Tuesday, 1 June 2010
I shall always be near you
There is a letter that seems to me to unite the tragedy of war with feelings of transcendent love. It was not written by a poet, a novelist or a philosopher, but by an ordinary man, a soldier on the eve of battle. His name was Sullivan Ballou, writing in the summer of 1861 to his wife, Sarah. I was in my teens when I heard it recited on a documentary series shown by BBC Television in England about the American Civil War. It's too long to reproduce in its entirety, but here are the parts that moved me the most;
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...
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me 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 grateful to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard as 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...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...
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth to 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 is 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.
A week after writing this letter Sullivan Ballou was killed at the Battle of Bull Run. The recital on TV chased me off to my bedroom, where I wept buckets!