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The Letter of Sullivan Ballou
Read At Shelley's Memorial Service, 19 October 2001, By Mssrs. Robert DeGross and William Taft
At the Request of Donn Marshall, Shelley's Husband

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. And lest I should not be able to write to you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more. Our movement may be one of a few days' duration and be 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 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 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 the only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable that while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, underneath, my unbounded love for you my darling wife and children should struggle in fierce though useless contest 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 the last, perhaps, before that of Death. And I am suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, and communing with God, my country, and thee. I have sought most closely and diligently and often in my breast for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of all those I loved, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have 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 bears me irresistibly on, with all these chains to the battle-field.

The memories of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come creeping over me and I feel most deeply grateful to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And how 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 boys grow up to honorable manhood around us. I know I have but few 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, nor that 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, how foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot on your happiness and struggle with the misfortunes 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 you 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 be always with you in the gladdest day and in the darkest night, amidst your happiest scene 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...


[Postscript: Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry was killed at the first battle of Bull Run on the 21st of July, 1861.]

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