This Memorial Day weekend we pause to remember the many soldiers who died to defend our nation and preserve our freedom. The letter below wonderfully expresses much of what this day is about: gratitude for sacrifices made in the past, appreciation for what we have in this nation, and the willingness to sacrifice even life itself to preserve it. Along with that, it is a powerful testimony of faith; a faith that is grateful to God for past blessings (including deep gratitude for the blessings of marriage and family), a faith that puts the present in God’s hands (whatever may come), and a faith that looks forward to a future hope in that place where we will live again.
July the 14th, 1861
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 you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration, or 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 battlefield for my 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 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.
But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows, is it weak or dishonorable that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle with my love of country?
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last sleep, perhaps, before that of death. And I am suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart.
I have sought most closely and diligently for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles I have often advocated have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless; it seems to bind me to you 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 irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
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 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 grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me 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 battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more…
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 a 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.
O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
Sullivan Ballou (March 28, 1829 – July 29, 1861) was a lawyer and politician from Rhode Island, and an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was mortally wounded in the first Battle of Bull Run and died a week later.
This letter was never mailed. It was found in Ballou’s trunk after he died, and then delivered to Ballou’s widow. Sarah never remarried. She later moved to New Jersey to live with her son, William. She died at age 80 in 1917 and is buried next to her husband.
The letter is a wonderful expression so many things: faith in God, love of family, love of country, courage, honor, duty, gratitude to God, and trust and hope in God’s promise of eternal life.
I Corinthians 13:4-8a — Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…
John 16;19-22 — Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
My dear God, if you so desire that this be my last hour, then let thy will be done… and I shall gladly die. Only let your holy name be praised and glorified by my sufferings and death. If it were possible, dear Lord, I would live longer for the sake of your blessed people. But if the hour has come, then do as you please, for you are the Lord of life and death. Amen. –Martin Luther