In the fall of 1990, the Civil War recaptured our imagination by way of an ambitious, nine-episode documentary that appeared on public television. Today, the millions of Americans who tuned in probably only remember one moment from it: "The Letter." Read as the music soared at the end of the first episode, the letter from unsung Rhode Island soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife on the eve of battle — and likely death — brought a nation of viewers to tears for its eloquence and passion.
This is Ballou's story. At the age of thirty-four, less than ten years after meeting the love of his life, Sarah Shumway, Ballou left his law practice and budding political career, his wife and two young sons, to take a commission as a major in the Union Army. He served in the army for almost two months but was struck down at the First Battle of Manassas-Bull Run.