A Postal Revolution and a Political Upheaval


Southern states began seceding from the Union shortly after Lincoln was elected as President in late 1860 and the Civil War officially began on April 12, 1861 when shots were fired at Fort Sumter.(2) On May 27, 1861, after initially hoping to maintain the Post Office Department within the Confederacy in the hopes of influencing the south with propaganda via northern newspapers, Postmaster General Blair ordered for all postal business to be halted in the Confederate states; the western region of Virginia, which would eventually become the new state of West Virginia, was excluded from this order because of the area’s overwhelming support for the Union.(2) The Post Office Department devalued all current stamps after learning that the Confederacy was selling them to fund their war effort, and new stamps were immediately issued in their place. Furthermore, all Southern mails were intercepted and barred from entering the North to ensure that any anti-Union propaganda from the Confederacy would not be transported into the Union.(3)

With all communication from the South blocked from entering the Union, the government transferred its concern to the fear of insurrection from within the Union itself. The distribution of any mails with perceived pro-southern or anti-abolitionist sentiments had to be stopped. The border states were of especial concern because of their proximity to the South and the great number of southern sympathizers there. Maryland, in particular, was a crucial spot for the north to maintain as it was the main thoroughfare to the nation’s capital.

As postmaster general, Blair understood that the Post Office had an immense influence on the types of mails that were distributed. If a public document such as a newspaper or pamphlet was considered blasphemous or traitorous, it could be withheld from the mail; because the Department was the primary means for distributing mails in the 1860’s, a withheld mail’s audience would be severely diminished. As the editor of the Journal of Commerce stated in 1861, "Without the use of mails, there is not a newspaper in the land that could long exist.”(4) After a push from the State Department, Blair, who believed that it “was his duty during time of war to prevent seditious matter from reaching the enemy and to close the mails to matter which might instigate others to aid the rebels,”(5) declared any newspaper that demonstrated southern sympathies or other traitorous matter, would be denied transportation through the Post Office.(6)

The censorship of newspapers via the Post Office Department first took place in the summer of 1861 after a New York grand jury handed down a decision stating that certain Northern newspapers were expressing Southern sentiments, thereby making them traitorous. On August 22, the Department responded to this decision by ordering all New York postmasters to refrain from mailing these newspapers, which included the Journal of Commerce, Day Book, Freeman’s Journal, News, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. While the censorship of mails was initially prompted by an entity outside of the Post Office, a state court, the Department also censored papers on its own. By the end of 1861, twelve more newspapers had been censored from the mail by the orders of Postmaster General Blair.(7)

The censorship of the mails was a subject of great debate. A letter to Blair from New Jersey Senator James W. Wall sorely reprimanded Blair for the censorship: “If the proscribed papers have reflected severely upon the conduct of the Administration, they had a right so to do in a Republic where it has been our most cherished beast that the acts of our rulers are open to the freest scrutiny.”(8) To Wall, the first amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press were nonnegotiable. They existed to assure that a totalitarian and tyrannical government could never establish itself within the United States.  Furthermore in the letter, Wall attempted to shame Blair by praising his father, Francis Preston Blair:

[Francis Blair] once said, 'Under no possible emergency, not even in insurrection or amid the throes of civil war, can this Government justify official interference with the freedom of speech or of the press any more than it can with the freedom of the ballot. The licentiousness of the tongue and of the pen is a minor evil compared with the licentiousness of arbitrary power.' Little could he have then supposed that one of his own sons should lend himself to carry out an arbitrary edict that prostrated this boasted freedom at a blow.(9)

Wall was firm in making his point—not only was the action of censure tyrannical in nature, but to see such actions from a member of the Blair family was embarrassing and disappointing. Postmaster General Blair promptly sent an irritated reply to Wall stating that he did not censure the newspapers because he thought they were dangerous; rather, “the objects of the writers were traitorous, the demand of the people that they should be aided by the machinery of the Government in those objects, could not be disregarded, although I do not myself apprehend any serious effect from such writings."(10) In such effect, Postmaster General Blair believed that he was doing his job to protect the people of the United States. He argued that he did not make his decisions regarding censorship based on his own personal views or the views of anyone else in his family; rather, he ordered the papers to be censored for a justifiable cause—protecting the union from confusion and unrest during war time.

In early 1862, the censorship of newspapers was tightened and the procedures for censorship were taken over by the War Department. From that point on, the Post Office took orders from the War Department regarding all issues of newspaper censorship. Though he was no longer responsible for the issue of censorship, Blair still stayed in contact with Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton regarding the issue.(11) Suppression of the mails continued throughout the war in various forms. Highly controversial at the time, Blair’s newspaper censorship was a product of a unique political atmosphere of the time that resulted from the confusion of the succession of southern states, the Civil War, and corresponding questions regarding Union loyalty.

1) Smith, 4.
2) Fowler, 43; Montgomery Blair, letter to the Postmaster of Wheeling, VA, May 29, 1861, National Archives.
3) Fowler, 43.
4) Journal of Commerce, 1861, quoted in Fowler, 45.
5) Fowler, 45.
6) Ibid.
7) Ibid, 48.
8) James W. Wall, letter to Montgomery Blair, August 26, 1861.
9) Ibid.
10) Montgomery Blair, Letter to James W. Wall, August 31, 1861.
11) Fowler, 49.