On July 21, 1861, Sullivan Ballou was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run.
As I write this on Memorial Day, I am thinking about the great sacrifices made by others before me and but for their service, my life, our lives, would quite possibly be very different. So why is Sullivan Ballou important, today?
Born in Smithfield, Rhode Island in 1829, Sullivan Ballou devoted his life to public service in Rhode Island and to the Union. He married Sarah Hart Shumway and they had a couple of kids. Ballou entered the military as a judge advocate after the Civil War started. He was only 32 at the time of his death.
A week before he died at Bull Run, Ballou wrote a letter to his wife, arguably the greatest love letter of all time and one that she did not know of or read until it was presented to her by the governor of Rhode Island after the war. In part it reads “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. 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 with all those chains to the battlefield.”
Perhaps foreseeing his death, he put into words, what every writer aspires to write. With acute lucidity, he elevated the complex concept of love beyond just the romantic. Love of family. Love of government. Love of cause. Even love of having a clarity of purpose. His words have always struck a chord with me and reinforced that the true essence of something is most often defined, purely. Without craft or agenda.
This notion of public service – whether it is in service of country or just in helping our neighbor, is equally virtuous but often forgotten. The time around Memorial Day serves as a reminder to do more for each other. But certainly, this notion should extend to all days. Sullivan Ballou wrote a staggeringly beautiful letter to his wife, yes, but to infinite time as well, gently imparting that it’s not about me and that it’s not about you.
It’s about us.
Extra: Here is the Sullivan Ballou Letter segment from The Civil War by Ken Burns