Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Jessica James on Why I Love the Civil War

“If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. …Do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again...”

When I first read these lines from the famous Civil War letter of Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah, I was immediately enthralled with the poignancy, passion and emotion of his words, and how powerfully they reflected the essence of a man’s love for his wife in the 19th century. Within the text of the letter, Sullivan manages to convey, not only his deep sentiment for his wife, but his firm belief in everlasting life. This intriguing theme is captured in many letters home during the Civil War and is what started me on my journey into the lives of times past.

After reading this letter, I devoured letters, newspaper articles and diaries from the War Between the States to try to discover more about the human side of the war. I’m sure when some readers hear the term “Civil War,” their eyes glaze over as they think about pages of military strategies and battlefield reports. But as I discovered in Sullivan’s letter, there was a human element – and most definitely a romantic element in that conflict. The gallantry, chivalry and valor of this period in our nation’s history remains unmatched. When reading about the tremendous hardship, sacrifices and suffering that every day people endured, one cannot help but be captivated.

Another sentence in Sullivan’s letter that enthralled me and contributed to the plot of my historical fiction novel Shades of Gray shows the patriotism that men of that era felt for their country. He writes:

“My love for you is deathless, it seems 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.”

For all of Sullivan’s love and devotion to his wife, his bond to country and conviction for duty drove him to service in defense of his homeland. This theme is recurrent in thousands of other letters. Men who cherished and respected their wives with an affection seldom seen today still rushed to the battlefield in selfless devotion to duty.

I tried to make the plot in Shades of Gray reflect the tremendous emotional conflict that men – and women – of the era endured. Confederate General James Longstreet (on whose shoulders it fell to order Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg) perhaps put it best when he wrote: ‘In the silent passages of the heart, many severer battles are waged than were ever fought at Gettysburg.’

If you are wondering about the fate of dear Major Sullivan Ballou, he was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run, one week after penning the letter to his wife. Though only twenty-four at the time of his death, Sarah never re-married. The inscription on Sullivan’s tombstone reads:

“I wait for you there. Come to me and lead thither my children.”


Jessica James is the author of the award winning novel Shades of Gray, set during the American Civil War. You can find out more details about Jessica and her book, at her website, or at her blog, Life in the Past Lane.