“My dear wife and all loved ones at home:
Your dear good letters of the middle of September, entrusted to Mr. Brown, were received—the only words from you since I was taken prisoner, which is three weary months today.”
–Captain John Sprague, Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, from a letter written to his family while he was held in a Confederate prison in Charleston, SC, 1861
Letters from home were lifelines for Civil War soldiers, and by many accounts they spent every spare moment writing or reading correspondence from loved ones.
Imagine the complexity of mail delivery during the Civil War. Troops were often on the move, by train, wagon or on foot. Erratic weather conditions not only slowed U.S. mail carriers but could turn a wad of paste-backed postage stamps into a gummy, unusable lump in a haversack.
Residents of the seceded southern states were entirely cut off from federal wartime mail delivery soon after the outset of the war. Union officials sought to isolate and block supplies from the South. Just before the April attack on Fort Sumter, the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States established the first CSA Post Office Department. The U.S. Government suspended mail delivery to the South and did not accept Confederate stamps. Postal historians report that the Confederate postal service was generally understaffed, underfunded and inefficient.
Nor did the Confederate States of America recognize or accept Northern stamps. As a result, both sides allowed their soldiers to send letters without postage, provided they or their officers verified that the piece of mail was from an enlisted man. This led to a majority of Civil War mail arriving postage due; letter recipients were required to pay for the postage.
Letters that broke out of prison
Columbia, SC, Jan. 25, 1862
I have written to you some half dozen letters already and received no answer. Don’t you receive them?”
—Captain Giles Shurtleff, Company C, Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Add to these obstacles the dim prospects for prisoners of war to send and receive letters. Prison guards were known to read and censor prisoners’ mail, and if they were in a certain mood, might also “lose” or destroy written communications.
Castle Pinckney, SC [Prison], October 13, 1861
“Dear [Lorain County]News:
I wrote a full account of our capture of the wounded and prisoners to Colonel Tyler after I was captured. General Floyd consented to send this communication under a flag.”
The flag Union Captain Shurtleff refers to in this letter is a “flag of truce.” Ships waving white flags would sometimes ferry soldiers’ letters around blockaded ports and to border post offices like the one at Fortress Monroe in Hampton, VA. Though this method was very slow, it did aid soldiers and officers like Shurtleff, who was held in several different Southern prisons in Virginia and South Carolina.
Active brains spending long hours behind prison walls came up with some clever workarounds of the fractured wartime postal services. Captain Shurtleff wrote:
“Whenever anyone was sent North we sent a large secret mail with him. On the 21st of May, a large number of private soldiers were sent from Salisbury. One of them brought North a half-dozen letters for me. Most of them were put between the lining and the outside of the boot-leg.”
That gives new meaning to the term “bootleg,” which we more commonly use today when referring to illegally recorded music or movies.
In his book, A Year With the Rebels, Giles Shurtleff, who later rose to the rank of Brevet Brigadier-General, also described an especially clever way of posting a letter: inside a button.
“One letter I sent by writing on tissue paper, taking the cap from a brass button of the New York State Militia, wadding my letter into it, adjusting the cap again upon its base and sewing the button on the coat. When the militia man reached New York, he cut the button off and sent it to its destination.”
At war’s end, the Confederate Postmaster General himself was arrested and became a prisoner. However, he was eventually pardoned by the U.S. Government and won a seat in Congress.