On Bull Run Anniversary, Maj. Ballou's Letter

The Battle of Bull Run marked the start of some of the fiercest early fighting of the Civil War. In the days before the Union Army attacked Confederate troops in Virginia, Union Army Maj. Sullivan Ballou wrote a heartbreaking letter to his wife at home in Rhode Island.

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NEAL CONAN, host: One hundred fifty years ago today, Confederate troops clashed with Union soldiers about 30 miles west of Washington at the Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. Just one week before, a Union officer from Rhode Island, Sullivan Ballou, wrote a final letter to his wife and their two sons. 21 years ago, actor Paul Roebling read Ballou's letter at the conclusion of the first episode of Ken Burns' film, "The Civil War."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CIVIL WAR")

PAUL ROEBLING: (Reading) 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 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.

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 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 could break. And yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield.

The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crawling over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that I have 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 see our boys grown 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 loved, 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 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.

DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run.

CONAN: Our thanks to Ken Burns and Florentine Films for their kind permission to use that excerpt from "The Civil War." Major Sullivan Ballou's letter was read by the late Paul Roebling. The Battle of Bull Run was fought 150 years ago today.

Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at some science-friendly destinations for your summer getaway. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a good weekend. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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