LETTERS

The famous letter, or factoid?

Posted 6/10/21

To the Editor: In the history of American letters, few missives are as famous as the letter that Major Sullivan Ballou putatively wrote to his wife, Sarah, before his regiment left camp to fight at the Battle of Bull Run. I say "putatively" because there

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LETTERS

The famous letter, or factoid?

Posted

To the Editor:

In the history of American letters, few missives are as famous as the letter that Major Sullivan Ballou putatively wrote to his wife, Sarah, before his regiment left camp to fight at the Battle of Bull Run. I say “putatively” because there is no evidence that Sullivan Ballou actually wrote that letter – no “holographic” copy penned in his own hand, and no references made to it at the time of his death in 1861.

Norman Mailer coined the word “factoid,” meaning, facts “which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion …”

The Sullivan Ballou letter has become one of these factoids, only it did not first appear in a newspaper or magazine but in a book called “Brown University in the Civil War.” As Rhode Island’s preeminent Civil War historian Robert Granchamp has noted, Ballou’s friend and fellow Brown alum, Horatio Rogers Jr., wrote the chapter about Ballou, and added to it the letter. No researcher has discovered an earlier version of the letter, and no holographic copy of the letter exists. The evidence points toward Rogers writing that letter posthumously in order to honor his friend.

Warwick Beacon columnist Kelly Sullivan, recently repeated a “factoid” about the letter, that Gov. William Sprague found an original copy in the dead major’s trunk, and handed it to his grieving widow. Again, there is no evidence that this is so.

Ken Burns elevated this letter to iconic status in his 1990 documentary “The Civil War.” The stentorian tones of Paul Roebling reading excerpts of the letter over a soundtrack of Paul Ungar’s stirring violin piece “Ashoken Farewell” manipulated emotion on a grand scale. Historian Granchamp observed that phones rang “‘off the hook’ at PBS stations around the nation” as people hungered to know more about Rhode Island Major Sullivan Ballou and his moving letter.

Naturally, people wanted to see the original letter, and no one could find it. One factoid that emerged was that Sarah has the original copy of the letter with her in her coffin, but she left no written or oral directive that she planned on taking that letter to her grave.

What we do know about the letter is that no one mentioned it before its appearance in print seven years after Ballou’s death. It does not read in the style of other letters that Ballou wrote to Sarah in his own hand, including a pragmatic letter that he wrote to her on the same day the famous letter was supposed to have been written; and the writer of the famous letter capitalizes nouns in a manner far different than Ballou’s capitalizations.

In her Beacon column, Sullivan writes: “As if he knew what lay in wait, he tried to prepare his wife. ‘I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government.’”

Of course the likely writer of that letter, Horatio Rogers, did know seven years after the fact that “death lay in wait” for Major Ballou.

Because of this letter, Major Sullivan Ballou has become famous for the wrong reasons. Ballou enlisted as an officer to fight against the Confederate States, a rogue nation built upon a cornerstone of white supremacy. A cannonball struck his leg during the Battle of Bull Run, and he died of his wounds, truly the death of a warrior fighting in a noble cause.

Absent the discovery of a holographic copy, we cannot conclusively know whether Sullivan Ballou wrote a prophetic, romantic letter to his wife. What we do know with certainty is enough: Sullivan Ballou died fighting for a government erected upon the aspirational cornerstone that all men are created equal. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, Ballou’s service and his sacrifice are “far above our poor power to add or detract from it.”

Gerald M. Carbone

Warwick

Ballou, battle

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