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The Civil War and the Mail

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This is a guest post by Amira Dehmani, a student at Stanford University who worked with the Library’s education team as a 2022 Liljenquist Family Fellow.

Communication plays a vital role during any war. During the Civil War, multiple facets of the Union and the Confederate postal systems had to evolve. This post highlights three of those key changes.

Post Offices

The Civil War was mobile, and unconventional locations, like the Union tent shown in this drawing by Alfred Waud, were turned into post offices. Wagons also played a role in helping those in service to stay up to date on battle information, communicate with loved ones, or even vote in elections.

Drawing showing a horse drawn wagon being taken from the Army Headquaters
Army Mail leaving Hd.Qts. Post Office. Army Potomac. Albert Wald, 1863

The Confederacy’s Post Office Department was instituted  under the control of Postmaster General John H. Reagan. In a written Proclamation in May 1861, he declared that “all Contractors, Mail Messengers, and Special Contractors for conveying the mails within the Confederate States, under existing contracts with the Government of the United States, are hereby authorized to continue to perform such service under my direction.” While this system became self-sustaining by the end of 1863, invasions and blockades by the Union Army hampered the Confederate postal service. As the war went on, Union victories led to the return of more and more federal postal routes.

New Postage

Civil War envelope showing American flags, eagle with laurel branches, and shield bearing message "Union and liberty"
Civil War envelope showing American flags, eagle with laurel branches, and shield bearing message “Union and liberty” Jas. Gates, publisher

Mail between the North and South was  banned, and the Union Postmaster General Montgomery Blair redesigned stamps to make all previous designs null and void. Union citizens could turn in the old stamps for the new designs. The Confederacy soon created its own pre-paid stamps, as seen in an envelope addressed to W.R. Clack.

Stamps often featured political figures like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, or Jefferson Davis.

The Soldier’s Letter

Envelope to Miss Ann Kendall with a hand holding an envelope with the words Soldier's Letter
Civil War envelope showing hand holding envelope with the message “Soldier’s letter”

Staying connected to loved ones contributed to the wellbeing of soldiers, and letters were invaluable forms of care. The conditions of war made it difficult for soldiers to keep usable stamps, so the postal service created a new kind of mail called the “soldier’s letter.” Soldiers could send envelopes with their name, rank and unit, and write or stamp “soldier’s letter” in order to send mail without postage. After they received the letter, the addressee would pay the postage fee.

Teaching Activities

  • Ask students to examine the stamps and envelopes in the Liljenquist Collection. How do the stamps from the Union compare to stamps from the Confederacy? Who is depicted in them? How do they appeal to senders’ or readers’ patriotism? What message might each government have wished to send?
  • Allow time for students to look through the letters from soldiers in the Liljenquist Collection. Why might the Union have wanted to give soldiers easier access to sending mail in camps?

What more do your students wonder about the role of mail during the Civil War?

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Comments (3)

  1. Such an interesting post! I was pleased to learn that the Liljenquist collection includes so many letters, in addition to its superb portrait miniatures. I hope that someday the By the People crowdsourced transcription program at the Library of Congress will introduce a project to transcribe the letters. That would make them truly useful to students who have difficulty reading cursive today.

  2. Hello
    I wanted to know what type of container was used to send socks; cookies; soap etc to a soldier.. we use so many cardboard boxes now a days.
    Thanks so much

    • Hi, Thanks for your comment. You might want to ask your question of the Research and Reference Services staff through the Library’s Ask a Librarian service. I think the Military History specialist will give you a good answer to your question.

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