Love and Marriage, Part 2: War

There are marriages that turn into war zones, as husband and wife become enemy combatants in the trenches and minefields of their shared lives. But sometimes partners who love each other have the misfortune to live or to be separated during an actual war and to live in a real war zone.


Lovers parted by war. It’s a theme found in ancient myths and stories, as well as more recent tales. Homer’s famous epic poem, The Odyssey, is the story of Odysseus, as he journeys back to his home and his wife Penelope in Ithaca, following the Trojan War. The Odyssey has provided inspiration for many works. In 1997, for example, Charles Frazier recast The Odyssey as a Civil War tale in the novel Cold Mountain. In this story, W.P. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, becomes a deserter. As he travels back home to find his love, Ada, he is helped and hindered by people and situations resembling some of those in The Odyssey. Although they knew each other only briefly, it is the thought of seeing Ada that keeps Inman going. The story alternates with Inman and Ada narrating chapters. Ada learns how to survive and finds strength she never dreamed she had. The novel was made into a successful movie and will soon be an opera.

The wonderful quirky 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen, was also loosely based on The Odyssey. It involves 1930s-era escaped convicts led by Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney. It also boasts a wonderful soundtrack of country, bluegrass, blues, and gospel that features Allison Krause, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, The Soggy Bottom Boys, and others.

But the reality of war is something else. It boasts soundtracks of battle cries, tears, moans, gunshots, and bombs, as well as music. War separates soldiers and their families, sometimes forever. Those in the midst of battles and ambushes might literally fight for their lives, while those left at home are sometimes left to face occupying troops or deserters, destruction of their homes, and food shortages. The recent tragic and sometimes horrifying news from places all over the globe demonstrates that these situations still exist. We humans are very good at finding ways to destroy our cultures and ourselves.

And yet, love endures. Goodness, hope, and beauty endure.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
–Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl

As I work on my next project, an encyclopedia of daily life during the American Revolution, I’m reminded of two things—life goes on during war AND daily life is changed by war. Sometimes it is undeniably and irrevocably changed, for the better or for the worse. For many Americans, the era of the American Revolution is confined to images of “Patriots” fighting “Redcoats,” the “Founding Fathers” gathering in Philadelphia, and perhaps some faint knowledge of the Boston Tea Party. It is something remote. But of course, as in all wars, there were real people who fought, died, profited, mourned, and just went on living. There were also those left at home who planted crops, sewed and washed clothing, gave birth, committed crimes, were victims of crimes, wrote poetry, got drunk, lived, and died. And they loved and were loved.

Those who were literate and had access to paper, ink, and a way to get letters delivered, attempted to communicate with their friends and family.

“I am rejoiced to hear you are well; “I want to know many more perticuliars than you wrote me, and hope soon to hear from you again. I dare not trust myself with the thought of how long you may [illegible] perhaps be absent. I only count the weeks already past, and they amount to 5.”
–Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14-16 September 1774

War. It goes on. But so does love.

In one of the most poignant and beautiful letters that emerged from the blood and horror of the American Civil War are these lines from Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah:

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.”

Sullivan Ballou was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.
You can read the entire letter here.

14 thoughts on “Love and Marriage, Part 2: War

  1. On my father’s side of the family, my Great great grandfather, Marion Koone served in the War Between the States. He was a member of the Ector Rifles and was captured at Cumberland Gap, Tenn. and imprisoned at Camp Douglas Ill. After the war was over, he was released barefooted, walked all the way back to GA and was recaptured five times by Union soldiers that did not know the war was over. It took him two years to return and his wife, Sara Jane, feared him dead, but she never gave up. Her hope was based on a letter she received from him while he was imprisoned dated just a few days before the end of the war. My cousin still has that letter.

  2. That’s fascinating, Susan.What a great story! Is Cold Mountain based on your family’s story? 🙂 It is amazing that he was imprisoned and then recaptured 5 times, yet still survived to make it home.That is so cool that your cousin still has the letter.

  3. I love how your research is spilling over into a blog post, one that has elicited Susan’s fascinating tale. I certainly can’t top that being of Mennonite lineage and thus pacifistic.

    You post did bring back vivid memories of my reading Frazier’s Cold Mountain though and prompted me to find my copy upstairs. Lo, and behold, I had “filed” reviews from both Newsweek and the New Yorker with the book. I must have been entranced with the reviews because I am looking at some red underlines just now and also noticing one of my notes written in the margins which says that “Cold Mountain” is the title of a book of Chinese poems based on Taoist philosophy. Who knew? Thanks for noting that the book will become opera soon. I wonder whether the hero will be portrayed more as a warrior or a wanderer. Hmmm.

    My closing thought comes from the New Testament: And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. I Corinthians 13:13
    Now I’m off to read the love letter from Sullivan to Sarah. Wonderful post, Merril.

  4. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, and your kind words, Marian! It’s been quite a while since I read Cold Mountain, and I’ve forgotten much of it. I enjoyed the movie, too. Thank you for letting me know about the title’s connection to Taoist philosophy. I don’t think I knew that. There’s a little blurb here about the opera:

    Your Mennonite ancestors would not have been fighting, but they certainly had to deal with war around them. And I imagine, remaining a pacifist during wartime is quite a test of faith and belief.

  5. Merril … Thank you for sharing Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife during the Civil War. It is just beautiful. So sad and very touching. It puts a real face on those in the war. They’re flesh and blood and they left loved ones behind to fight for a cause.

    It reminds me of a letter that author Shelby Foote read in the series “Civil War.” It really touched my heart.

    • It is beautiful–and so bittersweet, knowing that he did not survive. Yes this letter was read in Ken Burns’ Civil War series–probably with “Ashokan Farewell” in the background. I think the letter might have been slightly abridged in the documentary.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

      • I didn’t realize it was this letter that Shelby Foote read, Merril. I loved Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife. Haunting. He knew death was imminent, and his wife and children were very much on his mind.

      • It’s been a long time since I saw the show, but from doing a quick Google search, it appears to be the same letter. I agree that the letter is haunting.

  6. “War. It goes on. But so does love.” Hip Hip Hooray — I can vouch for that!

    My husband is retired military (Persian Gulf, Desert Storm). There was a 21 month stretch when our young son and I didn’t see him. We relied heavily on letters and for our son’s sake, cassette tapes of our voices being sent back and forth.

  7. Wonderful post! I admire those who cling to love and loyalty in the midst of trying times when others can’t even handle a normal daily routine. Sometimes wars come in the form of serious illness or tragedy that also test relationships without the factor of distance. No matter the presentation, those who love truly and deeply persevere.

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