150 years ago today, the war started

Three months later, a soldier who was about to go into battle wrote the following letter to his wife.

July the 14th, 1861
Washington D.C.

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 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.

Sarah, 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 comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memory 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 Sarah, 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, O Sarah, 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.

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


A solid shot from a Confederate cannon tore off Sullivan Ballou’s right leg a few days after he wrote the above letter, and he died a week later. Soon afterwards, rebel soldiers exhumed and mutilated his body, which was never recovered. Sarah didn’t receive the letter until a year later when the governor of his state traveled to Virginia to bring home the remains of Rhode Islanders who died in battle.

Tell me, when you consider the history of warfare, which wars would you have been willing to die for? I wish I could look at what my nation has become and consider the 620,000 lives we lost in the Civil War alone to have been worthwhile, but I can’t. On one level, I envy the love that people like Ballou hold for this country, but on another, deeper level, I just consider them to have been suckers, well-meaning and heroic suckers to be sure, but suckers nonetheless. We don’t deserve what they gave. We never did.


Kay Dennison said...

While I can see your point and our country has its problems, I still think this is the greatest country in the world. That said, we've gotten lazy as a people and have allowed the powerful (and stupid) to take over. I don't think what's happening now would set well with my multi-great grandfather and uncles who fought in the Revolution. I'm wondering if it isn't time some House (and Senate) cleaning before the middle class is completely decimated.

(Wonder of wonders! It looks like this comment might get through.

Marion said...

The war of words is the only one I would die for.

A friend once told me that she thought that men loved war because they don't bleed and that women, because we bleed monthly, don't. I still think that was a profound statement.

I've missed you, Snow. I hope you're doing well. I already have huge tomatoes on my vines here and my Moonflowers are sprouted.

Love & Blessings,

"The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker." ~Albert Einstein

Snowbrush said...

Kay, I often hear that America is "the greatest country in the world," but I have no idea what it means especially given that we're certainly not "the greatest" in terms of happiness, healthcare, education, life-expectancy, or average annual income, all of which are qualities which I would identify with greatness.

Marion, I've been by, my dear, but not recently for sure since I'm hurrying mightily to get everything in order for my shoulder replacement this week.

ellen abbott said...

and we're still fighting it only now it is between the conservatives and the liberals. sometimes I think it would have been better all around if this country had split into two or even three nations.

Elephant's Child said...

I can't think of any war that I consider worth the death and destruction that goes with it. And I was interested in your comments about 'the greatest country in the world'. The same applies here when someone (usually a politician) uses the words 'unAustralian'. They are somehow trying to ascribe all positive values to all Australians which is just so WRONG.
I will have all my digits crossed that your surgery is sucessful.

Elephant's Child said...

I know I commented earlier but I have been wandering around since with a phrase revolving round in my head that was on bumper stickers when I was a yoof. 'Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity'.

Lee Johnson said...

Your post reminds me of the recent headline: 46% of Mississippi Republicans think interracial marriage should be illegal. It's sad that after all the lives and all the years, this is all the progress we've made as a people.

Snowbrush said...

Ellen said: "sometimes I think it would have been better all around if this country had split into two or even three nations."

I don't know, Ellen, really I don't. Having small countries hasn't done much to prevent warfare in Europe, so I'm not optimistic that it would here either.

Elephant's Child said: "I was interested in your comments about 'the greatest country in the world'."

So, you get some of it in Australia too? I can't say that I'm surprised because despite my frequent criticisms of America, I never imagine that we hold the market on anything--bad or good. Still, "America is the greatest country in the world," is pretty close to a mantra among conservatives here, but I haven't a clue what they mean by it, especially since we're so demonstrably NOT the greatest by many measurable standards. Since wars are typically caused by greed, nationalism, and religion--whether separately or in combination--to be forever chanting "USA, USA, USA" (often literally) at the top of one's lungs just strikes me as another aspect of America's warmongering culture. Arrogance is no less an embarrassment on a national level as on a personal one.

Lee said: "46% of Mississippi Republicans think interracial marriage should be illegal."

I wonder how this compares to Republicans from other areas. I also wonder how they define interracial. For example, if you're 10% black and you marry a 100% white, is that an interracial marriage? How about Asians and whites--or Asians and blacks--do they see that as being as bad as blacks and whites? And let's not forget the ever-growing number of Latins. In any event, having lived most of my life in Mississippi, I don't consider the number sad at all, but rather indicative of how breath-takingly fast social change can occur. Of course, the problem is that it can occur rapidly for evil as well as for good. You'll recall that Germany had a reputation as culturally sophisticated, highly educated, and even socially progressive prior to Hitler.

rhymeswithplague said...

I am shocked (shocked, I tell you) that you, Snowbrush, atheist of Oregon and such a close friend of Madalyn Murray O'Hair that she asked you to call her Grandma, have published a letter that mentions God not once but twice, that dares to proclaim a) that the dead soldier and his widow shall meet again and (b) that the cool air fans her throbbing temple it will be his spirit passing by.

Of course, the writer did say "If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love," a proposition you undoubtedly find ridiculous.

Still, the letter is a beautiful one, and I thank you for including it in your post. It is certainly another indication of how much this country has changed, and not for the better, in my opinion.


Joe Todd said...

Well done Snow.. Appreciate the "heads Up" about Vicksburg.Sullivan sure could write a letter.

TDR said...

Hi Snow,
That letter by Sullivan Ballou is a masterpiece. I first head it read in Ken Burns documentary series "The Civil War". It was very moving then and it is moving now.

I didn't know the circumstances of his death, and what was done to his body afterwards, that is horrific.

I'm not American. And I don't know what wars I would have died for. It is hard to talk about such a thing without sounding like a pompous armchair general. But I hope that I would have been prepared to die to protect my family, my society.

While Australia, like America, is a country that was relatively recently stolen from its original inhabitants, that doesn't change the fact that I think it would have been worth dying to prevent it becoming part of the Empire of Japan. Whether I would have had the courage to do so, I guess we will never know.

Putz said...

agreed agreed agreed<<><>

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Always interesting and thought provoking. While I hate war... what about WWII. I feel this country was lured into that one. And I'm very proud of my father and my uncles for what they did!

Snowbrush said...

Rhymes said: I am shocked (shocked, I tell you) that you...have published a letter that mentions God not once but twice."

Oh, Rhymes, you just don't know. This letter was fairly dripping with religiosity in what might have been its original version, but the version that I used was the condensed one that was read in the Ken Burns' documentary. Unfortunately, the original no longer exists, so what he actually wrote is somewhat in question. The one thing that I debated whether to include on my blog was his sadness over leaving his boys without a father because he himself grew up an orphan. However, most blog readers seem to prefer short posts, so I finally did leave that out.

Joe, glad you dropped by. You and All Consuming have followed my blog longer than anyone.

Depressed said: "I think it would have been worth dying to prevent it becoming part of the Empire of Japan. Whether I would have had the courage to do so, I guess we will never know."

I think it would have taken more courage to have said no to gong to war than to consent to the fighting, but I would have fought too if my homeland was under threat of being invaded by a foreign power. The trouble with America's wars is that we haven't been invaded since 1812, yet we're involved in three wars right now. Such is our love for pushing our weight around.

Putz said: "agreed agreed agreed<<><"

Thank you Putz. I don't guess we agree on a lot of things, so it's great when we do find ourselves pointing in the same direction.

CreekHiker, my father was on two ships that were sunk by U-Boats--and was badly burned on the second one--and I have cried my way through many a WWII documentary, but feeling touched by sacrifice and heroism doesn't change how I think about war. However, WWII is a hard one for me because Germany and Japan really were "evil empires" that needed to be stopped. Yet, I agree with you that we were manipulated into it. I read somewhere that the average person is rarely keen on war until his leaders whip him into a frenzy through propaganda and behind the scenes maneuvering.

Stafford Ray said...

Sadly, most wars end with negotiation that could have happened at the beginning... What prevents that is leaders of both parties thinking they can win, whatever that means.
The tragedy lies between hubris and reality!

RNSANE said...

I think you posted a very sad and poignant letter, not that it was much consolation to his widow. There are far too many widows - and, in modern warfare, we have widowers - and children without fathers ( and mothers ) left in war's aftermath. Not to mention the financial havoc it wreaks on its participants.

Are you having your shoulder surgery for arthritis, Snow. I am now 66 and, in the last year, I have been having excrutiating shoulder and knee pain. I had back surgery over 25 years ago and I my pain, precipitating my laminectomy was horrible. This is far worse.

I wish you a quick and speedy recovery, good nurses, and minimal pain.

Snowbrush said...

Hi, Stafford, I'm always thrilled when you drop by.

RNSane said: "Are you having your shoulder surgery for arthritis... I have been having excrutiating shoulder and knee pain."

Yes, for arthritis, although I've had two previous surgeries (one per shoulder) for impingement and torn rotator cuffs. As to what you can do short of surgery, I don't know what your insurance situation is, but Synvisc-like drugs sometimes help (my insurance won't pay for it), and then there are always steroid shots and physical therapy (I've done lots of each, and they didn't help me). As for other measures, I have found ice packs to be more effective than narcotics (the two make a good combination though). What I use have a blue liquid inside, and they are large enough (about 10x14) to drape over my shoulders. I keep four of them in the freezer, so I can swap out during the night. I would strongly suggest that you try them. The brand name of mine is TherapyGel, and they are made by Calder International (calderaintl.com phone 888-581-1200). The downside of blue ice packs is that they can cause frostbite, so plan on wrapping them in a heavy towel. I have also spent five months out of the last two years sleeping in a recliner since shoulder pain is many times worse lying down.

I would also recommend Neurontin, a drug that I find far more effective than narcotics or sleeping pills. The only downsides I have found to it are weight gain and daytime grogginess. With bad knees--I have them too--weight gain is no small matter (ha), but what I do is to take Neurontin some nights, narcotics some nights, and sleeping pills some nights. That way, I don't build up as much of a tolerance to any of them, and I avoid much of the weight gain that Neurontin can cause.

diane b said...

A thought provoking post with interesting comments. I couldn't kill anyone so I would be hopeless in a war. I don't believe in wars. I always feel sorry for the innocent civilians and I don't believe there are any winners only losers.

Snowbrush said...

Diane said: "I couldn't kill anyone..."

I can't imagine not killing someone who was about to harm another person. Being drafted and sent to kill strangers in a war I don't believe in is another matter. Maybe I could have done it in WWII, but not in any of America's many other wars.

Snowbrush said...

I'm having a humeral head resurfacing tomorrow that will leave me low for months....Pardon my writing because I took so many drugs last night and just now that I'm seeing double, and that make it difficult. Plus, text that I've writing appears like it's looking at itself in a mirror, but from my point of view this makes it look like it's moving around in different parts of what I've written as if it's bugs. Oh well, being wasted takes my mind off the surgery. I'm going in because I need to, but I don't let myself get my hopes up much about such things, and then there is the year-long recovery, two of which I've been through in two years, so maybe the next two will do the trick.

I'm sorry that I've not visited many of you lately. I'm trying to get everything I can done before this surgery in order to take some of the load off Peggy.

John's Island said...

An interesting post and worth of serious consideration. I need to think it over before leaving a quick comment. Otherwise, I see in the comments that you are having surgery. I wish you the best. I had open heart surgery about 11 months ago. I added you to my list of blogs I'm following and will look forward to more posts as time permits. Thanks for your kind comment on my blog as well. John

All Consuming said...

It's a very touching letter for sure, I think The Elephant's Child summed it up well for me with "'Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity" spot on.

Good luck and come back soon, you'll be missed. xxx

rhymeswithplague said...

When I was stationed on a SAC base (Strategic Air Command for you youngsters), there was a billboard-sized sign at the entrance that read, "Peace is our Profession" and I never passed it without thinking, "Yeah, war is just a hobby."

Hope your surgery goes well, Snow, and that you are back in fighting shape, I mean blogging shape, in no time.

Jessie said...

Hi Snow.

It's good to read another one of your posts again - you might have wondered where I've been at one point or another. I promise, I'll update my blog soon.

This piece, like all of them, resonates with me, since I was just at Gettysburg not six months ago. As I browsed the exhibits and the vast expanses of once-bloodied battlefields, I remember having similar thoughts to yours.

I've missed you, and I look forward to reading you more now that I'm getting well. :)


Anonymous said...

What war would I have died for? If 620,000 lives made no difference, why would any life make a difference? Wars are won and lost on one condition: money and who has the most to keep the war going until the poorer side yells "uncle".

Dead bodies don't win wars.

DoarATAT said...

... which actually was not finished ...
Cornelius, :)

A Plain Observer said...

I agree with you, Snow. Totally.

Vagabonde said...

A beautiful letter well written – I wonder how many young men can write in English such a lovely letter – it would not fit on Facebook or twitter. As for wars, I have not thought about one which would have been worthwhile. My father immigrated to France and they told him to go to the war (WWII) to become a French citizen, he did and they left him for dead on the battlefield – when they came to pick up his body they realized he was badly injured but still alive. He lost a leg and had recurring amnesia and other problems but he never complained. My mother’s family was in the Resistance and several were tortured and died – my mother said that it was sad but could not be helped, she also had several brush with death. But I was against the war in Algeria and Indochina and became very sad when I found out that the war in Indochina would have finished earlier but the US were giving France hush money to keep them fighting there and when France decided to quit then the US took over – it then became Vietnam. I was against that war too. I was born and brought up in France, went to school in England and immigrated to the US – I love all three countries and find good and bad in all three. I just wish I could pick up the best from each country – utopia… I don’t think that any of the three is better than the other though – I have seen too much injustice and ignorance in each.

RNSANE said...

Snow, thank you for all the information. I start PT on Wednesday. I am on Tramadol four times a day - no NSAIDS because of my ulcer. I take Vicodin occasionally and have Ambien for sleep but don't use it more than twice a week.

Heat seems to make my pain better -sometimes, when it is really bad at night, I get up in a hot shower for about fifteen minutes. I just hate being cold.

I dread the thought of surgery.

Snowbrush said...

Vagabone, your response was a treasure--thank you.

RNSANE, I can't take Tramadol. Demerol doesn't agree with me any too well either, but not like Tramadol, which leaves me feeling wiped out for two days after I've had just one pill. My doctor gave me a prescription for 90 of them, and I have 87 left. My mainstays are oxycodone, Dilaudid, and Neurontin, but none of them are helping me much now.

RNSANE said...

It's funny how we react to medications. Initially, I was just taking Tramadol prn, maybe twice a day. It helped a little but I didn't notice that it made me drowsy or anything. My orthopedist told me to take the Tramadol, around the clock, every six hours. It does control the pain better this way but I find myself napping from time to time for an hour...which is fine as I need to get away from this computer. I think that probably helps my aches and pains more than anything. I'm trying to walk four times a day since I can only do about ten minutes at a time.

lyptis said...

War SUUUUUUCKS Big Time!!! I think none of them are worth dying for. None of the progresses whatever. It's all bullshit and people shud just chill the fuck out and be kind to each other.

lyptis said...

And what is this "America is the greatest country in the world" bs?!! Great at what? Wars? I think it's just some sort of competition like 'my country is better then yours, im better then, you my dick is bigger then yours'. I mean seriously, do we even have to debate that?!