As tensions in the United States rose to a fever pitch and civil war broke out in 1861, Union leaders began to develop ways to isolate the mutinous southern states. In addition to erecting a blockade meant to keep supplies from reaching the South, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair cut off mail service to states that had seceded. Confederate stamps were valueless in the North, and mail addressed to the Confederate states was taken to the Dead Letter Office and subsequently returned to the sender.
Letter images courtesy of Bill Proudfoot.
Suspended mail service to the South caused significant problems for the many families who were split by the country’s division. Although the purpose of stopping mail service to the South was to isolate and corner the Confederate states, some mail still managed to cross the border in what were known as “flag-of-truce” ships. When the Union began blockading southern ports, letters were often carried across the border by blockade runners or routed through foreign ports. While these methods meant that letters often took a long time to reach their intended recipient on the other side of the border, they still allowed friends and families to stay connected as their divided country raged around them.
Soldiers in the Civil War also had a difficult time sending mail to and receiving mail from their loved ones at home. While it was relatively easy for the army post to find soldiers when they were encamped for several weeks, periods of intense action saw both armies in perpetual motion. This continued shifting of location made delivering the mail a very real challenge. Families and friends persisted in writing, however, since the letters they exchanged were their only connection to their men at the front, and soldiers greedy for any reminder of home clamored for more mail. Newton Scott, a private in the Iowa Volunteers, epitomized the soldier’s need to hear from family and friends in a letter to his childhood companion Hannah Cone: “Well, Miss Han, I will tell you that I and Will has written about a dozen letters since we left home, and received but two or three letters. This is the second one that I have written to you and received no answer.” In between battles time went slowly for the soldiers, who needed the occasional word from home to know that they were not forgotten.
Scott and Hannah Cone exchanged letters throughout Scott’s four-year tenure fighting in Arkansas, he providing her with first-hand accounts of the war and she giving him the all-important images of home. Their correspondence, filled half with grim battle tales and half with fond memories and news of home, illustrates the strange condition of Americans during the Civil War. In one letter dated January 19, 1864, Scott described the hanging of a rebel spy in one paragraph and moved on to recollections of the Christmas season in the next. After commenting on Hannah’s cheery holiday, he said of the boys in the camp that there were “No roasted turkey for dinner and no visitors to see us, but we stay at our camps thinking of home and of old times, and hoping for happier days to come.” Hannah’s stalwart letters to her friend, a connection to home when he needed it the most, drew the two comrades closer over the duration of the war. They married in 1866, a year after Scott was released from service at the war’s end, and went on to raise nine children together.
Not all Civil War letter-writers had such pleasant thoughts as love of home and family on their minds. James Paxton, a Confederate soldier confined as a prisoner of war in Indiana’s Camp Morton, described the atrocities he faced there in a letter to his friend Val Giles. “New Year’s Day, 1864, was the coldest day I ever saw,” wrote Paxton. “Several [prisoners] were frozen to death; others were so injured that they fell sick, and the ‘old gray horse’ was kept busy hauling out the dead.” When several fellow prisoners, despairing of ever being released, attempted to escape, they “were caught and tied up by the thumbs to a rack, and then, stretched up on tip-toes, were left standing as long as they could bear it. This was called ‘riding Morgan’s mule’ by the prisoners.” Far from writing for pleasure or companionship, Paxton, who succeeded in being released from the camp and eventually settled in Texas, wrote this letter as a testament to the terrible things he had seen during the war.
One of the major issues of the Civil War was the continued practice of slavery in the Southern states, and some of the most moving letters of they day came from slaves or former slaves. Prominent abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, who had been a slave in Maryland until his escape in 1838, wrote a letter to his former master Thomas Auld ten years later, and eventually published it in his abolitionist newspaper TheNorth Star. In the letter Douglass recounted the morning of his escape—“I have no words to describe to you the deep agony of soul which I experienced on that never-to-be-forgotten morning . . . . thanks be to the Most High, His grace was sufficient; my mind was made up. I embraced the golden opportunity, took the morning tide at the flood, and a free man, young, active, and strong is the result.” While ostensibly a personal letter, the publication of this missive allowed Douglass to “make use of [Auld] as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery.” His public reckoning of the abuse he suffered at Auld’s hand became a document of great power in the fight against slavery in America.
Equally moving to read are letters from slaves who escaped their condition to join the Union Army. The hope they held for the future, and their faith in the government that let them fight for their own freedom, are evident in the letters sent by those former slaves who had learned to read and write. One fugitive slave named Spotswood Rice, a Union soldier wounded in battle, wrote to his former mistress Kittey Diggs demanding the release of his children, who were still being held by the Diggs family. Rice lambasted Diggs for her treatment of his family, writing, “ . . . mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own, and you may hold on to her as long as you can but I want you to remember this one thing, that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell . . . .” The fate of Rice and his children is not known, but his letter stands as a demand for the rights of a parent and repudiates the claim that the children of any human being could ever be another man’s property.
While becoming a Union soldier allowed free blacks and escaped slaves to fight for their freedom, black soldiers still had to face unequal treatment in the army. They were paid less for the same service given by white soldiers, they were often denied the same clothing given to whites, and doctors were frequently reluctant to treat them when they were sick or wounded. This last fact resulted in the rate of death by disease being twice as high among black soldiers as it was among the rest of the army. Hannah Johnson, mother of a black soldier in the 54 th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, wrote to President Lincoln and entreated him to secure equal conditions for black members of the Union Army. Encouraging the President to adopt her cause, Johnson wrote, “Will you see that the colored men fighting now, are fairly treated? You ought to do this, and do it at once, not let the thing run along . . . . We poor oppressed ones, appeal to you, and ask fair play.” Johnson’s letter acted as a petition to her president, the man who officially freed all American slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, and encouraged him to keep working for the equality of every citizen.