It was without second thoughts that 32-year-old Sullivan Ballou made the decision to leave his wife and children behind while he answered the call of duty.
Born March 28, 1829, in Smithfield, Ballou was the son of Hiram and Emeline (Bowen). He graduated from Phillips Academy in Massachusetts before studying at Brown University and the National School of Law in New York. In March of 1853, he was admitted to the Rhode Island Bar.
He became the state’s Speaker of the House, gifted with a portrait of himself by Gilbert Stuart in 1859. On March 9, 1861, he received more than half of the votes cast for attorney general nominees. But his political and legal aspirations were going to have to take a backseat.
That April, Gov. William Sprague called for men to enlist in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, which would assemble almost immediately, its soldiers committing three years to the Union cause in the Civil War.
Ballou didn’t hesitate and, on June 5, said goodbye to his wife Sarah (Shumway) and their sons, 5-year-old Edgar and 2-year-old William. After he and the other newly enlisted men gathered in formation that day, they marched to Eddy Street, where they were mustered into service. They then marched to the armory where each man was fitted with a uniform consisting of a blue flannel shirt, gray pants, a cap and shoes.
The lawyer had become a soldier, and Ballou knew that meant the future was unknown. He wrote out his will 12 days later, leaving the whole of his estate to Sarah and making her sole executrix. Two days after that, orders were given be ready for movement to Washington.
With heavy knapsacks, the men boarded the steamer “State of Maine” that day. The joy of home-cooked meals was gone and they dined on bread and fatty corned beef. The next day they arrived in New Jersey, where they boarded a train to Pennsylvania. On June 22, they arrived in Washington.
After marching to Gales Woods, they set up camp, christening the site “Camp Clark” in honor of Bishop Thomas Clark back in Rhode Island. Nearby, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment was camped out, and they took their meals there, enjoying such treats as gingerbread, plum pudding and milk.
Gov. Sprague camped with them the first night and, on July 11, Abraham Lincoln visited as they began to hear rumblings about being on the move again soon. Ballou sat down and penned a letter to Sarah three days later.
An order to pack up came on July 16. The men stuffed their knapsacks with pieces of hard bread and salt pork. Their canteens filled with water and their sacks slung over their backs, they moved through Washington and on to Virginia. There, they set up camp at Annandale, lit the fires and made coffee. They had brought no tents, so they laid rubber blankets out on the ground for sleeping.
The following day, they marched on, later constructing rustic shelters out of pine and cedar branches. They named their new site “Bush Camp.”
At 2 o’clock in the morning on July 21, they rose and marched toward Centreville. By 9 o’clock, they had reached Sudley Church. The mood was light as they stopped to pick wild berries and relaxed in the blissful naivety of country boys who had never known war.
One hour later, a hailstorm of musket-balls were whizzing over their heads. The nearly 700 men with Ballou ran down a hill toward the woods and began to exchange fire. Col. John Slocum was climbing over a fence when enemy fire plunged through his head from back to front. He was moved to a nearby building but later died.
Ballou was struck by a cannonball which tore up his right leg and killed his horse. He was taken into the church and his leg was amputated, but he did not survive and was quickly buried there on Virginia soil. Ninety-two additional men in the 2nd Rhode Island were killed or wounded in that first battle at Bull Run.
When Gov. Sprague retrieved the personal effects of the fallen men, he found the letter Ballou had written to Sarah but never mailed. He brought it home to her. “Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days,” he had written. “I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.”
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.”
He went on to apologize for what hadn’t yet occurred. “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.”
In haunting premonition, he told her, “My love for you is deathless … when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.”
Ballou’s body was exhumed and desecrated by rebel soldiers. Charred ash and bones believed to be his remains were later shipped to Rhode Island and interred in Swan Point Cemetery. Sarah was laid beside those remains in 1917. Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.