The Passing of America

One of the most stirring moments of Ken Burns’ Public television classic, The Civil War, was David McCullough’s reading of a last love letter written a week before the first battle of Bull Run by Major Sullivan Ballou of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers to his wife Sarah, at home  in Smithfield.

By simply changing the word Sarah to America, five times, the letter has the quality of a forlorn epitaph, as if looking at the inverse, through a mirror. Sullivan Ballou confronts his own mortality. Major Ballou’s revised letter reminds me of qualities and characteristics of that unique American spirit where love of family and love of country are inextricably intertwined; as I am haunted by the passing of the America I grew up in and loved:

July 14,1861
 Camp Clark, Washington DC

Dear America:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days - perhaps tomorrow. And lest I should not be able to write you again I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more.

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 American Civilization now leans upon 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.

America, 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 [you] comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes and future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.

If I do not return, my dear America, never forget how much I loved 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 sometimes been!...

But, 0 America, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in the darkest night... always, always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

America do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again...”

Major Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the 1st Battle of Bull Run. (First Manassas.)
Sullivan Ballou’s letter was never mailed. Sarah would receive the letter in question. It would be found later, among Major Ballou’s effects when Rhode Island Governor William Sprague traveled to Virginia to retrieve the remains of Rhode Island’s sons who had given their “last full measure of devotion”.

When Major Ballou died, his wife, Sarah, was 24. She later moved to New Jersey to live out her life with her son. Sarah never re-married. She died at age 80 in 1917.

Sullivan and Sarah Ballou are buried next to each other at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI.

 America was buried yesterday under the tyranny of socialism, we just haven’t felt it … yet.

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