Primary Sources: One Farewell Letter

Ken Burn’s lengthy documentary The Civil War featured excerpts from many primary sources. One of the most unforgettable letters in the documentary was written by Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment.

Since we’re talking about primary sources, we thought this would be a good opportunity to rewatch the three minute section with the farewell letter Major Ballou wrote to his wife prior to the First Battle of Bull Run.

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6 Responses to Primary Sources: One Farewell Letter

  1. Mike Burns says:

    Ole Sullivan sure could write a letter. A lost art for the most part today.

  2. Hasn’t the authenticity of this been questioned?

  3. Bob Huddleston says:

    I suspect all of us were impacted by its reading on the Ken Burns’ series! Years ago I did some research on it, trying to find out the “back story” and was startled to find lots of holes in its history.
    I hesitate to put a damper on the wonderful Ballou letter, but it was made up by either war propagandists or the G.A.R. after the war. Sort of like the Parting Ball in Los Angeles with Dear Ol’ Winnie and Lo Armistead.

    I have searched and never located the original or even a facsimile of the original. There is a handwritten copy by someone else entered in the records of Sullivan Ballou GAR Post No. 3, in Rhode Island. When the Ken burns series first aired there was a report published in the Chicago Tribune that the letter was written by a newspaper man. I have never seen the Tribune so do not know what it said.

    Sullivan and Sarah were very real people. Sullivan, born March 28, 1827, was orphaned when he was about six. He was educated at Philips Andover Academy and Brown University (they claim him as their first graduate to die in the Civil War) and was an attorney living in Cranston, RI in 1860. He was renting his house and owned $1,000 of personal property.

    Sarah Hart Shumway of Poughkeepsie, NY was born in 1835. She and Sullivan were married in Poughkeepsie October 15, 1855. They had two children, Edgar Fowler Ballou, born August 21, 1856, and William Bowen Ballou, born January 2, 1859.

    Sullivan was mustered in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry as major for three years or the war on June 5, 1861. He was severely wounded by a round shot in the leg at First Manassas, July 21 and left behind in the hospital at Sudley Springs Church. His leg was amputated but he died at 4 PM, July 28, 1861 and was buried the next afternoon at the church.

    Sarah received Civil War pension No. 25 on September 25, 1862. She never remarried and died in East Orange, NJ, April 19, 1917, aged about 82. She was living with her son, William Ballou, at the time of her death.

    When the Army of the Potomac occupied Manassas in 1862, a party of Rhode Islanders, led by Gov. Sprague, went out to recover the bodies of Col. Slocum, Maj. Ballou and the other Rhode Islanders killed at First Manassas. A private had been left behind as a hospital attendant and had buried both Slocum and Ballou. On March 21, 1862, he was able to identify the graves.

    The party discovered that members of the 21st Georgia had opened Ballou’s grave, thinking that it was Slocum’s, and had burned the body. All the Rhode Islanders found were some ashes, bones and a few pieces of cloth. Slocum’s grave was located untouched and the two sets of remains were sent back to Rhode Island. What was left of Sullivan is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI under an elaborate obelisk with the quote, “I wait for You There, Come to Me and Lead Thither My Children.”

    (Sources: CMSR and Pension Records of Sullivan and Sarah Ballou; Augusts Woodbury, The Second Rhode Island Regiment, Providence, 1875)

  4. Bob Huddleston says:

    What Burns left out were the stories that the Rebel troops mutilated Ballou’s body. When I first read of the mutilation of Sullivan Ballou I assumed it was Yankee propaganda.

    Atrocity stories are old hat in war: they are often used to drum up support to protect society against the inhuman enemy. Indeed, false atrocity stories about the World War I Germans, exposed in the 1920s and 1930s, made the World War II generation suspicious of atrocities claimed by the allies. The early reports of the Holocaust were brushed aside as simply a repeat of similar stories from the Great War.

    Making up atrocity stories, and reporting them to the assembled troops or to a Congressional committee is nothing new – during the First Gulf War a supposed nurse testified to Congress that the Iraqis had murdered babies in incubators. It came out later that the “nurse” was in reality the daughter of the ambassador and was no where near any alleged atrocities.

    However, the desecration of Sullivan Ballou’s grave is well-authenticated.

    When the Army of the Potomac occupied Manassas in 1862, a party of Rhode Islanders, led by Gov. Sprague, went out to recover the bodies of Col. Slocum, Maj. Ballou and the other Rhode Islanders killed at First Manassas. A private had been left behind as a hospital attendant and had buried both Slocum and Ballou. On March 21, 1862, he was able to identify the graves.

    The party discovered that members of the 21st Georgia had opened Ballou’s grave, thinking that it was Slocum’s, and had burned the body. All the Rhode Islanders found were some ashes, bones and a few pieces of cloth. Slocum’s grave was located untouched and the two sets of remains were sent back to Rhode Island. What was left of Sullivan is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI under an elaborate obelisk with the quote, “I wait for You There, Come to Me and Lead Thither My Children.”

    Virgil Carrington Jones devotes a chapter (“The Dead Behead Easily”) in _Gray Ghosts and Rebel Raiders_ to the search for the bodies of the 2nd RI men. In addition to beheading poor Sullivan, the Georgians buried others face down, interpreted as a sign of disrespect. In his notes, Jones quotes from the Committee to Investigate the War, without giving specific references. He goes on to state that when he was investigating the site (identified by a Manassas Park historian as being three tenths of a mile south of Sudley Church, a short distance east of the Sudley Road, just north of the Newman house.

    But the point is well taken that one should be cautious about accepting atrocity stories based on what the victims had to say. Jones is a Virginia author, and writes from a pro-South viewpoint (he does include a quote from someone living near Sudley Church that it was done by Georgians – “no Virginian did it. Virginians wouldn’t do such a thing”

    Grady McWhiney, in his _Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South_, talked about Confederates mutilating enemy bodies, cutting off heads, etc., and relates the mutilation to the Scotch Celtic background of the typical Southern soldier (p. 157-158). And Bell Wiley also mentions, in _Billy Yank_ (p.23), accounts of Confederate mutilation of the dead enemy.

    However, a better source is a letter included in a catalog put out by Gettysburg rare book and artifact dealer, Len Rosa, War Between the States Memorabilia, catalog 44 [n.d., circa 1996]

    EXTREMELY RARE CONTENT C.S.A. LETTER DESCRIBING DEPREDATIONS OF THE YANKEE GRAVES AT MANASSAS BATTLEFIELD WITH ACCOMPANYING TINTYPE

    136. MANASSAS JUNCTION, [VA.], NOV. 25TH, 1861: 4 pages in pencil written by James Kent Lewis, [Co. I, 16th Regiment North Carolina infantry, killed in action at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863] “I wrote you several times about the clothes you Sent me. They came all right. The boots suited exactly and if it hadn’t been for the woolen under clothes, I should have frozen before this. I was on the battleground a day or so ago and it presents one of the most horrible sights I ever saw. The dead Yankees who were buried there have nearly all been dug up by our men. Nearly all of them have a bone of some sort hung to his watch chain & they have sent home any number of skulls! Some of them took the rib bones for pipe stems. I saw one body deprived of its head and the limbs lying in a branch. The flesh seemed to be perfectly sound.

    (Additional Sources: CSR and Pension Records of Sullivan and Sarah Ballou; Augusts Woodbury, The Second Rhode Island Regiment, Providence, 1875)

  5. Bob Huddleston says:

    ‘O Sarah!’ Did Sullivan Ballou’s Famed Letter Come From Another’s Pen?

    http://www.historynet.com/o-sarah-sullivan-ballou-letter.htm

  6. Pingback: Primary Sources: Conclusion of a Series | Emerging Civil War

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