Mail call has always been one of the key ingredients of soldier morale and frequently the high point of his day.
A Literate War
The Civil War is considered by most historians as the “first modern war” for a variety of reasons. Not the least of those reasons, is because it was the first “literate” war. An estimated 90% of Union soldiers, and more than 80% of Confederates could read and write. This meant an abundance of letters, diaries, reports and newspaper articles. Thus “mail call” was arguably the high point of the average soldier’s day, apart from battle. Receiving and sending letters to loved ones provided incalculable comfort to both the soldiers and their families.
The telegraph had been around for nearly two decades. Both sides used it constantly to transmit messages both internally (among commanders) and externally (to administrative and political leaders). But personal mail was something else.
US Grant: Correspondent
Ulysses S. Grant never fancied himself much of a writer, yet his correspondence was voluminous, even before the Civil War. His style in personal letters, was unique for his time: singularly lacking in popular Victorian sentimentality and florid prose. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said, directly and to the point.
He courted Julia Dent mostly by correspondence during their four-year secret engagement, and wrote frequently, she sporadically. In the 1840s, during Lt. Grant’s service in Mexico, and later, in the California-Oregon Territory, mail delivery was glacial in speed and daunting in difficulty. Weeks and months passed without hearing from his beloved. It made him despondent.
According to author-historian Candice Shy Hooper, it may have been this intensely personal observation that encouraged him to help develop an army postal service branch of the United States Post Office.
Absalom Markland: Childhood Friendship Rekindled
When Ulysses Grant was fourteen, he attended the Maysville Academy in Kentucky, where he met Absalom Markland, a lad three years his junior. While they both had occasion to observe each other, the difference in their ages would likely have precluded any more than superficial acquaintance. Grant went to West Point; Markland became an attorney, and a senior official in the U.S. Postal Service.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the office of Postmaster General was a cabinet position (and would be until the Nixon Administration), and the most political office of all. Hundreds, and even thousands of postmasterships and other positions were at the disposal of the Postmaster General, who could discharge and replace practically at will.
At the outset of the Civil War, it became necessary to weed out “disloyal” postal employees, and in late 1861, Absalom Markland was dispatched to undertake the assignment starting in Cairo, IL. Coincidentally, Grant had recently been named Brigadier General, assigned to Cairo.
Two decades had passed before the two met again. As Markland remembered, he was walking past Grant’s office window, where Grant saw and recognized him. Grant summoned his old school chum, and they renewed their acquaintance and became friends for life.
Upon learning of Markland’s position, he and his old friend discussed the potential of a quick and efficient means of sending and receiving mail to the army. Markland believed such a system was indeed possible, andGrant enlisted Markland as a special agent of the Postal Service – along with an honorary rank of “Colonel.”
Problems. And Solutions.
By the 1860s, railroads had become a superior means of transportation. The cobbled-together stagecoaches on a simple track between two cities that had begun some quarter-century before had become thousands of miles of steel track connecting nearly every major northern city in the United States – and territories. Southern railroad capability was substantially less, due to the agrarian nature of the South. Mail delivery via the railroads had been in place for two decades prior to the Civil War, but by 1861, it had matured. Railroad cars resembled today’s counterparts, at least in essence.
Troops no longer had to march and haul wagons vast distances; everything could now be moved by rail directly to the battlefield areas. Markland quickly determined that if troops and supplies could travel quickly by rail, a little ingenuity and organizational procedure could move the mail likewise.
There was one important hitch. There were tens of thousands of Union soldiers from all parts of the country. They originated usually by state, into units, companies, regiments and brigades, and seldom in one place very long. There were promotions and new companies; reorganized brigades formed regularly. There were also hundreds of thousands of casualties during those four years, which in effect necessitated combining several of those units. For instance, a decimated 7th Indiana might merge with an 35th Indiana if possible. If not, those remnants of the 7th Indiana might become part of the 12th Pennsylvania. Keeping up with the ever-changing status and location was daunting.
Postal officials realized that it was possible to sort mail in railroad cars, or even on top of railroad cars going 30 miles an hour. And, Markland added, “In wagons, ambulances, and even on horseback, mails were frequently distributed and delivered under the murderous fire of the enemy, and it may be said that the perfect railway mail service of to-day [Marklands comments are from 1885, shortly before Grant’s death] is the outgrowth of the army mail service.”
According to Absalom Markland, “from that beginning sprang the great army mail service of the war…and to General Grant the credit of originating that service belongs.”
The Ulysses S. Grant Association Newsletter, X, 3 (April, 1973).
Hooper, Candice Shy – Lincoln’s General’s Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War – for Better and for Worse, Kent State University Press, 2016