The History of Mail and the Civil War
More than 30 years after I first walked into the Postal Service’s historian’s office, I still come to work every day excited by the opportunity to learn and share something new about this wonderful institution. The Postal Service has a vast history and has played such an intrinsic role in our country’s creation and growth that there are endless possibilities for me to find fresh insights to study and preserve for future generations.
Understanding Americans’ relationship with mail during the Civil War is one of those topics that invites further exploration. The wealth of information we gather from letters from both sides of the conflict is staggering. Most soldiers were literate, and some were prolific writers, seemingly spending much of their spare time writing home.
Some of these letters can be heartbreaking — the sense of longing for home is palpable — but many also illustrate how letters can be comforting and uplifting, warming a young soldier’s homesick heart or alleviating the concerns of worried family and friends.
An insightful collection of Civil War letters can be found in the recently released “Between Home and the Front,” a book of previously unpublished personal letters of the Walters family from Indiana put together by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum and Indiana University Press. What intrigues me most about this book is that while many collections contain only the letters sent home, here we see full exchanges between soldiers and their close relations. The letters tell a vivid story of how the war affected the Walters family.
In an upcoming episode of the Postal Service’s “Mailin’ It” podcast, we’ll hear from the book’s editors — National Postal Museum curator Lynn Heidelbaugh and Smithsonian museum specialist Thomas Paone. They’ll share the story of these poignant letters and the individuals who wrote them. It’s an episode I look forward to hearing.
The Civil War had a lasting effect on the Postal Service, too. Did you know that until the Civil War, postage for letters was based partly on the distance they were sent, and that money orders were created to make it safer for Union soldiers to send money through the mail? And, as the war dragged on, women were given their first career opportunity as clerks at postal headquarters, a significant milestone for women? During the Civil War, too, African Americans were appointed as postal clerks — the first known African American civilian employees of the federal government.
It’s remarkable to see how the Postal Service has helped shape this nation. Whenever I research the Civil War, I am reminded that throughout its history, our organization has been more than a mail carrier; it also has been a friend and companion to generations of Americans, providing a much-needed connection to loved ones, near and far.
That is a tradition all of us here at USPS are extremely proud to continue and improve upon as we focus more on our customers’ needs under the Delivering for America transformation and modernization plan.