I recently watched Ken Burns' Civil War series again, and was reminded of Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island , a man made famous 129 years after his death by this film.
On July 14th, 1861, as the Union Army was preparing to leave Washington DC on its first campaign into Confederate territory, Sullivan Ballou sat down and wrote his wife a love letter. Two weeks later he died from wounds received at the First Battle of Bull Run.
If you tried to put words like these into fiction you'd sound trite, or artificial; but I think that's because we've developed a tin ear for genuine emotion. We only respond to hits of stimulation. Over half-million men who died in the Civil War, and no doubt many felt about their wives and families the way Sullivan Ballou did. No doubt in each generation those who give their lives in the service of their country feel this way too, but they don't happen to be gifted writers like Ballou. Their feelings have gone unrecorded, and their families can only take comfort in imagination.
I've heard it said that play is the work of children; that play is how they practice what they'll become as an adult. The only disagreement I have with that is that play should be the work of adults as well. No matter what kind of human being we are, we can become better ones. Fiction seems on the face of it to be pointless, but I look at it as play in which we practice putting ourselves into the minds of other people. Maybe that can open our minds to the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people.
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I think it was most startling to hear something being read aloud, that I recognized---the bulk of it was given in Volume One of Bruce Catton's Civil War history---but didn't think would make such a profound impression on anyone else, much less come up anywhere else. (Catton referred to the writer as Sullivan "Bullen.")
Sometimes I think I'd give anything to write something that moving...
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