A letter for Sarah

Published 1:30 pm Wednesday, July 3, 2024

By Jadon Gibson

Contributing Writer


Washington, D.C., residents wanted a quick battlefield victory over the Confederate Army in northern Virginia in the summer of 1861. The conflict was drawing too close to home and family.

“On to Richmond” was a common cry but the Union soldiers were not truly ready for the battle that would soon follow. Many were concerned about their mortality. Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell appointed by the president to command the army of northeastern Virginia, had his doubts as well because his men were “green, untested.”

“They are green it is true,” President Lincoln told him. “The Confederate forces are green as well. We are all green alike.”

General McDowell began his campaign leaving Washington July 16, 1861 with approximately 35,000 men. Confederate General Beauregard, with his 20,000 troops held the railroad center at Manassas Junction and General Joseph Johnston’s 10,000 troops were offering support in the Shenandoah Valley.

Sullivan Ballou, a major in the Second Rhode Island Volunteers, had mixed feelings when he wrote home to his wife a week before the battle at Bull Run.

“July 14, 1861, Washington, D. C.

“Dear Sarah,

“The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow and lest I shall 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.

“I have no misgivings about or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged and my courage does not falter. I know how 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.

“Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break. And yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and binds me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield.

“The memory of all the blissful moments I’ve enjoyed with you come crowding over me and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that I’ve enjoyed them for so long.

“And how 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 boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.

“If I do not return my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you nor that 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, how foolish I have sometimes been.

“But oh Sarah if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and the darkest night. Always, always! And when the soft breeze fans your cheek it shall be my breath. Or the cool air oer 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.”

Sullivan Ballou was killed in the first battle of Bull Run just a handful of days after the letter was written.

Union casualties were 460 killed, 1,124 wounded and 1,312 missing or captured. Confederate losses were 387 killed, 1,582 wounded and 13 missing.

“Today will be known as Black Monday,” diarist George Templeton Strong wrote.

David Detzer wrote in Donnybrook, “If the war had turned out to be of short duration Bull Run would have been a disaster for the Union. But if, as now seems more plausible, a long and nasty war is inevitable, that battle had a curiously salutary effect for the Union side. It provided a wake-up call for those optimists, like Steward or even Lincoln who had hoped for or counted on a quick result.”

Unfortunately, the war continued for four more years.

 Jadon Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.