Love (and Sacrifice) American-Style
Is it good to appoint the love of an idea, such as liberty or honor, to a place of higher esteem than the love of a sweetheart, or a child; the warm, animate bosom of a treasured one? Is it callous to forsake the family for whom one pursues a valiant purpose, knowing that to fulfill that purpose may leave the family, for whom the fight is fought, alone; a great measure of their happiness sacrificed for the idea of maintaining their liberty? Is it possible to balance the love of one’s sweetheart and children, against the love of country, with the intangible, soulless conception of freedom tipping the scales away from the longing arms of a gentle help meet and unoffending children?
The answer is one, as the love of the idea, and of the individuals who embody the idea, are one. It is an American thing to leave the people we love most, to fight for the beloved country where those very people have the best hope of being free. Sullivan Ballou was a Major in the Union Army. He grew up as an orphan, attended law school in Rhode Island, and joined the Union Army in the spring of 1861. In July of that year, during an encampment for what would become known as the ” Battle of Bull Run,”Major Sullivan Ballou pondered upon the “useless contests” of his loves; those of his wife Sarah and their boys Willie and Edgar, and his “pure love of Country.”
July 14, 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. Our movements may be of a few days duration and full of pleasure – and it may be one of some conflict and death to me. “Not my will, but thine, O God be done.” If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle field 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 on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings 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, when after having eaten for long years the bitter fruits of orphanage myself, I must offer it as the only sustenance to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, that while the banner of my forefathers floats calmly and fondly in the breeze, underneath my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children should struggle in fierce, though useless contests with my love of Country.
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm Summer Sabbath night, when two-thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying perhaps the last sleep before that of death, while I am suspicious that death is creeping around me with his fatal dart, as I sit communing with God, my Country and thee. I have sought most closely and diligently and often in my heart for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could find none. A pure love of my Country and of the principles I have so often advocated before the people – another name of Honor that I love more than I fear death, has called upon me and I have obeyed. 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 burns me unresistably 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 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 it is 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, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and your children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience, till we meet to part no more. But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladest days and in the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, 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 up 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 frolicks with him among the dim memories of childhood.
Sarah I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work. Tell my two Mothers I call God’s blessing upon them. O! Sarah I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children. Sullivan
Major Sullivan Ballou was killed in the “Battle of Bull Run,” one week after he penned the letter. The letter was delivered, along with his other personal effects, to Sarah, Willie, and Edgar after the end of the Civil War.
This classic piece of American prose expressed his irresolute loyalties to both his family and his country. Love American style is both. It is a love for truth, which encompasses all good things, from the noblest acts of courage in war, to the kindest acts of compassion to the poor and the prisoner alike. The enemy combatant, who is incarcerated because he lacks such Godly love; the foe who would wreak incomprehensible violence upon the blameless because his heart is full of wrath and darkness, is blessed with American Love. The terrorist who abides his time in an American prison enjoys conditions as an inmate which are more tolerable than the conditions of freedom in his own land. American-style love differentiates liberty from libertinism, self-reliance from dis-engagement, persuasion from coercion, confidence from arrogance, resilience from callousness, humility from shame, and sacrifice from self-aggrandizement.
Love of country, love of family, and love of God are nothing without the responsible exercise of liberty. And liberty without love is anarchy.
By Marjorie Haun 3/8/12
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