150th Anniv. of First Civil War Battle, Wilmer McLean, & Sullivan Ballou

Civil War Cemetery

One-hundred-fifty years ago today on July 21, 1861, the First Battle of Bull Run — or First Battle of Manassas – was fought in Virginia. It was the first major battle of the Civil War. A little less than a thousand men were killed on the battlefield, and a few thousand were injured or missing. The North was shocked that they effectively lost, and both sides suddenly realized that the upcoming war was going to be much longer and brutal than they had expected during their early rallies. The war touched many families during the next four years, and the First Battle of Bull Run touched many too, including the families of Wilmer McLean and Sullivan Ballou.

Wilmer McLean was touched by this start of the war as well as the end of the war. During this first battle of the Civil War, Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard set up his headquarters in the farmhouse owned by the 47-year-old McLean. During the battle, McLean’s house was hit by a shell. After the battle, McLean decided to move his family further from the war. He chose a small town in southern Virginia. His new home was in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and on April 9, 1965, his home would be used by General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee to sign the terms of the surrender. Although this time his house was not hit by shells of battle, much of his new house was soon ransacked by souvenir hunters.

The documentary series The Civil War (1990) by Ken Burns is an astounding piece of television. A moving segment from the series is the reading of a letter written by Sullivan Ballou to his wife before the First Battle of Bull Run. It is difficult to believe the letter was written by a soldier and not by a poet or a famous writer. But in reality, Major Ballou was well educated and had worked as a lawyer and an elocution teacher. He also had served as speaker in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. In this video from the series, someone tacked on their own introduction, but The Civil War segment with the letter begins at around the 35-second mark:

Ken Burns has explained that apparently the letter was saved for future generations as friends of the family began copying the letter by hand and passing it around in those pre-Internet days. Sullivan Ballou’s original handwritten letter is lost to history, as the letter probably was buried with his wife. But it is fortunate that the words were not lost.

Bonus Version of Sullivan Ballou Letter: I imagine the organizers of this reading were very moved when they heard the letter read in the Ken Burns series and wanted to do a nice tribute. But in the future, high schools should note that the intimacy of the letter is lost with a guy yelling Ballou’s words while a college pep band plays during a half-time break at a basketball game.

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