It’s the year for revisiting the Civil War, and also, alas, for “revisioning”—according to current sensibilities—how the war should be remembered. A recent casualty of the blogosphere skirmishes is the famous letter from Union major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah, written a week before his death in the first battle of Bull Run. (The full text of the letter is available here.) Thus, James Lundberg observes that the letter “demonstrates that the sentimentality of 19th-century romanticism can still jerk a tear.” Although rising in worthy support of the letter, Alan Jacobs defends mainly its elevated prose style, adding only, concerning its substance, that “there are far worse things to get gooey about.” We would say something more in defense of the letter and its remarkable content, intellectual no less than emotional. Ballou not only addresses the relation between the claims of civic and private life. He also provides an inspiring example of true courage, which enters battle fully cognizant of its costs, especially to those one loves and leaves behind.
Ballou speaks of his two great loves, love of country and love of Sarah. At first glance, these loves appear to be strictly in conflict, the second willingly sacrificed to the first. However, closer reading makes one wonder whether it is not, in part, the blessings of private life, made secure by the American republic, that inspires Ballou’s grateful commitment to defend “American Civilization.” One wonders also whether it is not his steadfast, “deathless” love for his wife, still binding him to her as he heads for battle, that inspirits him to face the threat of death on behalf of his love of country. Perhaps we have become too sophisticated to countenance or too embarrassed to engage in serious and heartfelt talk about such fundamental matters. But we suspect that our best men and women in uniform will find nothing gooey in Ballou’s letter. They may lack the words Ballou had, but they know that he speaks for them.
Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, along with Diana Schaub, are editors of a new anthology, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech and Song. Sullivan’s Ballou’s letter appears in their book, in the section on “The Virtues of Civic Life.”