. He was admitted to the Rhode Island Bar in 1853.

Ballou devoted his brief life to public service. He was elected in 1854 as clerk of the Rhode Island House of Representatives,[*] later serving as its speaker. He married Sarah Hart Shumway on October 15, 1855, and the following year saw the birth of their first child, Edgar. A second son, William, was born in 1859. Ballou immediately entered the military after the war broke out in 1861. He became judge advocate of the Rhode Island militia and was 32 at the time of his death at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.

“My love of country . . .”? Think of the ignoble inheritors of this man’s sacrifice currently in power: Men who did not heed President Eisenhower’s warning of the burgeoning military-industrial complex; the donor class of war profiteers who buy off our officials while cynically perverting patriotism to preserve our forever war; the old chicken hawks who casually send other people’s children into war. Has there ever been a sadder Memorial Day?

Widowed at age 24, Sarah never remarried. You can hear the last letter of Sullivan Ballou here.

To find the Ballou grave site, go to the directory of the notable persons interred at Swan Point Cemetery.

*Compare and contrast with our current Speaker of the House.

Below is the Ballou headstone.

1 thought on “Sullivan Ballou — The Letter”

  1. Nicely stated, and just the right amount of angry on the day that national service and sacrifice are meant to be honored but whose meanings have been forever debased. Enter bone spur comment here.

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