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

Civil War Cemetery

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.

Impact of the Battle

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

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 farther from the war. So, he packed up his family and moved from northern Virginia to a small town in southern Virginia. His new home was in Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

But he could not escape the war.  Just as his home was at the beginning of the war, so would it be at the end of the war.  On April 9, 1965, General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee used McLean’s home in Appomattox Court House to sign the terms of the surrender of the Civil War. Although this time McLean’s house was not hit by shells of battle, much of his house was soon ransacked by souvenir hunters.

Sullivan Ballou’s Letter and Bull Run

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 that Ballou’s 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 as an elocution teacher. He also had served as speaker in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

Below, is a video from Burns’s series that features Ballou’s letter. Actor Paul Roebling, who passed away in 1994, reads the letter accompanied by the music “Ashokan Farewell,” which was composed by Jay Ungar in 1982

I always get something in my eye somewhere around the time the letter gets to: “How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.”

Ken Burns has explained that it appears the Ballou letter was saved for future generations by friends of Ballous’ family.  At some point, friends of the Ballou 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. His personal words help us to better understand the impact of the First Battle of Bull Run, the Civil War, and, by extension, all wars.

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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