Birth Date: March 28, 1829
Birth Place: Smithfield, Rhode Island
Date of Death: July 29, 1861
Location of Death: Manassas, Virginia
Education: Brown University and National Law School
Military Experience: Civil War
Major Battles: First Battle of Bull Run
Awards/Medals/Promotions: Commissioned major 2d Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry (June 5, 1861)
Sullivan Ballou was born on March 28, 1829 in Smithfield, Rhode Island. His parents, Hiram and Emeline Ballou, nee Bowen, were of Huguenot descent. Young Sullivan would suffer the loss of his father on June 30, 1833 when he was only four years old.(i) Forced to provide for himself, Sullivan would become a self-made man. He attended Phillips Academy as a youth and would graduate from Brown University. After graduating from college he would attend National Law School and be admitted to the Rhode Island bar in 1853. Growing up in New England, Ballou would become a staunch abolitionist. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, he would be elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives and would serve as house speaker. Ballou married Sarah Hunt Shumway on October 15, 1855. They had two children, Edgar Fowler (August 21, 1856) and William Bowen (January 2, 1859).(ii)
Ballou was an ardent Republican and supported Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 general election. After the firing on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, and Lincoln’s April 15 call for 75,000 state militia troops, he would be commissioned major in the 2d Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry regiment on June 5, 1861.(iii) After being mustered into Federal service, the 2d Rhode Island Volunteers would leave for Washington City on June 19, 1861. They were stationed at Camp Sprague until July 16 where they would be drilled and receive arms.(iv) The regiment would be assigned to a brigade in Brigadier General David Hunter’s division of the Army of Northeastern Virginia, commanded by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. The brigade was commanded by Colonel Ambrose E. Burnside who organized the 2d Rhode Island Volunteers.(v)
On July 16 General McDowell set his army in motion to confront the Confederate Army of the Potomac which was camped near Manassas, Virginia. This would be the first march for the green soldiers of the Federal army and it would be very trying. Most had never marched in regimental units, much less as a large fighting army. It would be Ballou’s first march – and his last. Many soldiers were said to have premonitions of death before battle. Ballou’s is perhaps the most poignant example of such premonitions – so much so that his letter was featured in Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War. His stirring letter to his wife, Sarah, was written on July 14 while still encamped near Washington:
July the 14th, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington
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 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 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 in 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 fit 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….
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know their 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 on them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
On July 21, 1861 the opposing armies would meet in the fields north of Manassas, Virginia. Fought along the meandering Bull Run Creek, the battle would be known as First Bull Run, in the North, and First Manassas in the South. Ballou would be with his 2d Rhode Island Volunteers as they were sent with Burnside’s Brigade on a long flanking march via Sudley Ford. There they crossed Bull Run Creek and marched south towards Manassas. They would clash with CSA Colonel Nathan Evans’ Brigade near the crest of present day Matthews Hill. This opening engagement of the battle would be brutal as the green troops, from both sides, endured their “baptism of fire.” Ballou was conspicuous as he led his men on horseback. During the ensuing fight he would be mortally wounded by an artillery shell which ripped through his right leg, killing his horse. Taken to the rear, the remainder of the leg was amputated. Ballou died one week later, on July 29, and was buried near the Sudley Church. Based on eyewitness accounts it was learned that Ballou’s body was exhumed and mutilated by Confederate soldiers.(vii) While his remains were never identified, portions of what was believed to be his body were reinterred at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. The moving letter which Ballou wrote to Sarah was never mailed but was found in his personal trunk after he died. It was delivered to Sarah by Governor William Sprague, who led the party which exhumed the bodies of Rhode Islanders killed at the First Battle of Bull Run.
While Sullivan Ballou would gain fame in the late 20th Century for the letter he wrote his wife, he is first and foremost an American HERO. Inevitably, I am quite certain that Ballou would prefer to be remembered for his actions on the battlefield than his personal letter to Sarah. He was a line officer who chose to lead from the front instead of behind the lines. While he died in the first major battle of the Civil War, who knows how far he could have advanced in the army? Many lesser officers received promotion to general officer. This writer is proud to call America home – just as Sullivan Ballou did nearly 200 years ago.
i. See the Sullivan Ballou family tree on Ancestry.com.
iii. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles as provided by Ancestry.com.
iv. See the 2d Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry page at the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System.
v. See the Union Order of Battle – First Manassas at the Manassas National Battlefield Park National Park Service website.
vi. See The Civil War at PBS.org.
vii. See Sullivan Ballou: The Macabre Fate of an American Civil War Major at HistoryNet.com.