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Postal System Development During the Civil War
Institute of Communications Research
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
228 Gregory Hall
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During the Civil War, postal system development in the United States
and Confederate States of
America took radically divergent paths. Whereas the U.S. subsidized
its postal system, the
Confederacy required self-sufficiency. While it remarkably achieved
this goal, it did so at the
cost of service and public access. To the contrary, the U.S. Post
Office implemented several
service innovations during wartime. Post-war the U.S. Post Office
Department was an active
participant in the reunification process.
During the Civil War, postal system development in the United States
and Confederate States of
America took radically divergent paths. Whereas the U.S. subsidized
its postal system, which
typically operated at a loss at the expense of universal service, the
Confederacy required selfsufficiency.
While it remarkably achieved this goal, it did so at the cost of
service and public
access. Both sides faced wartime personnel and supply privations,
although what were critical
problems in the South were just inconveniences in the North. The USPS
even managed to
implement several important service innovations during the war years.
Soldiers and citizens on
both sides developed coping strategies to deal with mail-related
hardships. Following the end of
hostilities, the U.S. Post Office Department was an active
participant in the reunification process.
When the United States split in two, the resultant halves took
radically divergent paths
with regard to the development of their postal systems. Key to this
was a disputed ideal of what a
postal system's main mission was in society at large. Without a
doubt, the Confederate States of
America had the more challenging task: it had to build an entirely
new postal system from
scratch. In doing so it borrowed heavily from the United States
Postal Service in many important
respects, both organizationally and materially.
Although the Confederate mails accomplished what no other American
postal service has
done before or since - achieve fiscal self-sufficiency - it could not
deliver the mail on this
accomplishment alone. Indeed, the Confederate Post Office Department
was doomed to struggle
from its inception with a lack of even the most basic resources
necessary to carry out the
simplest functions. Coupled with perpetual staffing crises and a
country whose borders were
frustratingly dynamic, the postal system of the Confederacy would
never achieve the operational
efficiency and effectiveness necessary to become an important
unifying social and political force
for the new nation like the United States Postal Service had been in
the antebellum years.
The picture in what was left of the United States was much different.
Freed from the
fiscal drain of serving the South, the U.S. Postal Service came close
to eliminating its chronic
deficit while simultaneously implementing new innovations that led to
increased service. When
the war was over, the United States Postal Service was one of the
tools used to glue the
reconstituted country back together.
For an unknown reason, most comprehensive examinations of U.S. postal
history tend to
gloss over this unique period in American postal history. This paper
represents a small attempt to
rectify this situation, involving the application of available
scholarship with a smattering of
primary materials to make a composite sketch of the postal system
development of both
Planning the Confederate Post Office
The Postmaster General was a cabinet-level position in the
Confederacy. It was also the
last cabinet post to be filled. The Post Office Department itself was
created in February of 1861,
although at first it consisted of nothing more than a legislative
statement of purpose: the
Confederate Congress essentially copied the relevant United States
statutes on postal operation
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 1
until the department itself could be more properly organized. When it
was, the Confederate Post
Office would fundamentally differ from its counterpart in the United
States: Section 8, Clause 7
of the Confederate Constitution called for the department to break
even by March 1, 1863. No
such mandate has ever been imposed on the United States postal
service. E. Gary Brady believes
this provision stemmed from a deep-seated resentment for the urban
areas of the Northeast and
the better government services they enjoyed.1 Commenting on the
requirement of postal selfsufficiency,
Harper's Weekly remarked, "The new regulation will operate against popular
education in the Confederate States,"2 a function which was, in part,
one of the reasons why the
Postal System operated as it did in the United States.
John Henniger Reagan became the Confederate Postmaster General on March 6, 1861
and served for the duration of the Post Office Department's
existence. Formerly a judge, then a
United States Congressman, Reagan attended part of the Confederacy's
Convention in Montgomery, Alabama. He only took the job of Postmaster
General after turning
it down twice. Reagan worried most about being held personally
responsible for any shortfalls in
service: "[W]hile I professed my willingness gladly to perform my
duty to the Confederacy, I
said to them that I did not desire to become a martyr."3
Once he did accept the duty, Reagan wasted no time getting to work.
The same day of his
appointment, quartered in Montgomery's Exchange Hotel and with two
assistants on hand,
Reagan wrote letters to a half-dozen mid and high-level managers he
knew personally in the U.S.
Postal Service, all of whom were based in Washington, D.C., and asked
for their assistance in
creating the Confederate Post Office Department. All but one resigned
their positions and moved
to Montgomery.4 Shrewdly, they brought all of the U.S. Postal Service
supplies they could carry,
from reams of blank forms to procedural manuals.5 Institutionally,
the Confederate Post Office
Department was divided into four main sections: the Contract Bureau
(planning and fulfilling
mail route demands), Appointment Office (human resources), Inspection
Office (quality control
and enforcement issues), and Finance Bureau (all money-related
matters). It took about two
months for Reagan to build a skeletal administrative system.6
As the Department's primary objective was to achieve fiscal
instituted a regime of steep postal rate increases coupled with deep
cuts to service and
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 2
diminished commissions to postmasters. In addition, the franking
privilege was abolished for all
but a small executive cadre. Anyone caught attempting to assert a
franking privilege they no
longer qualified for could be fined $300.7 The letter rate was
initially set at five cents per halfounce,
nearly double the U.S. rate.8
Even with a lean orientation the Confederate Post Office Department
would come to
constitute the second-biggest workforce in the Southern federal
government.9 Postal routes were
organized along the "star system," as explained by Richard Ridgway:
"The large post
offices...were focal points from which regional mail service
radiated. These...were collecting and
distributing centers, usually located at railroad junctions, or where
land and water transport
routes came together."10
On May 13, 1861 Reagan announced that the Confederate States of America would
assume responsibility for its own postal service on the first of
June. As a part of this transition,
Reagan required all postmasters to forward their ledger books and
most of their supplies to
Washington, D.C., less that needed to cover expenses through the end
of the month. Reagan also
ordered the return of "all property pertaining to the [United States]
postal service...except mail
bags, and locks and keys."11 All contract employees were offered the
option to continue their
service,working under the same terms and conditions as provided by
the U.S. postal system.12
United States Postmaster General Montgomery Blair agreed to cease
service to the seceded
states.13 Personally, Reagan hoped the transition would go smoothly
for all involved:
We must regard the carrying of our mails at this time...as a great
public necessity to the
people of both governments, resulting from their past intimate
political, commercial, and
social relations....Such a course on our part, springing from such
motives, will preserve
the character of our people without impairing the dignity of our
government, with far less
injury to the people of both than would necessarily follow from
precipitate action on the
part of either.14
Hindrances to Successful Postal Operations
As the Southern states seceded their governments took possession of
all federal property
and materiel and canceled all debts owed to Northern creditors or the
U.S. government. A hardy
band of Confederate pirates even formed to raid U.S. sea trade, armed
with letters of marque and
reprisal from Confederate President Jefferson Davis.15 The first U.S.
post office claimed for the
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 3
Confederacy was in Charleston, South Carolina, on New Year's Eve,
1860. The New York Times
would later editorialize about the "theft of federal property" by
postal workers in the South.16
Executing the transition was much more complicated than was assumed.
period was short: the first complaints about service problems were
received in Richmond on June
18.17 The United States, in a way, sabotaged the development of the
Confederate postal service
by failing to appropriate money to pay for operations in the South
during the 1861 fiscal year.
Many postal workers who could have worked in the new system had
already spent several
months working without wages. In the spring of 1861 they began to
abandon their posts.
Unfortunately for Reagan the routes most-abandoned "generally
constituted trunk lines, which
supplied the inferior routes throughout the country with their mail
matter." As a result, "great
and widespread embarrassment was produced and continued until new
service could be
procured."18 An initial exemption from military service for
"postmasters, post riders, and drivers
of mail stages" enticed some to stay on the job through the shaky changeover.19
Even though the Confederate postal service was much less ambitious in
scope than the
USPS, it was never able to fully extend itself. Many of the abandoned
routes failed to attract
replacement bidders, which resulted in the suspension of service.20
For many who did work for
the Confederate Post Office, it was "merely a sideline occupation,"
according to Ridgway:
"Many post offices were small with commissions averaging less than
$100 per quarter. The local
country store often served in a postal capacity, and the Department
accepted any centrally
located residence, mill, or way-station as an office."21
The significant rate hikes and service disruptions triggered by the
transition to a
Confederate postal administration was perceived as an opportunity by
express parcel delivery
companies. Even though they were prohibited by law from carrying
postal matter, there was no
real effort to enforce that law, as the Post Office itself did not
have adequate power to compel
compliance.22 This competition cut into postal revenues to an
undetermined (but generally
believed to be significant) degree.23
Operation of the C.S.A. postal system was also hindered by a lack of adequate
transportation resources, the most problematic of which was
rail-related. In 1861 Postmaster
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 4
General Reagan called a conference of Southern railroad chieftains
and cajoled most of them into
cutting their freight charges for the postal service in half. This
agreement was never actually
implemented: very few railroads actually signed contracts to follow
through on their promises.
The railroads also knew there was much more money to be made
servicing the supply needs of
the military and such work was not very compatible with the Post
Office's need for consistentlyscheduled
operations. Thus there was much uncertainty whether any particular train would
accept its allotment of mail freight at any particular time, which
led to backups of mail scattered
throughout the network. This was a significant problem, and each side
blamed the other.
The railroads...felt that they had been drawn into a hard bargain
which continued to grow
more irksome with the increasing abnormality of business conditions;
and the postmastergeneral...
came to regard the railroads as monopolistic corporations quite
devoid of reason
In his first annual report, Reagan described mail transport by rail
as "so irregular, as to make it
an accident, now, instead of the rule, to have regular connections
between any distant and
important points."25 In a month and a half "there were forty failures
to make connections for the
mails on the rails between Richmond and Charleston, due either to
wrecks, accidents to engines,
or heavy loads of soldiers."26
Transporting the mails within its borders was enough of a headache
for the Confederate
States - sending and receiving mail beyond its borders proved even
more difficult. The United
States conducted a highly successful blockade of Southern ports,
starving the Confederacy of
essential supplies. A healthy trade developed in blockade-running,
plied by small, fast ships,
many of which were built by British capital.27 The usual system of
getting international mail out
of the South involved meeting up with neutral ships to transfer the
mail for the duration of its
journey. Common rendezvous points included Cuba and Bermuda, and
occasionally Canada and
Mexico.28 While the primary effect of the blockade was to strangle
the Confederacy's lines of
international commerce, it also cut the country off from effective
diplomatic and other
communication with the rest of the world.
The Confederate States of America operated from the outset at a
disadvantage from an economic perspective. Simply speaking, there was
no significant industrial
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 5
base for the Confederacy to mobilize to fulfill its need for the
materiel to keep a federal
government functioning and an army on the march. This national
structural deficiency affected
not just the Confederate Post Office Department but every aspect of
the Confederate economy.
The Post Office, like the rest of the country, learned this the hard
way, according to L.R.
Garrison: "When the postmasters applied for 'letter balances,' the
central office could not supply
them because they were not made south of Boston." Even the basics,
like twine and loose paper,
"became almost unobtainable at the price which the department could
spare from its insufficient
revenues," because there were no paper or twine factories in the
South to supply its demand. As
a result, '[p]aper of certain grades rose from ten cents a pound in
1861 to one dollar a pound in
1863, and some of the mills asked even more."29 In 1861 the Post
Office Department spent
$9,000 on wrapping paper; three years later the bill was $25,834.30
As the war wore on people
improvised things like paper and envelopes by using any scraps they
could find to write on,
including torn-out pages from library books and wall paper;
"[e]nvelopes of earlier
correspondences were carefully 'turned inside-out,' regummed and and
Inflation plagued the Confederate economy to the point of causing a
currency shortage. It
was not uncommon for Confederate irregulars to stage raids on post
offices deep into Union
territory, on the hunt for both specie and supplies.32 In 1863, when
Reagan asked for $50,000 to
establish a line of credit in England for departmental supplies, the
Christopher G. Memminger, refused the request because to free up the
liquidity necessary to
fulfill it would "be to lose to the treasury two-thirds of its
value." Reagan threatened to report
Memminger to the President for mishandling funds and ultimately got
One might think stamps would be an obvious requirement for the
operation of any postal
network, but the Confederate Post Office started out doing business
without them.34 Reagan
decreed that "until postage stamps and stamped envelopes are
procured...all postage must be paid
in money...."35 The Post Office's policy of not giving change for
transactions worked to suck
currency - especially coinage - out of the general economy.36
The Confederate Post Office Department had a very difficult time
procuring stamps. No
simple printer would suffice. The lithographs used to make stamp
designs must be intricate
enough to deter counterfeiting. Stamp-printing also requires special
paper stock and equipment
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 6
to perforate sheets into individual stamps and to coat each sheet
with an adhesive backing. No
Southern state had the infrastructure necessary to do the job. The
Department first advertised for
bids on postage in a dozen major cities, including several in the
North.37 According to Garrison,
"The department was arranging to have stamps prepared before June 1,
1861, when the outbreak
of the war stopped negotiations." A New York company then offered its
but "political changes interfered." Next, a party in Montgomery
offered to take on the project,
but when he was given the proposed designs for the stamp line
"nothing was heard from him
afterwards." In early May another man was contracted to print the
stamps, but he could not get
his printing equipment into the South from the North. Two clandestine
attempts were then made
"outside our territory" to either secure the necessary printing
equipment and/or print the stamps
themselves, but both had to be abandoned.38 In the fall of 1861 a
printing house in Richmond was
finally contracted to provide the first stamps of the Confederacy.39
The first delivery - more than 1.4 million stamps - was woefully
inadequate. As Reagan
later complained, "The small supplies...only serve to increase the
public discontent, as they are
insufficient to meet the demands of even the principal cities."40 A
proper domestic postage
printing operation was not established until 1863, and it never came
close to satisfying demand.41
The chronic stamp shortage drove local postmasters to devise their
markings to signify that letters and parcels had been properly paid
for. While this did facilitate
the involvement of mails within certain localities and regions, it
was far from the uniform
postage system essential for a proper nationwide service. Postage
from the category of the
"irregulars" or "postmaster's provisionals" is highly prized by
Postmaster General Reagan did not sanction the improvisation of
postage, but turned a blind eye
to the practice.
Even though stamps were scarce, as inflation outpaced the supply of
were called upon to act as a substitute for change. Stamps were an
obvious supplement, as the
Post Office's policy of not making change forced patrons to buy more
stamps than they needed;
so much so that thousands of stamps never made it onto any mail.43 In
1864, when the currency
crunch reached crisis, a limited cache of 20-cent stamps was printed
up solely to meet the
national demand for small change.44 This alternative use of stamps
had an immediate effect on
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 7
the revenues of the Confederate Post Office Department. In 1861,
revenue from letter postage
represented 76% of the South's postal income, with 10% derived from
the sale of stamps. In
1862, stamps accounted for 65% of the service's revenue, while letter
postage slipped to 27%.45
The Confederate postal system's drive toward self-sufficiency was
greatly assisted by the usage
of stamps as fractional currency.46
Although it constituted the second-largest government workforce in
States of America, the Post Office Department was perpetually
understaffed. As an enticement to
keep experienced postal employees at their posts, a special exemption
from conscription was
given to postal staff. This was a source of tension between the
Confederate Post Office
Department and the War Department.47 Postmaster General Reagan
complained that the Army
was forcibly conscripting people against the law while the military
accused the Post Office of
running a jobs program for draft-dodgers.48 There is an element of
truth to the latter accusation.
It certainly did not help that the Post Office's job advertisements
often listed exemption from
conscription as a fringe benefit. There is also evidence that people
did take postal jobs to avoid
the military.49 One bid, on a route that transversed several points
in Texas and terminated at Fort
Washita in the Indian Territory (today known as Oklahoma), was for
one ten-millionth of a cent;
the local postmaster who collected the bids noted, with no small
amount of sarcasm, that the
bidder "[did] not state whether he will take his pay quarterly,
annually, or at the end of term all
in a lump sum, in paper money or coin."50
To partially placate the Army, the post office in the capital city of
into its own city-defense unit, complete with an officer and enlisted
corps. To its surprise and
consternation the Army accepted the gesture at face value and drew
upon its clerks quite
regularly, "being withdrawn from their duties for months at a time.
The post office department
could not legally appoint other clerks had it so desired, and much of
its business had to remain
unattended to.51 Working in a state of constant understaffing and
-supply, where the purchasing
power of one's wages dwindled as the war marched on, made for
terrible morale among the
postal workforce. This moved some to strike, like postal workers in
Richmond did in August of
1863. The walkout halted the mails for three days until Postmaster
General Reagan promised to
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 8
petition the Confederate Congress for a living wage.52
The Confederate Army operated its own courier service, independent of
postal establishment. In scattered cases (usually in remote, frontier
areas) this service functioned
in lieu of the civilian post.53 Yet it was not large enough to handle
the volume of correspondence
generated between soldiers and their families and friends back home,
all of which was consigned
to delivery by the Confederate Post Office. The government instituted
a special franking
privilege for military mail as a way to sustain morale. However, a
standing army order prohibited
military mail runners from transporting anything without the proper
postage, and therefore the
privilege backfired. J.O. Steger, postmaster of Richmond, Virginia,
vividly described the
consequences in a complaint letter to John Reagan:
As near as can be ascertained, there are at this time in this office
ten thousand letters
addressed to soldiers in the army which have not been taken out of
the parties to whom they were addressed could not or would not pay
the postage due on
them....A large number of these letters, I am informed by my clerks,
are travelling the
rounds with the army, without ever having been taken out...as the
private soldiers rarely
have an opportunity to apply at the office themselves, it is certain
that so long as the
franking privilege is continued, a very large number of letters
addressed to soldiers by
other soldiers will remain as dead matter in the offices.54
Postmasters were not fond of franked military mail, "not only for its
volume, but because they
were unable to draw their commissions from franked mail....Thus
postmasters serving the
various armies were subjected to the labor of large outgoing mails
without the commensurate
commissions from the postage."55
Regular correspondence between Confederate infantryman Edwin Fay and
his wife in
Minden, Louisiana frequently mentioned the mails: "Don't worry or
feel bad if you don't hear
from me every week as facilities for mailing letters are not good,"
wrote Fay. He suggested using
a more informal and unofficial postal service: the traffic of
soldiers going on and coming back
from leave: "Persons are passing through Minden to Fuller's Co.
frequently and if your letters
were always ready, you could find frequent chances of sending but
don't let this interfere with
your mail letters. They do come through...sometime."56
A Dynamic Service Territory
The final operational challenge of note to the Confederate Post
Office was the dynamic
nature of the country's borders. When Postmaster General John Reagan
began planning out the
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 9
structure of his postal network, there were seven states in the
Confederacy; shortly after taking
over postal operations he found himself supervising service in 13.
Then, as Union armies
marched southward, they carved the Confederacy into noncontiguous
major water, rail and road transportation links. Reagan found himself
tending to an ever-shifting
service territory, with a concomitant need to rework postal routes
and the placement of
personnel. It was apparently difficult to keep the postal network
confined to the Confederacy's
fluctuating boundaries: for example, it operated in West Virginia,
even after it achieved U.S.
statehood in 1863, "and on down until very shortly before the final
scene at Appomattox."57
There are at least three confirmed West Virginian postmasters who
served both sides, depending
on who had control of their county at the time.58 Many who lived in
areas regularly traded
between the United and Confederate States went without postal service
for months at a time.59
The U.S. military split the Confederacy in two when its armies
captured New Orleans in
April of 1862, and reinforced this divide with the capture of
Vicksburg, Mississippi in July of
1863. In reaction, Postmaster General Reagan established the
Trans-Mississippi Agency, a sort
of decentralized headquarters for Post Office operations west of the
Transferring mail between "west" and "east" was a constantly daunting
accomplished by contractor-smugglers.61 Reagan reported this to be
dangerous work as the
Mississippi River was heavily patrolled by U.S. forces. "The river
was crossed in rowboats,
under cover of night and at many points."62
Postmasters in the western Confederate states worked in the roughest
conditions of all.
They had to deal with native raiding parties, which would often
ambush mail and supply wagons
and sack relay outposts along mail routes.63 The El Paso mail route
was the most bloody. It was
raided regularly by ambush parties, a fate often painfully fatal: "in
one of two instances [mail
wagon] passengers were hung up by the heels, their heads within a few
inches of a slow fire, and
they thus horribly roasted to death. Others were found tied to the
wheels of the coach, which had
Both the citizenry and military developed impromptu systems of mail
delivery outside of
the Confederate postal system. By far the most common was the
carrying of letters and packages
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 10
by soldiers returning to and from duty: As told by Boyd Stutler, this
informal network also sent
traffic through the lines and allowed a limited amount of
correspondence to flow between the
Confederate and United States: "volunteer carriers slipped through
the lines with their pockets
bulging with letters....Young women were especially active...often
passing through the Union
lines on some innocent pretext when they were loaded down with
The Confederate Post Office: Overall Effectiveness
In the face of these combined challenges it is no small feat that the
Office Department achieved fiscal sustainability by its 1863
deadline. Postmaster General
Reagan's report tendered to Congress on December 19 advertised a
healthy surplus of
$675,000.66 However, raising rates and slashing service cut off
access to the mails for many
Confederate Americans, most notably among those who were poorest.67
Although John Reagan
hoped to avoid becoming a martyr, he failed in that regard. "The
newspapers complained bitterly
about the loss of mail. Cabinet members and government officials were
frequently harsh in their
denunciation of the service." Even the otherwise patient Robert E.
Lee was a vociferous critic.68
It is somewhat a matter of luck that historians know as much as they
do about the
Confederate Postal Service. When the Confederate government first
documents were dispersed on the run with friends and colleagues
throughout both the U.S.A.,
C.S.A., and Canada.69 U.S. troops essentially sacked and burned
Richmond when they captured
it, though one of the few recognizable buildings left was the post
office.70 The Union army did
not try very hard to round up and forward Confederate documents to
Washington, D.C. for
archiving. Many went home with U.S. soldiers as souvenirs; others
were put to use as wrapping
paper; still others were recycled into useable paper products. There
were even autograph-hunters
combing the city looking for papers containing the handwriting of
Davis or members of his
Cabinet. Ultimately some 211 "boxes, barrels, and hogsheads of
Confederate materials" were
shipped to Washington from Richmond.71 This included 120 bags of
mail, which was scanned for
official documents. Those were confiscated, "but private letters
[were] left unopened with the
intention of turning them over to the United States Post Office
Department for delivery."72
What remained of the Post Office's records were not handled well in
the aftermath of the
Civil War. Following the cessation of hostilities the War Department
transferred its cache to the
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 11
U.S. Post Office Department, which then proceeded to temporarily
misplace them for about five
years, "for in 1871 it suggested the captured Confederate Post Office
Department records be
transferred to it from the War Department, probably much to that
department's amazement." It is
unknown how much of the archive was lost or destroyed before its
"residue" was turned over to
the Library of Congress in 1906.73
Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan was captured along with President
Jefferson Davis and other members of his Cabinet at Citronelle,
Alabama on May 10, 1865.74
In a related vein, telegraph service in the South suffered a similar
fate to the postal
service. In May of 1861 Jefferson Davis ordered the nationalization
of the Confederate telegraph
network, delegating its maintenance and expansion to the Post Office.
allowed the telegraph cartel to continue managing its own lines, so
long as it did so in the
national interest.75 However, The telegraph network infrastructure
essentially fell apart over time,
as "at the beginning of the war there was not a single wire or glass
factory in the South, and there
was a great lack of telegraph wire, battery acids, and other
materials" to adequately maintain it.76
United States Postal Service During the Civil War
In contrast, the United States Post Office Department tidied up its
own fiscal situation
and implemented several improvements that significantly enhanced
service to the public during
the war. The USPS was also one of the federal agencies that worked to
stitch the country back
together. Montgomery Blair was U.S. Postmaster General from 1861 to
1864; he resigned and
was replaced by William Dennison, who served for a single year.
As states seceded from the Union, the Post Office continued providing
service for as long
as a state would allow it. "The mails, unless repelled," pronounced
Abraham Lincoln, "will
continue to be furnished in all parts of the Union," and Postmaster
General Blair concurred with
this stance. He even continued to plan for the expansion of postal
routes in the South up until
John Reagan declared the Confederacy's intent to launch its own
postal system.77 There were
several reasons to keep the postal traffic alive:
Business houses in the North had financial accounts to settle with
Southern customers, or
many of them would face ruin; the Post Office Department hoped to
receive the monies
owed to it by postmasters in the seceded states, many of whom were
deserting their posts;
the War Department, by mail, was receiving information valuable to
its plans from loyal
citizens in the seceded states and from its secret agents there; the
people of both North
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 12
and South had relatives across the line...; and finally, intercepted
letters to known
Southern sympathizers and pro-secession groups, of whom there were
many in the North,
might supply the State and War Departments with information leading
to their arrest and
During this period, envelopes traded between North and South became
propaganda, marked with lithography depicting secession and slavery.79
When the Confederate Post Office began operations, U.S. postmasters
were directed to
strip Southern mail of its postage, especially if it was U.S.
postage. It was then either forwarded
to its destination as "unpaid," meaning the recipient would be
required to pay for its delivery, or
set to the Dead Letter Office.80 For a short while, private couriers
tried to make a go at crossborder
trafficking. In 1861 the Adams' Express Company advertised letter
delivery service from
North to South for a 25-cent surcharge (on top of the three-cent cost
for a postage stamp).81 This
went on for about a month until President Lincoln decreed a halt to
commerce between the two
countries in August.82
Wartime Hardships Outweighed by Service Improvements
Like its Confederate counterpart, the United States Post Office faced
hardships. The United States also suffered a currency shortage. In
1862 the U.S. government
decreed stamps useable as legal tender for change, which in turn
caused a run on stamps that
caught the USPS flat-footed. In fact, throughout the rest of that
year, "the demand...was always
excess of the daily supply of stamps."83
The volume of military mail was daunting: in August 1861 the Post
estimated it processed 26,000 letters daily addressed to military
personnel. Soldiers wrote about
45,000 letters home per day. The Post Office set up special post
offices at forts and large camps,
and every Army regiment had its own postmaster.84 The USPS also
established a group of 16
"special agents" who, among other duties, acted as roving
postmasters, either helping to evacuate
post offices threatened by nearby fighting or reestablishing postal
service in reclaimed
Northern soldiers also took to moonlighting as unofficial mail
couriers. One group that
regularly performed this function were agents involved in clandestine
activity which required
traveling in both countries, frequently to assist a citizen or
soldier defect. "Pilots," as they were
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 13
called, often loaded themselves down with mail from friends afield to
loved ones in either
country.86 One of these pilots, Captain Daniel Ellis, a loyalist from
eastern Tennessee, chronicled
his postal duties in retrospect:
I have a long hemp sack to put my letters in. I carry it across my
shoulder, half on one
side and half on the other....I had about 1500 letters for soldiers
and others...To some
there was good news, to some there was the news that a son, or
husband was surely
dead....Well, I would have a sorrowful time with these women...some would be so
distressed that I would weep with them. I almost determined to quit
the business of a pilot
on this very account.87
The war did take a toll on the U.S. Post Office. Wayne Fuller notes
robbery of post
offices was a significant problem before and during the war,
"particularly in the border states,
where no post office was safe from armed men. In 1863 the postmaster
general estimated that
there had been one hundred attacks upon post offices that year, with
losses as high as $6,000."88
U.S. postal routes in frontier areas also fell victim to ambush. In
1864, Postmaster General Blair
reported to Congress: "Owing to Indian depredations, the overland
service was much interrupted
during the months of August and September last, and for a period of
four or five weeks, the
whole mail for the Pacific coast and the Territories was necessarily
sent by sea from New
York."89 To make matters worse, a statutory fluke left the U.S. Post
completely unprotected and ill-equipped to recover from war-related
loss and damage.
According to Arthur Hecht, "[military-related] losses...could not be
compensated for without
special legislation....Under existing regulations, the Post Office
Department had no authority to
make allowances for the destruction of public property by war,
robbery, or theft."90
Yet these problems paled in significance to the service innovations
the U.S. Post Office
made during the Civil War. Morale remained high throughout the
workforce, possibly because
the franking privilege was extended to all postmasters; those who
made less than $200 a year got
to send all of their personal mail for free.91 Railway mail service
underwent a radical overhaul:
clerks sorted postal matter en route to its destination in special
mail cars, streamlining the overall
sorting efficiency of the system.92 City free delivery service was
launched in 49 cities on July 1,
1863, a date better known as the start of the battle at Gettysburg.93
Part of the cost of free city
delivery was offset by "a gratifying increase" in local postage
revenue.94 Finally, the U.S. Post
Office launched the country's first money order service, which
permitted "relatives and friends
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 14
of soldiers to forward with confidence sums of money to help
alleviate the hardships of war or
soldiers to send funds home to their dependents" for a small surcharge.95
U.S. Post Office revenue during the war rose significantly. The
Department's best singleyear
revenue before hostilities was $8,518,067.40; in 1864 the Post Office
received more than
$14 million from the loyal States alone.96 This did wonders for the
Post Office Department's
structural deficit. From 1859 to 1861 the Post Office Department ran
a $5.7 million average loss
per anum; during the war period that shrank to $820,000.97 By 1865,
Congressional appropriations) actually outpaced expenditures.
Postwar Postal Reintegration
In the spirit of reunification, the U.S. Post Office worked with
advancing U.S. armies to
provide rudimentary mail service in reclaimed territories. There were
exceptions to this rule,
such as when, in 1862, Union forces laying siege to New Orleans
ordered a complete cutoff of
mail service. A Mobile, Alabama-based resistance group called the
Committee" worked with refugees from New Orleans and sympathizers who
stayed put to sneak
mail through the garrisons.98
Following the end of the war, U.S. Postmaster General William
Dennison sent agents into
the South "with instructions to offer their services to provisional
governors in the defeated states
and to reestablish immediately...postal service to county seats. The
rest...were to be reopened as
rapidly as possible."99 The scope of the undertaking was enormous,
After more than a year's work, the postal agents had been able to
reopen only 2,778 of
the nearly 9,000 post offices the proud Confederacy had once
had....The next year, the
South still had less than half its own mail service...not until 1878
did the South finally
have as many post offices at it had in 1860.100
Part of the problem was a lack of qualified workers. The USPS
required all employees to take an
oath "proscribed by [law] requiring uniform loyalty to the government
during the rebellion as the
condition of holding office and for the conveying of the mails."101
Not many in the former
Confederate States could make such a claim.
Still the reconstruction effort was quite impressive. By 1866 the
U.S. postal service was
operating more than 8,170 miles of railroad divided up among 90
routes; 5,557 miles of
steamship routes; and 46,442 miles of garden-variety overland routes,
for an aggregate of 60,170
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 15
miles. That's more than triple the aggregate route mileage covered in
1865. According to
Postmaster General Alexander Randall (who replaced Dennison), this
constituted half the total
prewar postal infrastructure in the South.102 The following year,
Postmaster General Randall
reported a net working deficit for providing postal service in the
former Confederate States of
In the decades that followed the war, Southern representatives in
ardent supporters of a beneficent postal service. Southern
congressmen were instrumental in
creating rural free delivery, which represented a significant turn
away from Confederate-era
sentiments that the postal service be self-supporting.104 Southern
congressmen also led the way to
secure federal funding for road improvements - something every one
from a former Confederate
state, save two, voted to support.105 Southern states were rewarded
for their renewed support:
between 1880 and 1891, 40% of the post offices built in the United
States were located in the
South, "a figure representing the increasing power of the South in
the nation's councils."106
Postal system development in the United States and Confederate States
different paths preceding and during the Civil War. The Confederate
Post Office Department
never had the proper staffing, proper supplies, or the proper
relationships with its country's
transportation sectors and military services necessary to
successfully execute its duties. Many of
these problems originated outside the Post Office's purview; it was
at the mercy of a nonexistent
industrial base and rampant inflation just like the rest of the
country. However, some stemmed
from unwise policy decisions specific to the postal system. The most
glaring flaw was embedded
in the Confederate Constitution, where the self-sufficiency of the
postal service was required by
law. While it did achieve this goal, it precluded the Confederate
postal service from acting as an
effective distributor of public information in the process. Increased
rates priced access to the
postal network outside what a large segment of the Confederacy's
population could afford.
Additionally, the postal service generated friction between itself
and the military by lobbying for
and fiercely protecting the privileges that exempted its personnel
from conscription. All of this
was at the very least detrimental to the war effort and may have
negatively affected morale in
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 16
Development of the United States postal system during the war stands
in stark contrast to
the struggles of the South. Freed from the fiscal drain of serving
the seceded states, the U.S. Post
Office dramatically reduced its operating deficit, to the point of
reporting a surplus in the war's
final year. Simultaneously, it expanded its service, improved system
efficiency, and reduced
rates for a segment of its customer base. This kept the postal system
open to a majority of the
U.S. population, who responded with a massive upsurge in postal
system usage during wartime.
Thanks in part to its fundamental mission to serve the public at
large (irrespective of selfsufficiency)
and having the sizable advantage of a mighty industrial base to
support it, the U.S.
Post Office Department was able to adapt and grow in what was a
environment. This provided benefits for both the civilian and
military populations, the latter of
which enjoyed a strong connection to the larger national postal
network. Although soldiers and
citizens of both countries endured mail-related hardships during the
war, what were crippling
problems in the South were just inconveniences in the North.
Whereas the United States Post Office has been hailed as a
revolutionary force in the
history of the country's postal development, the Confederate Post
Office, by writ of its founding
structural organization, was prohibited from playing a similarly
positive role. On this particular
topic Postmaster General Alexander Randall gave the contemporary last
word in 1866.
It has always been an erroneous theory in the history of the postal
service of the United
States that it was established or sustained on the principle of
wholly defraying its own
expenses out of its own revenue; or, in other words, on the principle
that it should be
self-supporting. It is a great public necessity to accommodate
private citizens, and it will
not do to say that no mail route shall be opened, or post office
established, until the
business on the proposed route or the proposed office shall pay all
[T]here comes back to the people in real wealth almost as many
millions of dollars as the
government expends...in this particular branch of service.107
Whether postal systems help to win or lose wars may be a matter of
debate, but an examination
of postal system development during the Civil War reveals much about
the general economic and
social health of each country and how it evolved (or devolved) as the
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 17
1. E. Gary Brady, The Self-Sufficiency of the Confederate Postal
Service; Measures Used
for its Attainment and Effect on Morale (Charlotte, North Carolina:
n.p., May 28, 1971, p. 2.
2. n.a., "The Two Constitutions," Harper's Weekly, March 30, 1861, p. 194.
3. Quoted in Walter Flavius McCaleb, "The Organization of the
of the Confederacy," The American Historical Review, vol. 12, no. 1
(October 1906): 68.
4. L.R. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post
Office Department -
I," The Southern Historical Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 2 (October, 1915): 112.
5. Unfortunately, this did not include postal route maps: the only
one Reagan was able to
procure in full was for the state of Texas. See Id.
6. Richard F. Ridgway, Self-Sufficiency at All Costs: Confederate
Post Office Operations
in South Carolina, 1861-1865 (Charlotte, North Carolina: North
Carolina Postal History Society,
1988), p. 9.
7. Confederate States of America, Post Office Department,
Instructions to Post Masters
(Richmond, Virginia: Ritchie & Dunnavant, 1861), p. 9-10.
8. August Dietz, The Postal Service of the Confederate States of
Virginia: The Dietz Printing Company, 1929) Dietz. p. 12.
9. It was a distant second to the War Department; see Paul V. Van
Riper and Harry N.
Scheiber, "The Confederate Civil Service," The Journal of Southern
History, vol. 25, no. 4
(November, 1959): 450.
10. Ridgway, p. 21.
11. Garrison, p. 114.
12. John H. Reagan, By the Post-Master General of the Confederate
States of America: A
Proclamation, May 13, 1861.
13. This does not mean that the exchange of mail between the two
immediately. In fact, post offices in Louisville, Kentucky and
Nashville, Tennessee played
instrumental roles in keeping conduits of mail flowing between the
two countries after the
supposed cutoff date; Nashville held out the longest, as Tennessee
did not secede immediately.
This allowed mail to flow across the border for a short while after
postal connections had
officially been severed. See Steven C. Walske, Post Office Mail Sent
Across the Lines at the
Start of the American Civil War: May to July 1861 (Louisville,
Kentucky: Philatelic Bibliopole,
14. Quoted in Dietz, p. 15.
15. Silvana R. Siddali, "The Sport of Folly and the Prize of Treason:
Property Seizures and the Northern Home Front in the Secession
Crisis," Civil War History, vol.
47, no. 4 (2001):310.
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 18
16. Arthur J. Lewis, "Problems of the Selma Post Office, 1861-1865,"
vol. 19, no. 4 (1966): 278.
17. Garrison, p. 115.
18. John H. Reagan, Report of the Postmaster General, November 27,
1861, p. 11-12.
19. Ridgway, p. 13.
20. Ridgway, p. 11.
21. Ridgway, p. 24.
22. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office
Department - II,"
The Southern Historical Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3 (January, 1916): 247.
23. Id., p. 243-246.
24. Id., p. 236-237.
25. Reagan, Report of the Postmaster General, p. 15-16.
26. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office
Department - II,"
27. Lawrence R. Sheffield, Confederate States of America: The Special
(New York: The Collectors Club, 1961), p. 54.
28. Dietz, p. 58.
29. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office
Department - I,"
30. Ridgway, p. 51.
31. Dietz, p. 350.
32. Boyd B. Stutler, "The Confederate Postal Service in West
Virginia," West Virginia
History, vol. 24, no. 1 (1962): 40.
33. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office
Department - II,"
p. 232-235. The Confederate treasury often utilized surpluses from
some departments (like the
Post Office) to fill in deficits in others. At the time of the
controversy the Post Office actually
had more than $314,000 in its Treasury accounts, a good portion of
that in coin.
34. Brady, p. 11.
35. Dietz. p. 16.
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 19
36. Lewis, p. 278. As the currency shortage got worse, postmasters
were authorized to
open up credit accounts for their customers, who could run a tab on
stamps up to $5 before
having to pay for them; see Dietz, p. 28.
37. Dietz, p. 3.
38. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office
Department - I,"
39. Brady, p. 12.
40. Reagan, Report of the Postmaster General, p. 4.
41. Dietz, p. 19, 133. An earlier shipment of critical stamp-making
captured by the Northern blockade in 1862; see Jerry S. Palazolo,
"The Postal Service in the
Confederacy," Museum Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1 (Summer 1972): 15-16.
42. Id., p. 25.
43. Brady, p. 13.
44. Dietz, p. 274.
45. Ridgway, p. 37, fig. 3-3.
46. Brady, p. 24.
47. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office
Department - I,"
48. Brady, p. 20-21.
49. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office
Department - I,"
p. 131, 136.
50. George H. Shirk, "Confederate Postal System in the Indian Territory," The
Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 1, no. 2 (1963-1964): 181.
51. Garrison, "Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office
Department - I,"
52. Brady, p. 29-30.
53. Shirk, p. 217.
54. Letter of J.O. Steger, Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia, to
Postmaster General John
H. Reagan, January 1, 1863.
55. Ridgway, p. 47.
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 20
56. Brady, p. 25-26.
57. Stutler, p. 32.
58. Id., p. 34-35.
59. Brother Thomas Whitaker, "History of the United States Post
Office South Union,
Logan County, Kentucky 42283," Filson Club History Quarterly, vol.
47, no. 2 (April 1973):
60. Shirk, p. 167-168.
61. Dietz, p. 288-289.
62. Quoted in Dietz, p. 18.
63. Austerman, p. 80-81.
64. Id., p. 90.
65. Stutler, p. 40.
66. Ridgway, p. 31.
67. Id., p. 2-3.
68. Brady, p. 25.
69. Dallas D. Irvine, "The Fate of Confederate Archives: Executive Office," The
American Historical Review, vol. 44, no. 4 (July 1939): 824-825.
70. Dietz, p. 438.
71. Dallas Irvine, "The Archive Office of the War Department:
Repository of Captured
Confederate Archives, 1865-1881," Military Affairs, vol. 10, no. 1
(Spring 1946): 93-96.
72. Id., p. 101.
73. Irvine, "The Fate of Confederate Archives: Executive Office," p. 837-838.
74. Palazolo, p. 22.
75. J. Cutler Andrews, "The Southern Telegraph Company, 1861-1865: A
Chapter in the
History of Wartime Communication," The Journal of Southern History,
vol. 30, no. 3 (August
76. Id., p. 333-335.
77. Wayne E. Fuller, The American Mail: Enlarger of the Common Life
University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 101.
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 21
78. Sheffield, p. 16.
79. Stephen W. Berry, "When Mail Was Armor: Envelopes of the Great
1865," Southern Cultures, vol. 4, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 63.
80. Sheffield, p. 7.
81. Arthur Hecht, "Union Military Mail Service," Filson Club History
Quarterly, vol. 37,
no. 3 (July, 1963): 228.
82. Sheffield, p. 32.
83. Hecht, "Federal Postal History of Western Virginia 1861-65," West
vol. 26, no. 2 (January, 1965): 69-70.
84. Hecht, "Union Military Mail Service," p. 240.
85. Id., p. 238.
86. Allen Ellis, "The Lost Adventures of Daniel Ellis," Journal of
History, vol. 74 (2002): 58.
87. Id., p. 64-66.
88. Fuller, p. 246.
89. Montgomery Blair, Annual Report of the Postmaster General of the
United States for
the Fiscal Year 1864 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office,
1864), p. 12.
90. Hecht, "Union Military Mail Service," p. 234.
91. Hecht, "Federal Postal History of Western Virginia," p. 71.
92. Cullinan, p. 84.
93. Id., p. 85.
94. Alexander W. Randall, The Annual Report of the Postmaster General
of the United
States for the FIscal Year 1866 (Washington, D.C.: Government
Printing Office, 1866), p. 10.
95. Cullinan, p. 84-85.
96. William Dennison, Report of the Postmaster General for the United
States for the
Fiscal Year 1865 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1865), p. 18.
97. Blair, Annual Report (1864), p. 7.
98. Sheffield, p. 95, 98-99.
99. Fuller, p. 102.
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 22
100. Fuller, p. 103.
101. Dennison, p. 18.
102. Randall, p. 3, 52-53 (Appendix F).
103. Randall, p. 3.
104. Fuller, p. 105.
105. Id., p. 107-108.
106. Id., p. 104.
107. Randall, p. 14-15.
Postal System Development During the Civil War - 23