John Grindrod: Lamenting the lost art of the letter

By John Grindrod - Contributing Columnist

When it comes to how we communicate with one another, there are many avenues, thanks to technology. We can fire off an email, shoot someone a text, or post messages on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I suppose if you look at it, all of these modes of communication work pretty well, as in message sent and message delivered to others.

I have to laugh whenever I think about the ways many who lived so long ago communicated with one another. Once upon a time, American Indians employed smoke signals as a long-distance means to communicate danger or signal a meeting place. I suppose the modern equivalent is still employed by the College of Cardinals when white smoke indicates that there’s a new pope.

A while back I read an interesting newspaper story about how another form of communication, yodeling, is being kept alive by some in Grandview Heights in Columbus. This form of communication was often supplemented in the Alps with the use of cowbells and the same type of alpenhorns that I saw played last September while on vacation in St. Charles, Missouri, at a wonderful Oktoberfest.

But, surely there must have been something between the use of smoke signals and alpenhorns and emails and tweets to say something to another, besides, of course, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Samuel Morse’s telegraph. And, that something was a letter, unfortunately, so very little used today.

In a way, I actually write a letter each week, to you, when I write this column. Of course, the letter is better known as a column, but it’s one I actually write longhand every single time before sitting before my computer to type and edit what you’ll eventually read. As a matter of fact, everything I’ve written as a freelancer — from the newspaper columns to the newspaper features to the “Our Generation’s” pieces and even on to the two manuscripts that eventually became books — were all written in entirety in longhand first.

Now, part of the reason for this is I’m about as old school as you can get. But, a second reason is the predominant one, which is, I just feel so much more connected to the words and the ideas they represent when they flow through my pen first.

Recently, while watching again Ken Burns’ wonderful 1990 serial documentary on the Civil War, I was reminded of how powerful a handwritten letter can be. If you remember Burns’ brilliant piece of television, you’ll remember that letters discovered from the Civil War era were used as the main narrative thread. One, in particular, is so very powerful.

Rhode Island native Sullivan Ballou, although just 32, was already a major in the Union Army. It was on a tranquil Sunday night before leaving with his men for the fight that would take his life and so many others’ in the First Battle of Bull Run that Ballou sat down and wrote a letter home to his wife, Sarah.

The entire text can be found on for those of you unfamiliar with the eloquent prose filled with such powerful imagery and passion, both for his wife and for his country, and if you remember and lament the lost art of the letter, I encourage you to read Ballou’s in its entirety.

I’ll share with you two excerpts that show his unwavering love of family and country on the final night of his life.

Ballou told his wife, “I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt to those who came 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.”

Ballou went on to say, “Sarah, my love for you is deathless; it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love for country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield … perhaps it is the wafted prayer that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.”

To the young, known today as the millennials, so long on freshness of face and even longer on impetuosity, there was indeed a time when people took the time towrite thoughtful longhand prose of such incredible power and beauty.

Perhaps in this, another year with which we’ve been blessed, it’s time for all of us — from the boomers to the millennials — to take another look at a form of communication that combines a writing instrument and a clean white sheet of paper, a piece of paper that Simon Ballou would have called broadside when he wrote his final letter to his dear Sarah.

By John Grindrod

Contributing Columnist

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at

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