Michael E. Ruane has a nice piece in the Washington Post today on the famous "Sullivan Ballou letter," the heartbreaking piece of correspondence featured in Ken Burns' Civil War documentary. In case you've somehow managed not to be exposed to this letter, it was written by Ballou, a Union officer, to his wife Sarah just days before he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.
The letter is best remembered for its romantic flourishes. "If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved," Ballou tells Sarah, "I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by."
But Burns notes that the missive expresses other kinds of love as well: "It's a Grand Canyon of a letter," he tells Ruane. "You can read the strata of meaning. It's all about love. First and foremost is love of country. .â€‰.â€‰. It's about love of government. .â€‰.â€‰. It's a love of cause. .â€‰.â€‰. It's a love of family."
That's right: in the letter, Ballou openly expresses his love not just for the country he's fighting for, but specifically for its government:
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 sufferings 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....
Romantic love certainly hasn't died out in the 150 years since the Civil War started. Neither has love of country. Love of government (or even respect for it) -- that's another story.