We have all seen John Wayne movies that made combat look like a romantic romp in the park. Men who have been through it tell a different story. The most graphic descriptions of battle Ive read came from Bruce Cattons excellent books on the American Civil War, including The Army of the Potomac. They provide a striking understanding of the toughness of both Yankee and Rebel soldiers. Their lives were filled with deprivation and danger that is hardly imaginable today. It was not unusual for the troops to make a two-week forced march during which commanders would threaten the stragglers at sword-point.
The men were often thrown into the heat of a terrible battle just moments after reaching the front. They would engage in exhausting combat for days, interspersed by sleepless nights on the groundsometimes in freezing rain or snow. During the battle itself, they ate a dry, hard biscuit called hardtack, and very little else. In less combative times, they could add a little salt pork and coffee to their diet. That was it! As might be expected, their intestinal tracks were regularly shredded by diarrhea, dysentery and related diseases that decimated their ranks. The Union Army reported upwards of 200,000 casualties from disease, often disabling up to 50 percent of the soldiers. The Confederates suffered a similar fate.
Combat experience itself was unbelievably violent in those days. Thousands of men stood toe to toe and slaughtered one another like flies. After one particularly bloody battle in 1862, 5,000 men lay dead in an area of two square miles. Twenty thousand more were wounded. One witness said it was possible to walk on dead bodies for 100 yards without once stepping on the ground. Many of the wounded remained where they fell among dead men and horses for 12 or 14 hours, with their groans and cries echoing through the countryside.
While their willingness to endure these physical deprivations is almost incomprehensible, one has to admire the emotional toughness of the troops. They believed in their cause, whether Union or Confederate, and they committed their lives to it. Most believed that they would not survive the war, but that was of little consequence.
Please understand that I do not see unmitigated virtue in the heroic visions of that day. Indeed, men were all too willing to put their lives on the line for a war they poorly understood. But their dedication and personal sacrifice remain today as memorials to their time.
There is, perhaps, no better illustration of this commitment to principle and honor than is seen in a letter written by major Sullivan Ballou of the Union Army. He penned it to his wife, Sarah, a week before the battle of Bull Run, July 14, 1861. They had been married only six years. These powerful words still tough my soul:
My Very Dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few daysperhaps 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
I have no misgivings about or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing, perfectly willing, to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this Government and to pay that debt
Sarah, my love for you is deathless: it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break, and yet my love for country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on, with all these chains to the battle-field.
The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God, and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us.
If I do not (return), my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have often-times been
O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the gladdest day and in the darkest night, amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hoursalways, always: and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall by my breath, or the cool air cools your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead: think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again
Major Ballou was killed one week later in the first battle of Bull Run. I wonder, dont you, if he did indeed utter Sarahs name as he lay dying on the battlefield. She undoubtedly suffered the greater pain in the aftermath of that terrible war.