In March 1894, Edward A. Greene, a member of Ballou Post No. 3 G.A.R. in Central Falls, presented a gift to his comrades during a post meeting. The gift was a book he had put together memorializing local men who had fallen in the face of war.
One of the profiles in the book was that of former Cranston resident Sullivan Ballou, who died of wounds received at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. The profile included a letter that Ballou had written to his wife, Sarah, days before his death.
The letter has become world famous. However, there are some who refer to that part of Ballou’s legacy as a “factoid” – an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print. There are some who theorize that the letter was written by someone else – Ballou’s friend Horatio Rogers Jr. being the popular alternative – to immortalize a soldier’s memory.
Rogers, who had attended Brown University with Ballou, compiled a chapter about his deceased friend for the book “Brown University in the Civil War,” published in 1868. Rogers used excerpts from numerous letters Ballou had penned to numerous people. There were letters to his aunt, letters to his wife and letters to his law partner Charles Brownell.
The idea of Rogers falsifying a letter from Ballou to Sarah, who was still alive and would have been aware of such a farce, doesn’t seem one with much purpose. Some argue that the famous letter to Sarah is much more poetic in nature than what Ballou usually wrote. On the contrary. Many of the excerpts in Roger’s chapter carry the same emotion.
One reads, “I want to see my dear little boys, around whom the tendrils of my heart cling so powerfully. And I assure you, it is a stern conflict between my affection and duty to my country, when I give up my children and take the battlefield in defense of the great principles of American civilization. Do not suspect me, however, of any hesitancy or misgivings … I shall do my duty with all my might and mind, and to my lastest breath. And if I cannot remain to care for my children, I shall leave them a name of which they will not be ashamed … this is the first time such thoughts have dropped from my pen yet they fall without reserve to you.”
In a letter from Ballou to Charles, which Rogers included, Ballou wrote, “If it is my fate to fall on the field, be a brother to my little boys. I need not enlarge upon the sacred obligation I thus impose on you, nor labor to impress it upon your heart.”
On Memorial Day 1888, Comrade Nickerson of Tower Post G.A.R. read excerpts from Ballou’s now-famous letter to Sarah during his address. On Memorial Day 1902, members of Ballou Post gathered at St. George’s Church where a framed portrait of Ballou was suspended from an arch in the center of the church. Reverend Lucien Rogers read aloud a letter Ballou had written (which may have been the letter to Sarah), which was said to bring many of the men to tears.
In May 1935, Agnes Bacon, librarian at Adams Library in Central Falls, came across Green’s memorial book in the archives. Touched by the letter to Sarah, she hand-wrote a copy of it to share with the public. It’s likely that, over the years following 1861, copies of the original were made by numerous people to refer to for their own speeches, projects and presentations.
Much of history can easily be cast aside as a “factoid.” We have no evidence of many cultural beliefs, customs or experiences other than the written word. We have no evidence other than the written word that the Bible, the Quran or other sacred texts are the words of a higher power. We have no scientific evidence supporting karma, intuition, the existence of souls or even gravity. Was Charles Dickens really the author of “Oliver Twist”? Did Leonardo da Vinci really paint the Mona Lisa? Much of life can easily be considered a collection of “factoids” if we choose to view it that way.
When Greene presented his memorial book containing Ballou’s letter to Sarah to Ballou Post in 1894, he told the crowd, “Accept this volume in the spirit in which it is given. Perpetuate the names and patriotism and lives of the citizens for you and, in another and later day, when all eyes here now shall be closed in death, men of another time shall find in the public archives your records.”
Sarah Ballou lived until 1917, 49 years of which the letter was being read aloud and published in varying formats. Certainly she would have publicly refuted its validity had it been written fraudulently following her husband’s death.
To insist that the existence of the letter be quashed is to ignore the point Ballou himself was striving to make in so many of his letters – that he was a dedicated soldier, but also a father and husband who loved his wife and children more than his beautiful words could convey.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.