Written by Frederic C. Lynch, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
Written communications were a lifeline communicating news from home to Buckeye Billy Yank, and in turn, from bivouac and battlefield to kin and neighbors back home. Historian Bell Wiley noted, “a civilian worker with the U. S. Sanitary Commission who visited a number of units in 1861 reported soldiers in many regiments sent an average of 600 letters per day.” Ohio regiments in 1861 generally consisted of about 700 to 1,000 men. Typical time en route for a letter from civilian sender to soldier receiver, or the other way, was 7-10 days. Research documents about 90 percent of white Union soldiers could read and write. A letter from home was often kept in a pocket close to a soldier’s heart and read and re-read. Many soldiers also carried letters in a uniform pocket to be delivered to family if they were killed in action.
Knowing news from home helped morale, the U.S. Army assigned people at the unit level to collect, distribute, and deliver mail. Mail wagons and post office tents served as field post offices. In 1861, the U.S. Post Office Department charged three cents (77 cents in 2014 dollars) to mail a half-ounce letter up to 3,000 miles. A Union private’s monthly pay was $13. In 1863 the U.S. Post Office Department authorized soldiers to write “Soldier’s Letter” on the mailed envelope instead of using a postage stamp. Postage was paid by the receiver on the receiving end.
Because military units were constantly moving, the U.S. Army established central mail sorting centers to process letters to and from soldiers. In the east, about 45,000 pieces of mail a day were sent through Washington D.C. by Army of the Potomac soldiers. About 90,000 letters a day were sent by Union soldiers serving in the western theater through postal centers in Louisville and Nashville. A soldier who kept track of his outgoing mail reported in 1863 he sent 109 letters to homefolk, 55 letters to other friends, and 37 letters written by him on behalf of others who could not write letters themselves. The soldier also recorded he received 85 letters in return.
Some letters shared how a soldier felt concerning events and their commitment to the Union cause. Corporal Orrin Green, of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, wrote his sister Feb. 29, 1862 from Raleigh N.C., “Oh what a time of rejoicing there was in camp when we received the news of the taking of Fort Donaldson and the rebels there in with their officers & arms & also the taking of General Pierce & his aides & it makes us glad to hear such news for we think there is hopes of our getting home once more to enjoy life but we don’t want to come home until the thing is settled for sertin & shure…”
Many letters were personal. On Jan. 30, 1863, Private George Deal, a Union Army soldier in Company K, 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, sent his wife, Sarah, a letter and a valentine (pictured here): “I will send you this valentine just because I thought it was nice . . . I know you will keep it till I come home if I am so permitted. I would be glad to see you all, even the cat, but I must close as I have told you about all I can think of at this time.” The following year, Deal died during the Battle of Atlanta. Almost 10 years later, Sarah perished in a house fire in Sidney, Ohio. The letter and valentine survive today to remember their affection.
Soldiers’ letters in general followed a 19th century writing format: a first paragraph containing a personal salutation and observation, followed by brief comments concerning a recent personal event, then information regarding the writer’s health and well being, and often concluding with a special request. A typical soldier’s letter was written by Private Joseph Cherry, 95th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Feb. 27, 1864 from his duty station in Scottsboro, Ala. to a relative in another Union unit:
I now seat myself to write you a few lines to let you know how I am getting along and as I have not heard from you for a long time thinking you were down the river on that expedition, I have not written you lately. But I learned today through one of our boys that you were at Memphis. There-fore, I thought I would write you a few lines. I suppose you have heard from home lately as I heard the other day from sister telling me of your father’s death for which I sympathize with you very much.
I presume you are aware of our regiment reenlisting as Veterans — among the number is myself. I suppose you will think I done wrong but I think I have good reasons for so doing. We expected to have gone home before this time but have not got off yet but expect to soon. John Martin & Ralph Watson was at home when sister wrote. I do not know whether they have reenlisted or not.
I have enjoyed the best of health this winter as we have the best of quarters and nothing much to do as I am in the Pioneer Corps which was organized at Iuka last fall. We had the best of times while on the march to Chattanooga. We did not take part in the fight at Mission[ary] Ridge [Nov. 25, 1863] but was so close that we could see the boys climb the Ridge. It was a sight to witness.
I would like to ask a favor from you if within your power and that is I have a box at Memphis from which I heard the other day. I wrote back to the agent and enclosed a dollar to pay charges on it and told him to express it back to Columbus, Ohio. Will you please see to it if convenient as I would like to have it sent back to Ohio as soon as possible. If you do express it, do so in my name so when I get home I can get it. As I have no more news to write, I will close hoping to hear from you soon. Direct [mail] to me. With much respect, I remain your cousin, — J. M Cherry”
Mail for Union Soldiers during the Civil War was a lifeline. By the Oxford English Dictionary definition, a lifeline is, “a thing on which someone or something depends or which provides a means of escape from a difficult situation.” The definition applied for the “Boys in Blue 1861-65.” As illustration, on March 13, 1865, Private William Wettleson, a 12th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Union soldier serving in North Carolina eloquently documented for posterity: “I got my hands on your letter . . . and one from my wife . . . I can never remember of having been so glad before. I cried with joy and thankfulness.”
For more information, recommended sources are:
The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union by Bell Irvin Wiley; LSU Press, 2008
The Civil War in Letters Project of the Newberry Library – http://publications.newberry.org/civilwarletters