Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Sentimental Letter from a Soldier.

During the long winter months when unpaved roads were difficult to travel, almost all enlisted men in both armies were unable to return home to see their families.  Letters and telegrams were the only way to reach home. 

We cannot imagine what it was like to be homesick in those days.  In fact we're so connected to everyone all the time, I think it tends to make friendship --and even inter-family relations-- rather superficial and meaningless.  In the 19th century, friends were for life.  People lived in the same place for decades, with a great many of them never venturing more than 100 miles from the place they were born, or in some cases, beyond the boundaries of their farms or cities.  Generations of families often lived together, and the young'uns would care for their parents and grandparents as they aged.  When relatives or friends would come from far away to stay in town, they often stayed in the home of their guests and would stay for a month or up to a year perhaps, sharing in the pleasant life of the homestead.  Men and women married very young, the girls as young as fourteen to sixteen years of age; and divorces were very humiliating and secret affairs not to be widely publicized. What a contrast to today!

For the soldier living on the road from one battle to the next, a private's tentmate became what we would call his best friend, or maybe even a brother.  The respect and admiration among fellow soldiers was almost something beyond anything we know today... in a way that we might consider vaguely homosexual by today's standards.  (perhaps "domestic partnership" is a better word)  The men cooked together, ate together, marched together into battle, sang together, accompanied one another on fatigue duty at times... and even slept together, literally hugging each other for warmth on cold nights.  In Hardtack & Coffee, John D. Billings writes a good chapter or two about how close these men were to each other.  He explained that one would often become the "old man" of the "household", and the other would sometimes fall into the role of the "old lady," maybe doing laundry and cleaning up after meals, or looking after the more dominant soldier of the union.  Their bonds were so great, that one often took the responsibility of writing the dreaded letter home to the other man's family about the fate that befell him.

We can't comprehend a connection like that, or recreate it as reenactors. I really don't think we can, no matter how hard we try.  Any company within regiment of the United States Army was like a family.  Surely, there were trouble-makers in every branch of the military: mean people, fight instigators, cheats, liars and scoundrels; but these men became unpopular very quickly and soon found themselves without friends.

For a soldier in either side of this conflict, the written letter was often his only connection to home.  Can we even imagine what it would be like to wait six months for a letter to arrive in the mail with your name on it? During which time you would have absolutely no idea where your loved ones are or what they are doing?  In this age of Twitter and Facebook, we can't.

The Civil War was a heartbreaking conflict for both sides, and letters written to and from home to the brave soldiers (in widely varying degrees of grammar, penmanship and vocabulary) are among the most touching and sentimental pieces of literature ever written by human hands.

The following is a letter from a Union soldier named Sullivan Baillou to a girl named Sarah, possibly his wife. I just happen to think it's one of the coolest sounding Civil War letters I ever read:

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

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 again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

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 on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings 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 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 unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

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 for 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 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 battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I 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 days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .


Sullivan Ballou, among many thousands of other young men like him, was killed a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861.

No comments:

Post a Comment