Sullivan Ballou died on this day in 1861 from a wound received at The First Battle of Bull Run. He has become famous for his letter to his wife Sarah, which he wrote the week before. It is read by Liam Clancy in the video above and stands out as a marvelous example of the power of the written word. Ken Burns brought it to the country's attention when he had it read aloud in his PBS Civil War documentary.
What Sullivan Ballou expresses to his wife is his undying love for her and their children but also the rightness of giving his life for what he believes in. Although he was a Union soldier, and my sympathies are definitely with the Confederacy, his decision transcends "sides". He was fighting for what he believed to be the greater good. Though he longed to see his boys grow into "honorable manhood", he chose to risk his life.
In "The Family Has Lost Its Head", an article in Fatherhood and the Family, Ed Willock explains it this way:
"There is a normal tension between the man and wife in regard to the question of the common good. It is the kind of tension that makes for balance. The woman will usually place the good of her family first. For her to do so is normal. The man, if he is truly head of the family, realizes that his family's well-being depends upon the common good and thus will make the common good the first end of his work."
Sullivan Ballou epitomized this kind of headship. I am grateful for his example. I believe that there were many men like him at the time of the Civil War because our country was populated by families with a traditional understanding of marriage. Today, those examples are few but needed so desperately.
Mr. Willock points this out admirably:
"The constant and endless regard of today's good husband for the well-being of his family, so that he saves from the time of their birth for the education of his children, while his neighbor's children starve, or while his local political system grows corrupt, or his Faith goes unchampioned, or his brother is exploited, is a sign of the times. It is goodness measured by the standard of the wife, and thus she is the actual head of the family. This is not good headship measured by any objective standard. Such a father may leave an inheritance of wealth to his sons, whereas what they need most is masculine virtue lived out for their emulation."