The letter that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer read at Trump’s inauguration is a very eloquent, poignant letter that was featured on Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary, The Civil War (1990). The famous letter was written by Major Sullivan Ballou (1829-1861) to his wife, Sarah (nee Shumway), then 24 and the mother of his two young boys. Ballou, who studied at Brown University and National Law School in Ballston, New York, was an attorney who served as the clerk of the Rhode Island House of Representatives before joining the Union Army in 1861, soon after American Civil War began.
Ballou wrote the letter on July 14, 1861. A week after writing the letter, Ballou (32 years old at the time) fought courageously at the First Battle of Bull Run, in Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, but was killed in battle (he was wounded by a six-pound shot and died a week later). Unfortunately, the letter was never mailed. It was discovered in a trunk of Ballou’s personal belongings and retrieved by Governor William Sprague of Rhode Island. Soon after, Sarah moved to New Jersey, with her sons, to live out her life as a widow; she never remarried. In 1917, Sarah died at the age of 80; she and Sullivan were buried next to one another at the Swan Point Cemetery, located in Providence Rhode Island. The original copy of the letter has been lost to time.
The letter, known as the “Sullivan Ballou Letter,” was discovered by historian Robert Johansson who contributed a first-person letter to Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. It is often read at funerals and weddings. What makes this letter so special? Ken Burns elaborates: “[It’s] the words that every man wishes he could say to the person he loves most… It sums up everything… It is obviously about love; I think the greatest love letter that I have ever come across… It’s about love in a very complex way… It’s a love of government, love of cause, love of family, love of spouse, love of children… it’s about the larger sense of what love is.”
July the 14th, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington D.C.
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 again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be 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 strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings 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 unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.
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 for 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 grown 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 battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness …
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 gladdest days and in the darkest nights … always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as 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 …
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For further reading: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/sullivan-ballou-letter.html