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Elegant Writing

By Richard F.X. O’Connor

Of late my reading has taken me back to the Civil War. The letters, diaries and memoirs of officers and common soldiers display an eloquence of language completely missing from this age of instant messaging and email. And we are the lesser for it.

For example the color gray, worn by rebel soldiers, was alternately described as butternut gray or chestnut gray. Would we even know today what that reference meant should we happen upon it?

I will let one letter speak volumes. A week before the Battle of Bull Run, Sullivan Ballou, a Major in The Second Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote home to his wife in Smithfield. His letter is pure poetry, an eloquent testament to idealism and nobility.

"July the Fourteenth, 1861

Washington D.C.

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 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 falter.

I know how American civilization now leans upon the triumph of the governed, 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 seemed 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 of 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 of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our boys grown 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, how foolish I have sometimes been. How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness....

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 gladdest day and the darkest nights ... Always ... Always!

And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your 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."

Postscript: Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the First Battle of Bull Run.



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