Saturday, September 02, 2017

'No, Sarah!' Did someone else write Sullivan Ballou letter?

A lithograph of Sullivan Ballou, mortally wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run.

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Rob Grandchamp was 12 or 13 when he first watched Ken Burns' Civil War documentary mini-series on PBS in 1990 and heard the reading of 2nd Rhode Island Major Sullivan Ballou's now-famous letter to his wife. Like millions of others, he was captivated by the beautifully written, and deeply moving, prose.

"My very dear Sarah," began the letter, purportedly written from Camp Clark in Washington on July 14. 1861. "The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days — perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more …"

Rob Grandchamp
As Paul Roebling read the words of "Ballou" and the tremendous "Ashokan Farewell" played in the background, tears welled in eyes across America. (See video below.)

"But, O Sarah," the letter continued, "if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again."

"Sullivan Ballou was killed at week later at the First Battle of Bull Run," historian David McCullough intoned at the end of the letter reading.

Like many, Grandchamp gave the TV series high marks. "I think that Burns did a marvelous job with the documentary,"  he said, "and it serves as a great introduction to the war for many people."  And at the time, Grandchamp assumed, like most of the public, that Ballou was the actual author of the letter to Sarah.

Years after Burns' documentary, however, Grandchamp dug deeper. His doubts about the authenticity of the letter grew. In the fall 2017 issue of America's Civil War magazine, Grandchamp — a native Rhode Islander who now lives in Vermont — lays out the case that Ballou did not write the letter, among the most famous of the Civil War. Another man, Horatio Rogers, was its author, he asserts.

In this Q&A, Grandchamp — a prolific Civil War author — answers my questions about his research on the Ballou letter, whether he has heard Burns' take on the mini-controversy, and more:

What motivated you to research the story of the letter?

Grandchamp: I like a good mystery. Years ago, I was volunteering at the Providence Public Library and actually discovered a piece of Ballou’s shirt collar that was used to identify his body parts after his remains were desecrated after Bull Run. In my day job, I work for the Federal government as an analyst, figuring out complex problems. As the years went on I, as I did more research on Rhode Island’s role in the Civil War, could not help but notice that Ballou was not really a major player in the conflict; his death was all but forgotten by the local papers. Rather they focused heavily on Colonel John Stanton Slocum of the Second Rhode Island, whose last words were “Now show them what Rhode Island can do.” I discovered Ballou’s letters at the Rhode Island Historical Society and spent a good amount of time reading each one of them. After reading the letters documented to be Ballou’s and comparing his style of writing to the others, I was convinced he did not write the famous July 14 letter.

Tell us more about your research on the letter.

Grandchamp: I analyzed the Ballou letters and compared the known originals in his hand to the famous letter. What it came down to for me was that the Ballou family had carefully preserved all of Sullivan’s letters sent to Sarah during his short time in the army. The original of the famous letter has never been seen by anyone alive today. The prevailing theory is that Sarah was buried with the letter in 1917 when she died; I could find no record of that in her obituary. I pondered and thought, "Why would the family not have kept the famous letter with the rest of his papers." It is strange to think she was buried with it.

A post-war image of Horatio Rogers, the man who
Rob Grandchamp believes really wrote the
famous letter attributed to Sullivan Ballou.
Rogers became a prominent jurist and lawyer
after the Civil War.
Numerous manuscript copies abound, but it was not seen in public until 1868. The letter, if it existed in 1861, would have been a great recruiting tool by the State of Rhode Island to motivate young men to enlist. There is another letter documented to Ballou dated July 14, 1861, in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society, but the tone and style of the letter is so radically different from the famous letter that there is no way, as supported by my research and the analysis of others, that he wrote the famous July 14, 1861, letter.

I also traced the history of the letter and tracked down numerous copies of it at repositories around the country. Research at Stanford University provided the Burns connection to it. Dr. Don Fehrenbacher found a copy in Illinois and sent it to Ric Burns. In his letter to Ric Burns [Ken's brother], the professor told him to only use material for the project that could be documented as being historically accurate. It is unknown if the film company did any research on Ballou. My research indicates it was written by his very good friend, Horatio Rogers, who had the talent and skill to write it as a memorial to his friend.

What can you tell us about Rogers?

Grandchamp: Horatio Rogers was one of Ballou’s closest friends. They attended Brown, served in the state legislature, and practiced law together. Rogers even witnessed Ballou’s will. Rogers wanted to go to war early on, but his friend Ballou persuaded him to stay home. After Ballou’s death, Rogers became an officer in the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery in August 1861. He worked his way up through the ranks and, in 1863, became colonel of the 2nd Rhode Island, Ballou’s regiment. He led the regiment at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

Resigning in 1864, he became attorney general of Rhode Island and later an associate justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Rogers was a very talented man who owned one of the largest private libraries in Rhode Island at the time. He was also an author who published several books and wrote a biographical sketch of Ballou that was published in 1868, the first time the letter was seen in public. Rogers had the talent and the motivation to write the letter.

What has been the reaction to the piece, and have you heard from Ken Burns?

Ken Burns
Grandchamp: So far reaction has been positive among the people I know in the Rhode Island historical community who I shared my early research with. They know I did not just go off on a tangent on this, but did a lot of in-depth research to prove my hypothesis. Regarding Ken Burns and Florentine Films, when I was doing research for the article, I called, wrote, e-mailed, and even sent a carrier pigeon! Despite this, no one from his company ever got back in touch with me. I would really like to see what Mr. Burns' reaction would be.

What message do you have for those who believe Ballou absolutely wrote the letter?

Grandchamp: The evidence is clear he did not write it. My credentials include an M.A. in American history, service as a National Park ranger, work in the museum field, and I am the author of 11 books and dozens of articles. I also have nearly 20 years of experience researching Rhode Island’s role in the Civil War. My aim in writing this piece was not to discredit Ballou’s service and sacrifice. He was a brave man in combat, but as one 2nd Rhode Island officer wrote, he had no business being there; he had no training and obtained the position of major through political connections. Ballou was trying to leverage his military service into political gain after the war. Unfortunately, he fell in his first battle. History is not always black and white, as my research has shown.

If you could visit with Ballou today, what would you ask him?

Grandchamp: I would ask him point blank if he wrote the letter. Knowing his answer would be no, I would ask him what his opinion of it was.

What are your future plans?

Grandchamp:  I got married about a month ago to a lovely school teacher named Elizabeth, and a family is planned down the road. She thinks my Civil War studies are interesting, and is still getting used to living in an old farmhouse in the mountains of Vermont that looks like a mini-version of the New England Civil War Museum. For now, I am working on two projects. One is a complete roster of the soldiers of the 7th Rhode Island Infantry, the regiment that my ggg-uncle Alfred Sheldon Knight served in. I have been tracking down burial locations for members of the regiment and have found the final resting places for nearly two-thirds of the men. My winter project -- winter is nearly half the year in Vermont -- is quite ambitious -- I am going to write an annotated bibliography of Rhode Island in the Civil War era.

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

Read Grandchamp's article in America's Civil War Magazine.


  1. Who desecrated the body of Sullivan Ballou and why?

    1. Anonymous2:10 PM

      Here is a discussion of the "desecration". 21st Georgia getting the blame ...