A Veterans Day Special–“My Very Dear Sarah”

When I first heard those words, “Dear Sarah,” I was chasing my young first born son around our Nashville apartment trying to diaper the boy before he could do any further damage. The light from our TV cast an eerie glow in our small, darkened living room as a new PBS series on the American Civil War by a young filmmaker, Ken Burns, played in the backgound.

Suddenly, the scratch of a lone fiddle commenced, and soon the beautiful and haunting strains of Ashokan Farewell filled the room. Paul Roebling, with his resonant voice, began: “Dear Sarah,” and what followed were some of the most beautiful and soaring words that I had ever heard spoken in the English language.

Enthralled, I sat on the couch, the diaper still dangling from my fingertips. I was captive to the piercing music and poignancy of the moment, but my first born squealed in delight at the prospect of a few extra minutes of glorious freedom…

That was the fall of 1990. The words that Roebling read are reputed to be those of Sullivan Ballou, a 32 year-old major in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers. It is generally believed that he penned his now famous letter to his wife in July of 1861 on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run, a conflict which subsequently claimed his life.

His words returned to my mind recently as I participated in a discussion which began with the post, “I’m Not a Patriot.” Provocative stuff, and what ensued was a wild and wooly discussion which at times was civil but at other times veered toward personal attack.

The author of the original post is a Christian seminary student and by all appearances an honest seeker who is posing difficult questions worthy of consideration. Like legions before him (after all, there really is “nothing new under the sun”), he is struggling to strike the right balance as a citizen of two different kingdoms. At one point, he asked another commentator:

“I don’t know how to make this not sound snide, but would you make a case for, or explain what the men and women of the armed forces believe they are fighting for, when they go to defend the “American Way of Life?”…”I am particularly interested in hearing the perspective of a Christian in the armed forces.”

Never one to wait my turn, I jumped in. I was quick to point out that I had never been in the military, but I did point out to him the irony of his position. I did so hoping that he would see that his “time and space” to hold forth and critique his country without fear of censure, or worse, execution, was purchased for him by the sacrificial acts of military men and women on whose shoulders he stands but whose brave deeds apparently give him much pause.

He responded in a kind fashion, but it still left me wondering if he truly understands the irony. Furthermore, I know he is rightly concerned about matters of social justice, but I wonder if he has discerned the relationship between what he would likely call the “blind patriotism” of men such as Sullivan Ballou, and the eradication of a great social evil–slavery–from the United States of America.

I was captivated by Ballou’s letter on that night in 1990, and I’m still moved by the reasons that soldiers, especially Christian ones, often cite as to the “why” of their service and sacrifice. Go ahead and read the letter in it’s entirety. Ask yourself the question: do the campfire musings of a Civil War soldier have anything useful to say to a contemporary Christian struggling for balance in a postmodern world?

Color me an old fogey, but I think they just might. After you’ve read the letter, do me a favor: call, email, or better yet, shake the hand of the veteran or active duty member nearest you and thank them for their service to our country. Regardless of how one feels about the current war in Iraq, hopefully all of us can agree that the spirit of Sullivan Ballou is alive and well in our veterans and those who are currently serving across the globe, and that we are all the better for it.

  1. Derek Jenkins


    email me. I have a couple of links you will be interested in.


  2. Anonymous


    Amen and AMEN!!

    MAJ Ballou has captured the spirit and intent of most, if not all, of the volunteers who put their lives on the line for our country. Of course his letter is useful to the soldier of today. It is a poetic expression of what most of us sence deep within us, but are unable to express ourselves.

    Contrary to what the major news networks broadcast – I believe that our cause is an honorable one. I, for one, am honored to serve in the US Armed forces and am grateful to serve a commander-in-chief who is willing to eliminate as many terrorist/extremists as we possibly can.

    That’s not to say that our task is not difficult. There are very few honest historians who would disagree with the causes and outcomes of the Civil War. And yet the price we paid, in terms of human life, was enormous. The loss of over 2000 Americans’ lives is no less tragic, but comparatively low.

    Thank you for serving my heroes – the American Veteran.


  3. mike

    LTC Hal-

    Thanks so much for stopping by and for your service which has entailed so much time away from your family over the past year. Your sacrifice and that of all the others serving across the globe keep us safe and free and we are all eternally grateful.

    I remember those times at Fox Army Hospital back in the early 90s–the Army doc and the VA guy making it fly in the old eye clinic downstairs. Hoohah, those were the days!

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