1.   Historical note

2.   Scope and content

3.   Provenance

4.   Inventory

5.   Subjects

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 Sullivan Ballou Papers

 Woonsocket lawyer and soldier.

 Papers, 1858-1873. Bulk, 1861.

 Size: 0.25 linear feet (17 items)

 Catalog number: MSS 277

 Processed by: Rick Stattler, September 1995

©Rhode Island Historical Society

Manuscripts Division


Historical note:

            Maj. Sullivan Ballou (1829-1861) is known primarily as the author of one of the most stirring letters written during the Civil War. The letter, dated July 14, 1861, was written to his wife Sarah, shortly before his death from wounds received at the Battle of Bull Run. It was featured prominently in Ken Burns's 1990 PBS television series "The Civil War."

            Sullivan Ballou was born in the town of Smithfield, Rhode Island, the son of Hiram and Emeline Ballou. His father died when he was young, and he grew up with limited means. With family assistance, his widowed mother managed to send him to the Phillips Academy, and then for two years at Brown University. He left in 1850, without a degree, to attend law school in Ballston, New York, and was admitted to the Rhode Island bar in 1853. He married Sarah Hart Shumway (1836-1917) of Poughkeepsie, New York in 1855. They settled in Cumberland, R.I., in what was then the village of Woonsocket. They had two children, Edgar F. (1856-1924) and William B. (1859-1948). Sullivan practiced law in Providence, and was a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 1853 through 1857. He ran unsuccessfully for state Attorney General in 1861.

            In June of that same year, he volunteered to serve as Major in the Second Regiment of Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry. The regiment trained at Camp Clark in Washington, D.C. through mid-July, and then was sent into the field to meet the Confederate army at Manassas. Sullivan Ballou was critically wounded at this battle, and died in a makeshift hospital at Sudley Church, Virginia, on July 26, 1861, where he was buried. His body was later exhumed and burned by Confederate soldiers, and the remains were personally retrieved the following year by Governor William Sprague. They were then interred in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

            Sarah lived for 56 more years, and never remarried. She died in Orange, New Jersey on April 19 1917, and was buried with her husband at Swan Point. The gravestone is inscribed with words from Sullivan's famous letter: "Come to me, and lead thither my children."

            There are no living descendants of Sullivan and Sarah Ballou.


Ballou, Adin. An Elaborate History and Genealogy of the Ballous in America

Burrage, Henry S. Brown University in the Civil War: A Memorial: 1868

Harvey, Charlotte Bruce. "For Love of Country," Brown Alumni Monthly, November 1990.

Material in the Sullivan Ballou vertical file at the R.I.H.S.L.

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Scope and content:

            This small collection consists of 17 items. Other than Sarah Ballou's 1873 pension certificate, and one undated letter written before the War, all of the documents date from 1861. In addition to the ten letters written by Sullivan to Sarah, the collection includes letters written to L.W. Ballou (probably distant cousin Latimer Whipple Ballou, 1812-1900, a prominent Woonsocket banker), and "Brownell" (probably Sullivan's law partner Charles F. Brownell, 1830-1863). There are also memorial resolutions from the Woonsocket Guards and the Rhode Island State Legislature, and a letter of sympathy from Gov. William Sprague.

            The heart of the collection is the nine different letters written by Sullivan to Sarah. This includes two manuscript copies of the famous letter, neither of which are actually in Sullivan's hand. The fate of the original may never be known, although there is some speculation that it may have been buried with Sarah. Several early manuscript copies exist in repositories across the country, but none match the handwriting of the alleged author. Its first known publication was in 1868, in Brown University in the Civil War; its popularity apparently began soon afterwards.

            Even without the July 14 letter, this would be an important collection of Civil War documents. Ballou did not always write in the grand flowing phrases that he is famous for, but makes some interesting observation about camp life and the southern landscape in the earliest days of the war. Marching through Virginia on July 19, he wrote, "We can get nothing from the people here, they are all against us. They all live miserably, I think, and the slaves are to me more filthy than our Irish." As his regiment had no lieutenant colonel, Maj. Ballou was second in command to William Sprague, the Rhode Island governor who was also serving as colonel. Ballou wrote with pride on July 10, "I have become well acquainted with Gov. Sprague as he has taken up quarters in our camp, occupying a tent not very far from mine. I shall improve the acquaintance and make it serviceable to me if I can. He is a very unassuming man and a very agreeable man. I think if he stays here long I can advance myself in his good opinion."

            One curious though rarely mentioned fact is the existence in this collection of an entirely different letter from Sullivan to Sarah, also dated July 14, 1861. Neither letter refers to another letter written earlier in the day. As the published letter refers to "this calm summer Sabbath night, when thousands now are sleeping around me", the other letter must have been written earlier in the day. While the unpublished letter is affectionate and well-written, it is also optimistic and upbeat (as are all of the other letters). He wrote "..if I should be able to get home this fall or winter or even next spring (and I have every confidence this war will be ended by that time) I want a house we shall be content to remain in." He must have had a very drastic change of heart to write that same evening "...when my last breath escapes me - on the battle field - it will whisper your name." Sullivan wrote two more letters to Sarah on the way to Manassas; both return to the usual form of the Civil War letter, with complaints about the food, weather, homesickness and exertion, and accounts of battle.

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            Fifteen items - the bulk of this collection - were purchased from Patrick Conley in 1970. One copy of the July 14 letter was donated by Mrs. Stanton F. Slocum in 1957. The provenance of the other copy is unknown.

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1. Undated letter, Sullivan to Sarah, circa 1858. 4 p.

He is apparently writing from Woonsocket, while Sarah is somewhere near Albany, N.Y. The letter mentions Edgar but not William, and can thus be estimated at circa 1858.

2. Letter, Sullivan to "My very dear friend" L.W. Ballou, dated Providence, 6/11/1861. 2 p.

Probably Latimer Whipple Ballou, a distant cousin of Sullivan's, who was a prominent Woonsocket banker active in politics. Latimer may have been the benefactor who sent Sullivan to school.

3. Letter, Sullivan to Sarah, dated Camp Sprague, 6/23/1861. 4 p.

4. Letter, Sullivan to [Charles F.?] Brownell, dated Camp Clark, 6/25/1861. 4 p.

Sullivan writes that "It seems to me that this war is 'played out'." The recipient was probably his Providence law partner.

5. Letter, Sullivan to Sarah, dated Camp Clark, 6/26/1861. 3 p.

6. Letter, Sullivan to Sarah, dated Camp Clark, 6/30/1861. 6 p.

7. Letter, Sullivan to Sarah, dated Camp Clark, 7/5/1861. 4 p.

8. Letter, Sullivan to Sarah, dated Camp Clark, 7/10/1861. 4 p.

9. Letter, Sullivan to Sarah, dated Camp Clark, 7/14/1861. 4 p.

This is the unheralded letter written earlier in the day.

10. Letter (3 copies), Sullivan to Sarah, dated Camp Clark, 7/14/1861. 4 p. each.

This folder contains two early manuscript copies of the famous "Sullivan Ballou letter," and a transcription. One is clearly presented as a copy, while both are clearly not in Ballou's hand. The fate of the original is unknown.

11. Letter, Sullivan to Sarah, dated 7/18/1861, from one mile past Fairfax Court House. 1 p.

12. Letter, Sullivan to Sarah, dated 7/19/1861, from 5 miles out of Manassas. 4 p.

13. Resolution of the Woonsocket Guards, honoring Maj. Ballou, 7/24/1861. 3 p.

14. Resolution of the Rhode Island State Legislature, 8/1861. 1 p.

            In sympathy for the families of Maj. Ballou and others.

15. Letter, Gov. William Sprague to Sarah Ballou, dated 10/4/1861, Providence. 2 p.

            Expressing sympathy.

16. Pension certificate of Sarah Ballou, 7/5/1873. 2 p.

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Ballou, Latimer W. (1812-1900)

Ballou, Sarah H. (Shumway) (1836-1917)

Brownell, Charles F. (1830-1863)

Second Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry

Sprague, William (1830-1915)

United States - History - Civil War, 1861-1865

Woonsocket Guards

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