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Tell My Sons: A Father's Last Letters


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Tell My Sons: A Father's Last Letters


Sullivan Ballou was a successful, 32-year-old attorney in Providence, Rhode Island, when Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers in the wake of Fort Sumter. Responding to his nation's call, the former Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives enlisted in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, where he was elected major. By mid-July, the swirling events in the summer of 1861 had brought Ballou and his unit to a camp of instruction in the nation's capital. With the movement of the federal forces into Virginia imminent, Sullivan Ballou penned this letter to his wife. His concern that he "should fall on the battle-field" proved all too true. One week after composing his missive, as the war's first major battle began in earnest on the plains of Manassas, Ballou was struck and killed as the Rhode Islanders advanced from Matthews Hill.Regrettably, the story of Sullivan Ballou does not end with a hero's death on the field of battle and a piercing letter to a young widow. During the weeks and months that followed the battle, Confederate forces occupying the area of the battlefield desecrated the graves of many fallen Federals. As a means of extracting a revenge of sorts against the Union regiment at whose hand they had suffered, a Georgia regiment sought retribution against the 2nd Rhode Island.Supposing they had disinterred the body of Colonel John Slocum, commanding the Rhode Islanders during the battle, the Confederates desecrated the body and dumped it in a ravine in the vicinity of the Sudley Methodist Church. Immediately following the Confederate evacuation from the Manassas area in March 1862, a contingent of Rhode Island officials, including Governor William Sprague, visited the Bull Run battlefield to exhume their fallen sons and return them to their native soil. Led to the defiled body, the party examined the remains and a tattered remnant of uniform insignia and discovered that the Confederates had mistakenly uncovered the body of Major Sullivan Ballou, not his commanding officer. The remains of his body were transported back to Rhode Island, where they were laid to rest in Providence's Swan Point Cemetery.Of the tens of thousands of letters written in the days leading up to the First Battle of Manassas, certainly none is more famous than the last letter of Major Sullivan Ballou. As poignant as it is prescient, Ballou's epistle captures not only the spirit of patriotic righteousness that led many men to the enlistment office, but it also drives home the stark reality that casualties of war were not confined to the battlefield. There were hundreds of thousands of soldiers who would not return to their families over the next four years, leaving behind a Sarah, or a Willie and Edgar who would "never know a father's love and care." Very few, however, had the foresight or the eloquence to leave behind a legacy as touching as Sullivan Ballou's to his grief-stricken family.


Headquarters, Camp ClarkWashington, D.C., July 14, 1861My Very Dear Wife:Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. 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 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 battle-field for any 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 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 o




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