Saturday, May 9, 2020

Letter Writing and Postage Stamps Importance to the Civil War Soldier

     John D. Billings' recollections of his time served in the Army of the Potomac have many interesting insights into life in the army during the Civil War.  In 1887 he published them in his book Hard Tack & Coffee -- Soldier's Life in the Civil War.  I hope you will find Billings' brief description of letter writing and dealing with postage stamps in the chapter "Life in Tents" as interesting as I have.  [page 62-63].

Letter writing was important
"The manner in which the time was spent in these tents [Sibley style] and, for that matter, in all tents varied with the disposition of the inmates.  It was not practicable for men of kindred tastes to band themselves under the same canvas, and so just as they differed in their avocations as citizens, they differed in their social life, and many kinds of pastimes went on simultaneously.  Of course, all wrote letters more or less, but there were a few men who seemed to spend the most of their spare time in this occupation.  Especially was this so in the earlier part of a man's war experience.  The side or end strip of a hardtack box on the knees, constituted the writing-desk on which this operation was performed." 
     I've always appreciated the fact that the many letters written during that time have given us greater insight into "what was going on" than the historical headlines about "date and location and armies fought here" could ever do alone.  Sadly our modern means of communications (which are very helpful and enjoyable) will not do the same for future generations looking back on us.  Oh well, life moves on.  For reenactors who wish to portray letter writing at an event, using a wood board as a writing desk might communicate to spectators better the creativity of the soldier-in-the-ranks  overcoming obstacles.  "Let the officers have their fancy writing desks.  We men in the ranks can get the job done even without the advantages of privilege."  The picture here is from the book.  I have seen it before but didn't know where it originally came from.

Postage Stamps were a necessary Challenge
     Then Billings gives insight into why and how postage stamps became important to the soldier, as well as the challenges of keeping the stamps usable:

"It will be remembered that in the early months of the war silver money disappeared, as it commanded a premium, so that, change being scarce, postage stamps were used instead.  This was before scrip was issued by the government to take the place of silver; and although the use of stamps as change was not authorized by the government, yet everybody took them, and the soldiers in particular just about to leave for war carried large quantities away with them -- not all in the best of condition.  This could hardly be expected when they had been through so many hands.  They were passed about in little envelopes, containing twenty-five and fifty cents in value.
Many an old soldier can recall his disgust on finding what a mess his stamps were in either from rain, perspiration, or compression, as he attempted, after a hot march, to get one for a letter.  If he could split off one from a welded mass of perhaps a hundred or more, he counted himself fortunate.  Of course they could be soaked out after a while, but he would need to dry them on a griddle afterwards, they were so sticky."

     One time a few years ago I had a reenactor ask me for an assortment of my reproduction stamps so that he and his fellow comrades could use them as "money" as they played card games at events as the spectators walked by.  In spite of my not wanting to encourage gambling (after all, I do portray the U. S. Christian Commission), I did share some with him because I agreed that it would allow them to portray more accurately to the spectators what the soldiers did back then.
      Billings' description about the stamps getting wet and stuck together is an interesting insight into the many challenges soldiers faced as they lived on the march. When the war broke out the uncertainty over what was going on and people's distrust over the value of the Greenback paper money being issued led to the hoarding of coins made of copper & silver & gold.  But people still needed to give or get back small change in making purchases such as a 3 cent loaf of bread or a 5 cent quart of milk.  During the first few years of the war stamps became by common acceptance and out of necessity "money".  In July 1862 Congress attempted to address the coin shortage by passing a law which allowed postage stamps to satisfy debts owed to the government of up to $5.  People incorrectly presumed that this officially approved stamps as usable for any type of debt or purchase.  In 1862 John Gault came up with the creative encased postage stamp coin solution.  Using button making machines he enclosed postage stamps in silver or brass buttons with a thin mica layer on one side which allowed you to see the stamp's denomination -- this helped preserve the actual stamp better.  He would later add on the back of the encasement button advertisements for various company about their products or services.  His invention was short lived as in 1863 the U.S government issued official script factional currency to over come the coin shortage.  Also during this time various vendors issued "private issue tokens" that they gave out as change when sales were made.
     All this shows the creativity of the people back then as they faced the challenges arising from society being torn apart.  I've often marveled at the fact that postage stamps back then could be cut in half and still used to mail out letters.  For example, you could take a 2 cent Black Jack, and cut one stamp in half, put it on the envelope next to a complete 2 cent stamp and that would total up to the 3 cents needed to mail the letter.  Can you imagine trying to do that today?  The US Postal Service would probably call the police and have you arrested!  Times have certainly changed as the bureaucrats have gotten greater power to control us with "the official regulations and procedures".
     When we forget history, we lose examples of how people before us have risen to the challenge of "changing times".  We should never be herded into the socialist mentality that "the government" or "the experts" will solve what's wrong.  We as individuals need to always be experimenting with options to overcome the difficulties.  It may be having to use a board for a desk or having to soak apart stamps and then dry them on a griddle.  Creativity needs to come from each of us.  That makes us better and stronger, and will also make for good stories later on we can tell around the campfire.