Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Sullivan Ballou

Oddly enough, I had never watched this series before now. I see by the OAFSSRFTOTN that the series originally debuted in September of 1990 airing on five consecutive nights from the 23rd to the 27th. I was stationed at Offutt AFB in Nebraska (SAC Headquarters) and had a television. My work schedule was not burdensome, I just missed it.

Now, through the magic of Netflix, I am watching this, saw Part 1 last night. I regret not seeing it the first time.

Now I know there are a lot of Southerners who object to calling that conflict "The Civil War". Believe me, I understand. But get over it. We're all Americans now. That was a different time with huge differences between the way we were then and the way we are now. You weren't alive then, neither was I. Americans shed each others' blood back then. Since then we've shed blood together, in other fights. Whatever you want to call that earlier conflict, knock yourself out. Doesn't rattle my cage either way. Mr. Burns went with "The Civil War". His series, his choice.

All that aside, it's an interesting series. There are parts I have problems with (objectively and subjectively), but for the most part it's well done and well presented. FWIW, Ken Burns hails from the same small town in New Hampshire as my Dad. Different generations though. (Correction: Mr. Burns lives in my Dad's home town now, he's not from there. He was born in Brooklyn, NY.)

Now there was one story near the end of the first episode that really resonated with me and not just because it deals with a soldier from Rhode Island, which I currently call home. It's the story of Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry. Or rather the story of the letter from the Major to his wife back home.

As is usual though, that's only part of the story.

Major Ballou died of wounds received at First Bull Run (First Manassas) and was buried in the vicinity of the battlefield. That part of the story is not nearly as romantic as that portrayed in the Ken Burns series. Both though are part and parcel of what war can be like.

It seems that Major Ballou's grave was desecrated. You can read that story here. Like I said, not as romantic. But war is Hell. It's also nasty and brutish and every kind of terrible that you can imagine.

What started as simply my wanting to share this sad and touching story of a dead soldier's last letter home in a time gone by, turned into something a little more than that.

Interesting stories can often turn out to be a little more complex than you realize. You can't always take someone's version of a story at face value. What is that person's motive for telling you the story? To entertain? To convince? To simply convey information? To sell you something?

So whether you're watching or reading the news, whether it be on television, the radio or on the internet, take it with a grain of salt. There's always more to the story.

Sometimes you need to do some research. Dig a little deeper, as it were.

It's too bad that most modern journalists can't be bothered to do that.

Still and all, Major Ballou's story touched me. RIP Sir.


  1. That was a horrendous story you linked, Chris.

    OTOH, anything and everything Ken Burns does is worth watching. His recent "Dust Bowl" documentary on PBS was compelling teevee for those of us who live in the area.

    1. Yeah, kind of freaked me out.

      Like you say, Ken Burns does a damn fine job with his documentaries. I'm going to watch "The War" after I finish with this one.

  2. I've watched it several times now and given it away to those interested. It is an amazing history. Reading the two links reminded me that I'm way behind in posting more Civil War letters home. I still have a couple of hundred to go...

  3. No, seriously, it was a very interesting series. The one thing about Burns is that nobody else really does what he does. His series on baseball was the same - a huge work of art (with all that the word "art" implies, mostly excellent but every so often a slight liberty taken to make the picture a bit more aesthetically pleasing.)

    1. The slight liberties can be overlooked I think because the final product is so pleasing. And ya know, you're right, nobody else does what he does. I never looked at it that way. Nice perspective Jim.

  4. The Ballou letter is my favorite part of the series (it's part of the soundtrack CD, so I even have it on my iPod). Had no idea about the story linked above. Wow. War indeed is Hell.
    One of these days I'll have to see what I can find about what became of his two boys - how they grew into "honorable manhood". Got any links on that Chr... er.. OldAFSarge?

    1. Ya know, tracking down his children sounds like an interesting task. I just might pursue that!

      Heh. On that last bit.

    2. Here's as far as I got:
      That has their names and dates: Edgar F. (1856-1924) and William B. (1859-1948)
      So the boys were 5 and 2 at the time of 1st Bull Run. Same age as my boys now...

      Yeah, almost blew your cover there. Sorry 'bout that.

    3. I see there are no living descendants of Major and Mrs Ballou. Sad really. Also considering how young the boys were, they probably did not remember much of their father in later years.

      Don't worry Joe, Buck uses my real name all the time. Though it is kinda like calling Batman "Bruce" in public.

      Yes, I know. It's actually nothing like that at all.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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