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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Some letters are literary achievements

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Published:   |   Updated: May 14, 2014 at 07:37 AM

I was listening the other day to an interview with Mike Pride by Al Hutchison, who writes occasional editorials for us but also runs an amateur radio station out of his home in Inverness, which is where he talked to Pride.

Mike Pride is the former editor of the Concord Monitor as well as an expert and author of books on the Civil War and other conflicts. He is also a University of South Florida grad who once worked in our sports department before being lured away by that same Hutchison to the late Clearwater Sun.

Toward the end of the interview, the conversation moved to a Civil War letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers. It was written a week before the battle of Bull Run to his wife Sarah. You may have heard of it several years ago in the Ken Burns' documentary on PBS, “The Civil War.”

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As we are approaching Memorial Day I want to include as much of that letter as I can for a couple of reasons. One is that, as Pride says in the interview of most Civil War letters, “They were written from the heart.''

You don't read letters like this anymore. The so-called social media sites have nothing like this and our schools would never tolerate any essay “written from the heart.”

I think it is among those most beautiful passages in American literature.

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“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 they 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 can 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 crowding 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 and future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grow 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, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in 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.''

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Sullivan Ballouwas killed a week later at the Battle of Bull Run.

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