An old letter of love for a woman and for a country resonates with Americans as conflict surrounding the debt limit consumes Washington.
32-year-old Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island wrote a letter to his wife 150 years ago on the eve of The First Battle of Bull Run, a battle remembered as the country's bloodiest fight up to that point. Ballou was serving as a major in the Union Army when he wrote his wife, Sarah, these beautiful lines of love for her and his country:
"Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me in mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break and my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield."
Understanding the risk of the coming battle, but without possibly knowing for sure that he would die as a result of it, Ballou writes about a debt his owes to his country, a debt very different from the one that's seemingly trumping everything in Washington now.
"I know how strongly 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," he writes.
Words like these have captivated romantics and patriots across America since their very beginning. Historians say the letter was instantly recognized for its beauty when Sarah eventually allowed the local paper to publish it in the 1870s. The original letter has been lost, but multiple hand written copies have been saved. Historians say it's likely that Ballou's sons gave their fiancées these copies.
Most Americans probably know about the letter because of a PBS Civil War documentary by Ken Burns, first released in 1990. The message enchanted Burns too, who told The Washington Post, "It’s the most beautiful letter I have ever read. “It’s a Grand Canyon of a letter."
Burns devoted almost four minutes of his documentary to a partial reading of the letter. To see the excerpt, scroll to the :38 mark in this video.
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It was also put to music and titled, "Banner of My Purpose" in 2007 as part of a 20-minute musical.
Here is the text of the letter, unchanged and in its entirety:
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days -- perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure -- and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done.
If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. 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 strongly 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.
But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows -- when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children -- is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death -- and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.
I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles I have often advocated before the people and "the name of honor that I love more than I fear death" have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you 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 on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.
I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me -- perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar -- that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been!
How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours -- always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood.
Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters.
Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God's blessing upon them.
O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
Ballou's final resting place in Swan Point Cemetery in Rhode Island. The last line of his letter, "I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children," is engraved on his tomb.