“On July 14, 1861, when the North and South were lining up for their first battle, a time when our country was bitterly divided and faith in the future of our country was at a nadir, Major Ballou of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers penned a letter to his wife, Sarah,” he said. “It is one of the greatest letters in American history. It shows the strength and courage of the average American.”
Schumer went on to read an abbreviated excerpt of the letter.
“If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready,” Ballou wrote. “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.”
The letter was written in Washington on July 14, 1861. It was, indeed, the last letter he wrote to his wife. He was mortally wounded a few days later at the Battle of Bull Run. The story only grows more tragic: Ballou’s remains were exhumed and desecrated by Confederate soldiers.
The letter gained particular renown after Ken Burns featured an abbreviated version in his 1990 PBS Civil War series. Burns reportedly wept the first time he read it and has carried a copy with him in his wallet since. Thanks to Burns’ documentary, the missive has become a popular symbol for the sacrifices made during the Civil War. Burns would later recall that viewers began to call in asking for more information about the letter as soon as it aired, and the document has since become a popular reading for a variety of occasions, from weddings to funerals—and, now, inaugurations.
“It is because Sullivan Ballou and countless others believed in something bigger than themselves and were willing to sacrifice for it that we stand today in the full blessings of liberty in the greatest country on earth,” Schumer said. “And that spirit lives on in each of us—Americans whose families have been here for generations, and those who have just arrived.”
And then, adding that the letter gave him hope that all Americans have the power to stand up for what they believe in, he urged the audience to read the full letter.
Read the full text below:
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 0 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?
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death — and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.
I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and “the name of honor that I love more than I fear death” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
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 oftentimes 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 garish 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.