Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861

Post Office, Mooresville, Alabama. The oldest post office in Alabama, this Mooresville structure dates to the early nineteenth century and exemplifies the humble but significant nodes of the postal network that connected antebellum Americans to each other – and to their government. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

If your state seceded from the United States today, how would it first affect your daily life? Scholars typically study the secession crisis of 1860 to 1861 in terms of high politics, with the action unfolding in Washington and southern state capitals. For humbler residents of the seceding states, however, a distant convention did not necessarily make disunion a tangible reality. Instead, many literate white southerners first encountered the practical consequences of secession through the mail.

Historians have long noted that the Post Office was a primary connection between antebellum Americans and the federal government. “For many Americans of that time,” writes one scholar, “mail service was the only daily – or even regular – contact they had with their government. Indeed, in some of the country’s smaller settlements, the post office was the only manifestation of the federal government that people would ever come in direct contact with.”[1] One should not overstate this point: it would be difficult to convince a Cherokee survivor of the Trail of Tears, a post-1848 resident of California or New Mexico, or a fugitive slave captured after 1850, that the antebellum federal government was small and unobtrusive. But the Post Office theme does dramatize changes wrought by the Civil War, during which the federal government conscripted citizens, taxed incomes, and otherwise extended its reach. Less well-known, however, are the ways in which rituals of sending and receiving mail brought the reality of secession into routines of daily life.

Portrait of Postmaster-general John H. Reagan. John H. Reagan of Texas was the Confederacy’s first and only Postmaster-General. After fleeing from Richmond in 1865, Reagan was captured with Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials in Georgia on May 10. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

U.S. and Confederate policymakers knew that mail delivery was significant as both a public service and an expression of sovereign power. After February 1861, Confederate Postmaster-General John H. Reagan swiftly built a new postal system upon the foundation of the extant U.S. network, aided by postal clerks who brought skills – and all manner of blank forms and other bureaucratic supplies – with them from Washington. Local postmasters, route agents, and other personnel were directed to continue the work they had done under US authority. Reagan would be one of the Confederacy’s most capable cabinet-level officials.[2]

For his part, Abraham Lincoln vowed in his inaugural message to continue delivering the mail in the seceded states, unless such efforts were “repelled” by secessionist attacks.[3] This was part of Lincoln’s policy of maintaining normal relations with the seceded states so far as possible, and it was up to his Postmaster-General, Montgomery Blair, to execute Lincoln’s order. Anticipating trouble, however, Congress had already passed a law in February 1861 authorizing the discontinuance of service on routes where delivery was unsafe; eventually, under this authority, Blair suspended mail delivery in the seceded states (exempting the future state of West Virginia) in late May. Subsequently, mail addressed to a seceded state was routed to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, although later some carefully scrutinized letters did pass between the lines under flag of truce.[4]

The son of Francis Preston Blair, Montgomery Blair was born in Kentucky and spent much of his professional life as an attorney in Missouri and Maryland. Blair, a former Democrat, helped to organize the Republican Party in the mid-1850s and served as Lincoln’s Postmaster-General until September 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite the swift movements of Union and Confederate leaders, the situation on the ground was confusing and uncertain, particularly during the secession winter of 1860 to 1861. It was in these wrenching months that Americans first grappled with secession’s sometimes unexpected intrusions into previously mundane daily tasks.

Secession left southern postmasters – who in that era were political appointees, not trained professionals – in a precarious position. Customers continued to buy stamps and post letters, even as a collision between state and federal authorities seemed imminent. Rumors proliferated, and while attention fixated on federal forts (particularly Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina), there was talk of disrupted mail service, too. Knowing that this could leave them dangerously perched between competing sovereignties, postmasters sought guidance. James R. Gates, a postmaster in Mississippi, wrote to Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas for counsel in mid-February. His state had seceded a month before, but he pleaded for assistance from a well-placed US senator who could offer insight into what president-elect Lincoln might do. “Let me know if the mails will be stoped [sic],” he asked, and “when it will take place.”[5]

Postal customers were similarly uneasy. Stephen W. Church, a northern-born merchant living in Charleston, wrote his uncle two weeks after South Carolina seceded to report that everything was “in a complete state of anarchy.” Exhibit A was the pending collapse of the mail system due to a shortage of postage stamps. The local supply had run out, and the Postmaster General had refused to resupply the city. “This of course is one of the least of the troubles,” Church admitted, “but it annoys me very much,” as he had struggled to find a single stamp for the letter to his uncle in New York.[6] For a displaced Yankee, life in Charleston was necessarily nerve-wracking, but the interruption of mail service threatened to isolate him entirely from sympathetic kin.

In secession’s immediate aftermath, addressing a letter sometimes brought home the magnitude of the moment. When Andrew McCollam penned a note to his wife the day after Louisiana’s state convention voted to secede, he dated it from the “Republic of Louisiana.” “From the above caption,” he solemnly reflected, “you will see and perhaps realise the fact that…you are no longer a citizen of our Glorious Republic of North America.” McCollam, a convention delegate, had tried to delay disunion but ultimately accepted that it was inevitable.[7] The gravity of his failure struck him when he first dated a letter from outside the United States.

Disunion was similarly vexing for those seeking to send mail into seceded states. In mid-November 1860, one Washington, DC, resident hastily scribbled a letter to South Carolina fire-eater William Porcher Miles, determined to mail the message before he would “be required to pay ‘foreign postage’ on a letter to Charleston.”[8]

Perhaps no one felt the disruption of mail delivery more keenly than Unionists who were also young and in love. John Wesley Halliburton, a Tennessean attending the University of North Carolina, regularly corresponded with his fiancée (and second cousin) Juliet Halliburton, who lived in Little Rock. Divided from her by distance and politics – Juliet was an avowed secessionist – John worried that disunion would halt mail delivery and permanently divide the star-crossed lovers. “No more to feel the joy which nothing but her letters or presence can inspire,” he lamented. “No more can you render me perfectly happy by telling me you love me….I among the first will suffer from the dissolution of this mighty fabric.” For the lovesick Halliburton, isolation from Juliet would likely be among the “first fruits of that disastrous course” pursued by secessionists.[9]

Envelope Showing Confederate Flag, addressed to Miss Lou Taylor, c. 1861-1865. Patriotic stationery flourished in the Union and Confederacy alike, allowing partisans on both sides to affirm their political loyalties whenever they wrote a letter. This interesting envelope bears the image of the Confederacy’s first national flag, but the recipient lived in Ohio. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In time, however, Unionists and Confederates alike soon found that the mail could also reaffirm new political identities. Hence the abundance of patriotic stationery, emblazoned with flags, slogans, martial imagery, and portraits of national heroes.[10] By using these items, partisans on both sides could express their national loyalties every time they mailed a letter. Some of these nationalistic materials crossed the lines; one can only imagine what Lou Taylor of Cincinnati thought if and when she received the envelope bearing a Confederate flag. Unless she was a displaced rebel, this letter reflects the continued desire to correspond with friends and family living on the other side of the Civil War’s bloody chasm. Thus, whether it ran smoothly or ground to a halt, the mail offered daily reminders that the hard hand of war touched every aspect of life.

 

[1] Bruce T. Harpham, “Postal Service, U.S.,” in The Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History, ed. Christopher G. Bates, 4 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2015), III, 836. See also Melinda Lawson, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 5; Adam I. P. Smith, The American Civil War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 5; and James McPherson, The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 6.

[2] Walter Flavius McCaleb, “The Organization of the Post-Office Department of the Confederacy,” American Historical Review 12, no. 1 (October 1906): 66-74.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, “Inaugural Address,” The American Presidency Project, accessed June 4, 2018, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25818.

[4] Report of the Postmaster General Respecting the Operations and Condition of the Post Office Department during the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1861 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1861), 10; Amy Murrell Taylor, The Divided Family in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 107-116.

[5] James R. Gates to Stephen A. Douglas, February 19, 1861, Box 39, Folder 4, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[6] Stephen W. Church to Thomas J. Coggeshall, January 3, 1861, Stephen W. Church Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[7] Andrew McCollam to Ellen McCollam, January 27, 1861, Andrew McCollam Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[8] [?] Nelson to William Porcher Miles, November 18, 1860, William Porcher Miles Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[9] John Halliburton to Juliet Halliburton, February 12, 1861, John Wesley Halliburton Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[10] See Stephen W. Berry, “When Mail Was Armor: Envelopes of the Great Rebellion, 1861-1865,” Southern Cultures 4, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 63-83.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.

3 Replies to “Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861”

  1. Michael….you were a history buff in grade school and I remember how you loved studying the Civil War!! Congratulations on writing this interesting article!!! Your former teacher is proud of you!!

  2. I’ve heard that the Union purposefully worked to keep the mail system running so soldiers could communicate with home and feel more compelled to stay and fight. On the other hand, the lack of a dependable mail system in the south led to desperate families not hearing from their loved ones, causing more unrest and uncertainty at home and thus more southern desertion. The theory being the postal system influenced the outcome of the war itself.

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