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Chuck Schumer's inauguration speech reframed the most famous part of Ken Burns's Civil War

Schumer’s reading of a famous love letter is a subtle callout of revisionist history.

Memorial at Sullivan Ballou’s grave site at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.
Richard Geib
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

On July 14, 1861 — one week before the first major battle of the American Civil War was fought at Bull Run — a Union soldier named Sullivan Ballou wrote a passionate love letter to his wife, Sarah. He would never send it; Ballou was killed at Bull Run, and the letter was found among his belongings after his death. But his words have lived on, first reaching a wide audience in 1990 when filmmaker Ken Burns featured Ballou’s letter in his seminal documentary The Civil War, and entering the cultural conversation again this week, when Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer quoted Ballou at Friday’s inauguration of President Donald Trump.

In the decades since The Civil War’s debut, Ballou’s letter has worked its way into the annals of pop culture by way of parody. As narrated by actor Paul Roebling over the strains of a weepy folk ballad, the letter is the foundation for the documentary’s most iconic moment: a beautiful message from a fallen soldier to the wife he would never see again, indelibly stamped with Burns’s florid, melodramatic presentation of it.

But when Schumer read an excerpt of Ballou’s letter during Trump’s inauguration — where he spoke about living in “a challenging and tumultuous time” — he was drawing on a part that's often left out of its cultural legacy: Ballou's commitment to the fight for social justice.

Ballou’s letter is indelibly associated with Ken Burns’s documentary

When PBS first aired The Civil War over the course of a week in September, 1990, it set a viewership record for the network, with its debut earning the title of the most-watched opening episode of a series ever to play on public television. It was that opening episode that featured Ballou’s letter, in a tremendously moving (and maudlin) reading enhanced by a sequence of still photographs and Jay Ungar’s sentimental ballad “Ashokan Farewell” playing beneath:

Ballou seems to have a premonition of his own death. He begins by telling Sarah that he might not have a chance to write for a while, then relays anxiety over the possibility of leaving his children fatherless. Still, he reaffirms his commitment to the fight and his love of country, and ends by promising Sarah that he will always be with her: “Never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.” At the end, he delivers what are perhaps the letter’s most famous lines:

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night — amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours — always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

A version of Ballou’s letter (there are multiple surviving copies of the text, with some variations; the original has been lost) had been unearthed in the 1980s by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Don Fehrenbacher. When Fehrenbacher sent a copy of the letter to Burns, he was delighted, and made it the centerpiece of The Civil War’s first episode.

Ballou’s letter struck a nerve. The Washington Post called it “a love letter of unbearable beauty,” while People gushed that it had “touch[ed] America’s heart as [Sullivan] once touched Sarah’s.” Newspapers were swamped with requests for transcripts, while the soundtrack, which featured the reading of the letter, sold thousands of copies.

However, the outpouring of admiration didn’t last — and time hasn’t been as good to Sullivan Ballou as you might expect.

The letter ultimately became cultural shorthand for cheap sentiment and dangerous historical romanticizing

Ballou’s letter is commonly referred to as “the Civil War letter,” and its emotional showcase in The Civil War has been the subject of many homages, parodies, and remixes. The NBC sitcom Community once dedicated an entire episode to parodying The Civil War, dramatically narrating pensive texts from soldiers on the front lines of a massive pillow fight to capture Ballou’s tone. The internet is teeming with Civil War parodies, each one replete with tongue-in-cheek love letters narrated over moving fiddle music.

But that assimilation hasn’t really been positive — in fact, it trends toward painting the original documentary as “plodding and fatuous,” overly melodramatic cheese. There’s a reason for that: Modern critical reevaluation of The Civil War has been hard on Burns’s overly sympathetic view of the South and its role in the conflict. Writing for Slate in 2011, James Lundberg was deeply critical of the way in which the documentary presented a reductive view of the war to generations of viewers, and primarily used the tactic of heady emotional manipulation to do it. “Burns stages a relentless, multifront assault on viewers' emotions,” he argued, in order to “[refashion] the history of the Civil War into a semimythical narrative, one of collective sacrifice in the name of freedom and national unity.”

Lundberg noted the way Burns used Ballou’s letter to help him accomplish this glossing-over of American history:

Union Major Sullivan Ballou's never-delivered letter to his wife Sarah demonstrates that the sentimentality of 19th-century romanticism can still jerk a tear ... Burns' film, with its tidy vision of national consensus, consummated the growing romance with the Civil War ... Watching the film, you might easily forget that one side was not fighting for, but against the very things that Burns claims the war so gloriously achieved.”

Viewed through this lens, the sentimentality that allowed Ballou’s letter to capture America’s heart is arguably dangerous, blinding us to the risk of romanticizing and plastering over deep divisions in our nation’s history.

In 2015, critics reviewing the documentary on the occasion of its 25th anniversary were able to comfortably view this lesson as a distant moral. Time’s Jeffrey Kluger congratulated modern audiences for seeing through The Civil War’s “subtle whitewashing” the way 1990s audiences hadn’t. Newsweek, meanwhile, praised Burns’s ability to graciously “humanize” the losing side in a cultural battle it viewed as definitively over.

In short, The Civil War’s use of Ballou’s letter is something of a contentious issue, due to its inextricable associations with Burns’s historical romanticizing. So why would Sen. Schumer turn to the letter to help make a point about the strength of America through diversity?

Because it contains a sentiment that, in spite of the letter’s cultural associations, is deeply relevant to progressives today.

Schumer removed Ballou’s letter from its common cultural context in order to reclaim it for progressive idealism

Most people are familiar with Ballou’s letter for its swooningly romantic sentiments — no great surprise, because Ballou’s writing is pure poetry.

But telling his wife he loved her was only half of Ballou’s point, as Schumer is clearly well aware. The part of the letter he chose to read actually establishes the dedication of Democrats to a continual fight for freedom and diversity.

Southern historians have tried continually to rewrite the Civil War as a war of “Northern aggression” and a fight for “states’ rights” rather than a war to keep enslaving human beings — but in 1861, Ballou, a passionate supporter of President Lincoln, must have known exactly what he was fighting for. “I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged,” he wrote in the part of the letter Schumer read, “and my courage does not halt or falter.”

Here’s the rest of the excerpt Schumer chose:

I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us, through the blood and suffering 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. Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me to you with the mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break. And yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

Schumer skipped most of the schmoopy romantic parts and focused mainly on Ballou’s solemn assertions that he was fighting a fight worth dying for. At a time when progressives are calling upon one another to unite and resist the Trump administration, Ballou’s words are a subtle but powerful call to arms.

At the end of his inaugural remarks, Schumer did something significant — he asked America to read past the clickbait. “I urge all Americans to read Ballou's full letter,” he said. “His words give me solace, strength.” In the part of the letter Schumer didn’t read, Ballou repeats his love of country, and ties his decision to fight to his personal principles:

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles I have often advocated before the people and "the name of honor that I love more than I fear death" have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Schumer’s use of Ballou’s letter was strategically smart. For Trump voters who associate the letter with fond memories of The Civil War, it is still a moving example of patriotism and a call for unity. But for anyone hearing Ballou’s words for the first time, devoid of their associations with Burns’s documentary, the letter is a rallying cry for progressives to battle for the nation’s honor — in a fight many fear is just getting started.