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Letters From the Front

Original Civil War lettersheet with imprinted portrait of the Union Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth who was one of the first officers killed in the war. The letter is dated January 23, 1862 and was written by Private James Kelly who served in Company A, 9th New York (Hawkins Zouaves) Infantry. An original CDV photo of a Union soldier and a mechanical pencil patented in 1859 are also shown. (Bill Howard Collection)

During the American Civil War, the letters written back and forth between soldiers and their families offered an important lifeline. Letters were important and helped to sustain morale in the field and kept families informed of what was happening in camp and on the battlefield. Soldiers gained much from learning news from home and eagerly awaited mail distribution.

The war certainly created difficulties for postal delivery. Correspondents waited days, or even weeks, to receive mail. Soldiers used their leisure time to write letters home and were anxious and complaining when anticipated letters did not arrive from loved ones at home. For Union soldiers, the mail system generally operated as efficiently as before the war. Soldiers sometimes applied stamps to their mail, but in other cases, simply wrote “Soldier’s Mail” on the envelope with fees paid by their family upon receipt. Early in the war, politicians with Free Frank privileges (the ability to send official mail based on their authorized signature) often provided Northern soldiers with pre-franked envelopes when they visited the military camps around Washington. Many of these letters and envelopes have survived – soldier’s letters home carried in envelopes bearing the signature of their local Congressman or U.S. Senator.

Civil War tintype image of Union soldier holding a pen or mechanical pencil in his hand. The image is housed in its original leather case. (Bill Howard Collection)

In the South, the postal system set up by the Confederacy was less reliant. Confederate letters and stamps were not acknowledged by the federal government and letters traveling between North and South were often confiscated by Union forces. The exception was the letters written by prisoners of war. Confederate soldiers held in Northern prisons were able to send out letters marked “Prisoner’s Mail” to loved ones in the South. These letters were sometimes stamped but more often carried in envelopes provided by the United States Christian Commission or the U.S. Sanitary Commission. They were also read and censored by Union officers assigned to the prison. Northern soldiers incarcerated in the South had a more difficult time getting letters posted. Besides having difficulty in securing writing paper and instruments, the postal system was virtually non-existent for prisoners to send out letters. Some POWs gave letters to other POWs who were being exchanged or to relief workers who visited the camps. These individuals then posted the letters upon leaving the prison camp. The NYS Library in Albany has a two-piece Union officer’s uniform button that contains a brief letter from Lt. Col. Lewis Benedict written while incarcerated at Richmond’s Libby Prison. Captured at the Battle of Williamsburg, Benedict pried opened the button, inserted his folded note and resealed the button before giving it to another officer who was being released. The button was smuggled out of the prison and then given to Benedict’s family by the paroled officer.

Civil War soldiers were constantly on the move, and this created significant mail delivery problems. If a letter was addressed and delivered to a soldier's last known address, there was no guarantee that the soldier was still stationed at that location. Loved ones at home relied on the information provided in the soldier's last letter regarding his whereabouts. During the Gettysburg Campaign, when the Union army was on a long march out of Virginia to counter the Confederate invasion into Maryland and Pennsylvania, many soldiers used their short breaks in the march to write letters. In one letter written from the busy Potomac River crossing at Point of Rocks, Maryland, a Pennsylvania infantry officer wrote a hasty note to his family and apologized for his poor writing noting that he was writing on his knee on the side of the road as the Union army passed.

Union officers in camp reading letters from home. (Library of Congress)

Writing paper was a valuable commodity to soldiers. Soldiers often crammed their writing into the limited space – including writing vertically across the face of their letter in order to accommodate more words. Soldiers scavenged for writing paper in the field using the frontispiece of discarded books, the backs of military order forms, or even newspaper, to write their letters. Northern soldiers with a little disposable spending money could purchase special stationary imprinted with patriotic designs from camp sutlers. This stationary and envelopes featured images of the martyred Union heroes or colorful cartoons that inspired nationalistic spirit or lampooned the enemy.

Soldiers of both armies used certain conventions of the time to write their letters. Given the similarities of form, it is often difficult to distinguish between the letters of Northern and Southern soldiers since both used the same basic stylistic conventions. Union soldiers were most likely to use pen and ink, although both sides used whatever writing implements that were available. Soldiers also made do with what was at hand to fashion writing utensils and sometimes even rolled lead bullets out to form crude pencils that were used to write letters. These makeshift tools are sometimes recovered from Civil War campsites and provide evidence that the soldiers used whatever was available to send news home to their loved ones.

CDV image of Union infantryman wearing a New York issue shell jacket and "SNY" oval belt plate. The soldier cradles a P1853 British Enfield Rifle Musket and is equipped with the early war sling cartridge box with round eagle breastplate. The lead cylinder below is a minie' ball that has been rolled into a lead pencil. It was recovered from a site in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Bill Howard Collection)

Despite the problems of materials and delivery, the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were the most literate soldiers to ever take to the field of battle. The soldiers wrote letters and kept diaries and journals that have proved a treasure trove to historians. In the wars that followed, soldiers would write letters and postcards but these were increasingly subject to government censorship. Diaries were even forbidden by later military regulations.

Photo of Union officers of Company C, 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery reading letters from home. This image was taken at Fort Brady, Virginia in 1864. (Library of Congress)

The letters sent by Civil War soldiers, with all of their misspellings and misconceptions, were the honest expressions of lonely soldiers far from home who were each seeking to convey the enormity of the experience to those left behind. The letters were treasured by those who received them and many large letter collections remained intact well into the twentieth century. Such collections allow modern students to understand the war experience “from the ground up,” and have served as an important foundation for scholarship. Our modern understanding of the Civil War is different because of the wealth of letters that have survived. During the Civil War Centennial commemoration of the early 1960s, historians such as Bruce Catton and Bell I. Wiley incorporated Civil War letters and memoirs into their accounts of the war. The injection of these observations into the dusty old story of the war reinvigorated understanding and personalized the war in a way that previous historians had been unable to achieve. In the years that followed publishers have issued volume after volume of previously unseen manuscript accounts of the war. As the Civil War historian Shelby Foote once remarked, letters and diaries honor the memory of those who served and preserve the words and thoughts of the men whose “lips have long passed to dust.”

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