Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861
My Very Dear Wife:
Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
So opens the letter from Major Sullivan Ballou, made famous by the documentary Ken Burn's Civil War. Accompanied by the haunting music of Ashoken Farewell, with the knowledge that it was the last letter Major Ballou send to his wife, the letter never fails to move me. Imagine what it would have been like to receive the letter.
In a time before electronic communication, the art of letter writing was highly respected. When you knew that what you were committing to paper may be read in front of distant friends and family, it put you on your mettle. In the nineteenth century, letters were a source of news and entertainment as well as a means of personal communication.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Private Testerman
My time has come for sleep and I must soon close I want you to rite to me as soon as you can for I will be glad to hear from you any time.Direct your letters as before and dont forget your best friend so I will end my few lines but mylove to you has no Endremember me as ever your love and friend. Excusebad riting.
William F. Testerman to Miss Jane DavisCourtship was carried on via the mail. In wartime the post was unreliable but care packages found their way to soldiers, and pay packages found their way home to support the soldiers' families.
Private Josiah Reed was wounded during the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee on December 31, 1862. During his convalescence he started to work at the hospital and started medical studies during the war. As he writes the woman who would eventually become his wife, his future was uncertain and at any time he could be posted to active duty.
My prospect is good for staying, but I am still subject to orders. My arm has been entirely well for some time, but I am troubled some with rheumatism in my shoulders, otherwise I am perfectly well. Drs. Green & Jennings are both here yet and are practicing successfully. I am getting used to hospital life and begin to like it very well. My duties here are more constant than they would be in the field, but they are not attended with so many hardships and so much exposure. I have good opportunities for learning also, which is an item of no small importance. It is one of the best situations anywhere fore one who has read medicine a year or two and wants to complete his course. Of course I lack this necessary preparation, but I shall make as much as I can out of my opportunities.In HAZARDOUS UNIONS: Two Tales of a Civil War Christmas, by Alison Bruce and Kat Flannery, twin sisters Maggie and Matty Becker are separated by war. To introduce each sister's tale, Kat and I composed letters from Maggie to Matty, and Matty to Maggie. Letters, such as the one from Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah, inspired me when I wrote:
...Since writing the above we caught a couple of mice. They got into a box of Farina and we covered it up tight & then wet a sponge with chloroform and threw it in. They soon keeled over and gave up the ghost.
Pvt Josiah Reed, Union Army to Elizabeth Woodward, April 15, 1863
I miss you more than I would ever have thought possible.
When we set out, I felt I was on a grand adventure. Then we reached St. Louis. The city has changed since we were there together, travelling west with Mama and Papa. It isn't so much the landmarks that are different, though the city has grown. It is the climate. All around me I could feel a level of excitement about the coming war that was almost frightening. No one doubts that war is coming, but truly, sister mine, I wish they had read their history. What they are wishing upon themselves is not the glorious venture they all expect.
... I have been told that Bellevue is lovely, but as Mama would say, "Lovely is as lovely does." Already I have seen some of the evils of slavery described in Mrs. Beecher-Stowe's novel. I fear I will see worse before long.
As the Bible says, and Papa often quoted, "I am a stranger in a strange land."
Your loving sister, Maggie
The Civil War Archive
National Park Service, The Last Letter of Sullivan Ballou
Virginia Tech, Special Collections, Love Letters of the Civil War