Honorable Manhood

A few weeks ago, I watched the first part of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. I was immediately moved by the segment entitled “Honorable Manhood.”

After Ken Burns’ eleven hour documentary debuted on PBS in 1990, “Honorable Manhood” was considered the emotional turning point of the entire series. It is a love letter composed by Sullivan Ballou, a Union solider, to his wife a week before the first Battle of Bull Run. He was killed a week later and the letter was never sent.

Before I said I was “moved” by the letter, which is putting it mildly. I believe it affected me so deeply that for the next couple of days I’d catch myself reciting selections from it as I would recite a Shakespearean sonnet from time to time. (I have this ability to commit to memory poems, sonnets, and selections from plays on the first reading–an irrelevant talent in the real world). There was a specific phrase that stood out to me:

“Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.”

These are words and images in the league of Elizabeth Barret Browning, but they come from the mind of an ordinary man. Observe how he used “Omnipotence” instead of “God”–what a novel approach to diction! Look at how brilliantly he carried that “chain” metaphor from eternal love for his wife to deep-seated patriotism.

I know I sound like the poster child for all hopeless romantics out there, but this letter gives me hope in mankind again. As a literature lover, I am fully aware that only a fraction of the population cares about books and an even smaller segment really appreciates the beauty of a single word and the effect that word can have when strung together in a sentence. In my circle, I’m urged to be more practical, to look to more tangible things. The knowledge that these beautiful ideas are flitting in the mind of an ordinary man restores my faith that there are Sydney Cartons and Jean Valjeans out there who are capable of extraordinary things. “Honorable Manhood” is a real thing after all and not just an idealistic concept found in books.

I’ve included a YouTube video of the “Honorable Manhood” segment so you can see what I’m talking about. The actual segment starts on time 4:00. The score is called “Ashokan Farewell” composed by Jay Unger; it is to my belief that “Ashokan Farewell” makes the video.


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