129 Years in His Grave, Civil War Major Sullivan Ballou Touches America's Heart as He Once Touched His Beloved Sarah's

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

My Very Dear Wife..." Maj. Sullivan Ballou's last love letter begins simply, sweetly. "The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow, and 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 am no more."

In the horrific carnage of the Civil War, Sullivan Ballou's death was unremarkable and his name soon forgotten except by those who loved him—his wife, Sarah, and their two sons, Edgar and William. What remained for history was Ballou's last letter. On Sunday, Sept. 23,129 years later, it was read during the first segment of Ken Burns's PBS documentary, The Civil War. Written on the eve of that long-ago battle, the eloquent, orotund phrases revealed a man's love and a soldier's duty to an America Sullivan Ballou could never have imagined.

"My dear Sarah," he wrote, "never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.... But, oh, Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall be always with you...always, always, and when the soft breeze fans your cheek it shall be my breath or the cool air your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again."

Ballou, 34, was among the first of 600,000 soldiers—Union and Confederate—to perish in the war. He was riding at the head of his Rhode Island unit in the First Battle of Bull Run when a cannon-ball shattered his leg. Carried from the field, he died that day, July 21, 1861, a Sunday.

Ballou's letter was found in the early 1980s in the Illinois State Historical Library by Pulitzer prizewinner Don Fehrenbacher, now a professor of history emeritus at Stanford University. He sent a copy to Burns as the documentarian's vast Civil War project was beginning, and Burns was delighted by it. "It showed," he said, "how alive the people were—not just still, heroic images, but ordinary people the war touched."

Ballou was hardly ordinary. His distinguished bloodlines would link him to four Presidents—Fillmore, Garfield, Coolidge and George Bush. A graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., he attended Brown University. He practiced law in Smilhfield, R.I., and Providence and was twice elected speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He had married Sarah Hart Shumway in 1855. Edgar was born in 1856; he worked as a lawyer, miner and rancher and died in California in 1924. William, who lived as an adult in Brooklyn, died in 1948 at the age of 89. Apparently, no direct descendants survive.

Ballou was buried near Sudley Church, Va., where he had died of his awful wound. Vengeful Confederate soldiers dug up his body, decapitated the corpse and tried to burn it. Union loyalists retrieved Ballou's remains, and he received a hero's funeral at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, where he lies today. Next to him is his beloved Sarah. She lived another 55 years and worked as a secretary for the Providence public school system before dying at the age of 80. She never remarried.

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