Michigan Postmaster Stunned to Receive Civil War Letters
It was an April morning in 2015 when Lori Boes received an envelope addressed simply: Postmaster, Newaygo, Michigan 49337
When she opened it she was stunned to find several letters apparently written by a young soldier during the Civil War, more than 150 years ago. The letters were likely saved by the soldier’s family. By the 1970s, the letters found their way to an antique dealer in Muskegon, MI who’s widow later found the letters and dropped them into the mail confident that the USPS™ would get them to the right place.
“I was floored,” said Boes. “I was shaking and just in awe of what I was holding in my hands. I just could not believe I was holding something so old, yet so well preserved.”
Unsure of what to do with the mysterious letters, she contacted USPS Historian Jenny Lynch for guidance in authenticating and preserving the letters. Once the images of the letters arrived in Washington, D.C., Lynch’s staff transcribed them, compared the details in the letters with other historical accounts, and placed them in chronological order.
Steve Kochersperger, a USPS research analyst, tracked down the historical record discovering new facts and forming a surprising personal connection. “I identified with him as a boy off to see the world,” said Kochersperger. “I could also identify with his parents, since I have five kids of my own.”
Lynch also contacted Dan Piazza, Chief Curator of Philately at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, who verified the letters were genuine.
The story behind the Civil War letters
The letters had been sent by Private Nelson Shephard, a member of the 26th Michigan Volunteer Regiment, to his family back home during a pivotal period of the war. Shephard offered his account of some of the major battles. The routines of camp life as well as occasional skirmishes were described, along with the adventures of a homesick boy, far from his Michigan home and family.
The 26th Michigan Volunteer Regiment joined in the assault at Petersburg on June 16, 1864. During one of the battles, Shephard was captured by Confederate forces. Sick, cold and starving, Shephard died in the Confederate prison at Salisbury, North Carolina, on December 19, 1864. He was 21 years old.
We know the names of Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and William Tecumseh Sherman. We know their stories. Nelson Shephard was not a decorated war hero. He was an ordinary soldier; a young man like 3 million others, who donned his country’s uniform and traveled far from home.
Experiences preserved for future generations
All we know about Private Shephard is what he wrote in his own words, in a few letters that were saved and then sent anonymously to the Postmaster of Newaygo, Michigan, near his parent’s old home town. Their importance is not lost on Postmaster Lori Boes, who said, “I am so honored to have played a small part in getting these letters preserved.”
In November 2015, the letters written by Private Nelson Shephard were accepted into the collection of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, where they joined thousands of other artifacts that help tell the story of our nation.
The battle of Petersburg was featured with a Forever® stamp as part of the Civil War Stamp Series commemorating the 150-Year anniversary of the Civil War. The series ran from 2011 through 2015 and recognized key events of America’s bloodiest war. The Postal Store® still has a limited number of commemorative panels, folios and framed art featuring the Petersburg battle.
Author: Steve Kochersperger
Featured Image: From a photograph of Battery A, 2nd U.S. Colored Artillery (Light), Department of the Cumberland, 1864 (photograph courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, ICHi-07774)