You know what I’m talking about, right?
In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Captain Frederick Wentworth is reunited with Anne Elliot, a woman who had refused his proposal at her family’s insistence years earlier. He bravely tries to win her hand again. Fearing she may accept her cousin, whom her family favors, he writes a letter professing what is most likely his final plea. The one no heart could resist. “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more yours than when you almost broke it, eight years and half ago…I have loved none but you.”
It doesn’t get much better than that.
Or does it?
Although that is one of my all-time favorite romantic declarations, it is fiction. Captain Wentworth, while dashing and honorable, never existed. Nor did his unfailing love for Anne.
But what about real life love stories?
In the summer of 1861, the first major battle of the American Civil War raged near the tiny creek, Bull Run, not far from the town of Manassas, Virginia. In the days leading up to the confrontation, soldiers prepared mentally and physically for the battle by cleaning their weapons, sharpening their bayonets, and drilling in company and regimental formations.
And writing their loved ones.
Major Sullivan Ballou was one such soldier. An officer with the 2nd Rhode Island infantry, Ballou had been a lawyer and Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives who answered Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Knowing his regiment would see action, Ballou’s thoughts turned to his wife and sons. Like soldiers throughout history, he wanted them to know one last time how much they meant to him and he penned a letter his beloved Sarah would only receive if he fell in battle.
Words meant to remind her and his sons of his love.
Words that give me goosebumps 155 years later.
Here are some of my favorite excerpts from his passionate letter:
“If I do not [return], my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.”
“The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding 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 boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.”
“…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.”
Sadly, Major Sullivan Ballou fell in battle July 21, 1861.
Like Captain Wentworth, his written words were intended to be the final time he would express his devotion to the woman who had claimed his heart. Unlike Jane Austen’s characters, Major Sullivan Ballou, his wife, Sarah, and their children were real people, with shattered dreams and broken hearts.
Love so poignantly expressed by Major Ballou to his wife is far more powerful than any fiction I’ve ever read or replayed from one of my favorite movies. It drives me to create scenes and stories that make me feel what Sullivan and Sarah felt for each other and reminds me how my own heart beats for my husband of twenty-five years.
If you thought you might never see your spouse or children again, what words would you choose to express your love for them?