The first major land battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run, was fought on July 21, 1861, so we're coming up on its 150th anniversary next week. Soldiers preparing for the fight were of course well aware that they might not return from the battlefield, and prepared by writing letters home. Major Sullivan Ballou, of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote a loving letter to his wife Sarah on July 14, exactly 150 years ago. It's too long to copy in full, but I hope you will follow the link and read the whole thing. Have tissues handy.
Here is an excerpt:
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.
The Confederacy won the First Battle of Bull Run, and Major Ballou was among the dead. The terrible battle seems to have been the first time that both sides realized that this was not going to be a fun little war with lots of banners and glory, but a long and horrifying slog.
If you live somewhere around Virginia, I'm sure you've heard about it already, but there will be a lot of commemoration going on this year. A big re-enactment of the First Battle of Bull Run will be performed soon, so maybe you'll want to go and see it.