150 years ago today, the first major land battle of the American Civil War was fought outside the Manassas railroad junction, roughly 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. General Irvin McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia met the Confederate forces of Joseph Johnston, freshly arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, and a fierce and confusing fight ensued. Today, on the fields of Manassas, the Park Service is staging the first of their four days of commemoration ceremonies, which several of my Antietam colleagues have the honor of taking part in (I will have that same privilige on this upcoming Saturday).
While the numbers of casualties from First Manassas are far fewer than the numbers who would soon line the fields near towns named Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania Court House, the impact of the casualties from 150 years ago today were still immense. From April through July of 1861, Americans had been convinced that the war would be an easy affair, quickly won with one grand charge against the enemy. Many thought of war as only the romantic event it was portrayed as in books, stories, and folklore. It took the Battle of 1st Manassas to shake loose the notion that the war would be easy and quick. Manassas signaled that the Civil War would be a struggle far longer, far bloodier, and far more devastating than any had dared to imagine.
On this date 150 years ago, roughly 4,700 men fell in battle as casualties. Armies of civilians fought against each other in a desperate struggle. Men wore uniforms of every style, make, and color, making it nearly impossible to distinguish friend from foe on certain parts of the field that day. Civilians came from Washington with picnic baskets, prepared to watch the grand battle that was sure to decide the whole matter of secession quickly and decisively. Those same civilians, along with many of the Union soldiers, found themselves scrambling to get back to the safety of Washington by days end, shocked and terrified by the terrible reality of war. The order of battle for 1st Manassas reads as a "who's who" listing of famous Civil War names. Not only were McDowell, Johnston, and Beauregard present, but so was Longstreet, Jackson, Stuart, Early, Ewell, and Burnside, Sherman, Howard, Richardson, and Franklin. Many of these men would go on to have brilliant and distinguished careers during the war. Thomas Jonathan Jackson would rise to fame after standing upon Henry Hill "like a stonewall," only to be cut down at the height of his fame and glory at Chancellorsville in May of 1863. Ambrose Burnside would leave his mark on many a battlefield of this war, leading troops over a small three arch bridge along Antietam Creek, as well as ordering troops to assault heights overlooking the quiet town of Fredericksburg. William Tecumseh Sherman led a brigade of troops against Confederate forces on Henry Hill that day, a much smaller force than the one he would lead through the state of Georgia in 1864, burning cities, foraging crops, and bringing the realities of war home for the entire Confederacy. J.E.B. Stuart, who led a dramatic cavalry charge at Manassas, rocketed to fame as the Confederacy's fearless cavalryman, leaping into the hearts, minds, and imaginations of an entire people, only to be mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern in 1864, dying at the young age of 33.
For all of these men, their journey through the American Civil War began 150 years ago today.
Yet, while Jackson, Burnside, Sherman, and Stuart went forward from 1st Manassas to achieve fame on other fields of battle, many men never left the field that day. One of those men was Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers.
The story of Sullivan Ballou, much like so many other stories of individuals who fought and died during the Civil War, reminds us that the war was not a romantic sport, nor was it a weekend hobby for those who fought it. It was a life and death struggle for the future of their lives, their families, and this country. It was a fiery ordeal which touched both the battlefield and the home front, exacting a terrible price from all who experienced it.
Before the war, Sullivan Ballou was an attorney and politicain, serving in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He was a Republican and a supporter of Abraham Lincoln. On October 15, 1855, he married Sarah Hunt Shumway, with whom he had two boys, Edgar and William. He volunteered to serve in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers at the outset of the war, which brought him to the fields along side Bull Run Creek on July 21, 1861. On that morning, while riding into battle out in front of his troops, a 6 pound solid shot severed Ballou's right leg below the knee and killed his horse. Ballou was carried from the field in severe pain, and though surgeons did what they could for him, he succumbed to the terrible nature of his wounds one week later.
On July 14, 1861, exactly 1 week before he was mortally wounded at 1st Manassas, Ballou wrote a letter home to his wife explaining his feelings in the event that he would be killed in battle. Ballou seemed to have a premonition that his death was near, and his letter serves as final testimony of his love for his wife, his children, and his country. The letter was never sent. It was found in Ballou's trunk after his death, and was given to his wife by Rhode Island Governor William Sprague. The letter which Ballou wrote stands as one of the most remarkable letters any soldier from either side wrote during the war. It captures a deep love for family and country. Ballou's Christian faith shines through in his words, and his profession of faith, love, and patriotism remind us why it was that so many left their safe and peaceful homes to fight in a deadly struggle which was so greater than themselves.
Major Sullivan Ballou, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers
July the 14th, 1861
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 you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield 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 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.
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 fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you 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 on with all these chains to the battlefield.
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 grow 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 battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms 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 brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or 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 me, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow 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 frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God's blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.