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.