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US Civil War


The Uses of Snail Mail

envelope front

From my personal collection. A long-haired guy with a Confederate flag being shot out of a Union cannon. Is that a little slave boy there, too?

OF COURSE, LETTERS were just about the only means of long-distance communication during the US Civil War (messenger = excessive. telegrams = expensive. telephones = nonexistent.) They also happened to be an excellent means of propaganda-delivery. The outside of envelopes were emblazoned with slogans and anti-each-other caricatures by the creative folk working for the governments on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

envelope back

From my personal collection, from the back.

A wonderful collection of these crazy envelopes can be found at the Roosevelt Civil War Envelopes Collection, part of Georgetown University’s Digital Special Collections Library. It was donated to the library by Archibald B. Roosevelt, Jr., an American intelligence officer and grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. The collection consists of 370 illustrated envelopes; fascinating stuff. The titles and descriptions of the images alone are worth a visit. Like this keeper:

The pig (Union) will root out the truffle (Confederacy) or die
description: “A pig, representing the Union, is rooting out a truffle, representing the Secession. The pig has the words ‘Root or Die’ in its side. The pig also has a saddle in it, from which the Union flag is flying.”  or

Old Secesh

Old secesh

Old secesh
description: “An amphibian or a lizard. The animal portrayed seems to have have characteristics of both.” or

Little devil blowing bubbles
description: “A little devil is blowing “Seccesion” soap bubbles using material from a “Treason” tray.”

My very favorite is this one:

Abraham Lincoln as pharmacist

Abraham Lincoln as pharmacist

Abraham Lincoln as pharmacist
description: “Lincoln is portrayed as a pharmacist with the names of Union generals on the products that surround him in a pharmacy. The products are meant to cure the illness of secession. The Confederate leaders are shown being hung in specimen bottles.”

Specimen bottles? Wow.

I used similarly colorful envelopes as reference for the letter illustrations in Picture the Dead. Here are some of them.

Envelope: Quinn to Jennie

Envelope: Toby to Jennie

Envelope: Will to Jennie

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Ghosts in the White House

Carte de visite of "Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln," by William Mumler, 1870-75. ©2008 The College of Psychic Studies, London.

“Spiritualism, the accompaniment of long and wasting wars, was rampant in the capital in the third winter of conflict. People sat hand in hand around tables in the dark, to hear bells rung and drums thumped and banjos twanged.”

Reveille in Washington 1860-1865 by Margaret Leech

CAN YOU IMAGINE our First Lady of the United States hostessing a White House event that was held specifically for the purpose of communing with spirits? Pretty farfetched, right? But that is exactly what an inconsolable Mary Todd Lincoln did after her twelve-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862.

Mrs. Lincoln, who had been fascinated by and in contact with Spiritualists during Lincoln’s tenure in Chicago, now used her power as first Lady to enlist the help of several famous mediums, including a young woman named Nettie Colburn, for whom Mrs. Lincoln went so far as to secure a job in the Department of the Interior so that Colburn could relocate permanently to Washington, D.C.

According to Colburn’s autobiography, Was Abraham Lincoln A Spiritualist? Lincoln himself was present at a number of her own séances, and the medium recalled an early meeting with the President where:

“…laying his hand upon my head, [he] uttered these words in a manner that I shall never forget: “My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here to-night. It is more important than perhaps any one present can understand. I must leave you all now; but I hope I shall see you again. He shook me kindly by the hand, bowed to the rest of the company, and was gone. We remained an hour longer, talking with Mrs. Lincoln and her friends, and then returned to Georgetown, Such was my first interview with Abraham Lincoln, and the memory of it is as clear and vivid as the evening on which it occurred.”

At home and abroad, however, Lincoln was criticized for his purported interest in Spiritualism, mediums, and séances, as it fostered rumors that he was using the occult to attempt to foretell the outcome of political and war-related events.

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Soldiers & Sailors

US Civil War Soldiers

Carte de visite photos of Steward Beach, ca. 1861, (left) and Will W. Wallace, ca. 1865. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I WILL NOW REVEAL what a complete and utter geek I am when it comes to nit-picky historical details. I wanted our Pritchett boys, Will and Quinn, to run off and become soldiers in the Civil War during the early months of 1864. Here’s my wish list for the perfect Picture the Dead Union regiment:

  1. It had to be Massachusetts-based, with recruitment out of Boston.
  2. It had to have additional recruits join up in 1864.
  3. Its soldiers had to have fought in battles that might cause them to be captured and become prisoners of war.
  4. When these soldiers were captured, there had to be the possibility that they would be incarcerated at the prison camp in Andersonville.

Lo and behold, I found it: the 28th Massachusetts Infantry. It was also known as the “Irish Brigade,” but not all of its members were of Irish origin. There were many soldiers who came from a variety of backgrounds, including Canadian and other non-US citizens, especially from the pool of newer recruits mustered in during the later years of the war: for instance during February and May of 1864. Perfect.

There is an excellent website maintained by the 28th Massachusetts Reanactment Unit, here, with more information than any history nerd could possibly need, including regimental history, rosters of all the soldiers in every company, accounts of battles and casualties, and transcripts of original soldiers’ letters home. I found tons of valuable information there.

I then hightailed it over to the National Park Service’s Soldier and Sailors System. This is amazing. It’s a database containing basic information about servicemen who served in both the Union and Conferate armies of the US Civil War. There’s a database of soldiers who were imprisoned at either Fort McHenry (Confederate soldiers) or Andersonville (Union soldiers). So if you look up, say, soldiers from Massachusetts regiments who were at Andersonville, you come up with this lovely, massive list of names. 2687 names, to be exact. And if you are me, then you page through all these names until you find someone like John Buckley.

Civil War soldier

Not John Buckley, but William H. Rockwell, Pvt., between 1861 and 1865. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

John Buckley was a private with the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, Company A. He was captured on May 5, 1864 in the Wilderness, in Virginia. He was in prison at Andersonville and survived.

William Brabson was also a private, in the 28th Company B. He was also held at Andersonville and survived. He was captured in Po River, Virginia on May 10, 1864.

John Hart, a private in Company G, was not so lucky. He was captured in Cold Harbor, Virginia on June 1st, 1864 and buried in the National Cemetery.

So back I run to the 28th Massachusetts site, where I look up company G and there’s Private John Hart:

Hart, John. Private. Schoharie, N.Y., 22, laborer;
enl. and must. 3/18/1864; captured 6/1/1864 near Cold Harbor, Va.;
died of disease a prisoner of war, 7/18/1864 at Andersonville, Ga.

and here’s John Buckley:

Buckley, John. Private. Boston, 26, farmer;
enl. and must. 4/16/1864; taken prisoner 5/5/1864 at Wilderness, Va.,
sent to Andersonville, Ga., 6/8/1864. No further record.

and William Babson, who is here called William Brabson:

Brabson, William. Private. Boston, 18, watchmaker; enl.
10/25/1861, must. 12/13/1861; re-enlisted 1/1/1864;
made prisoner 5/10/1864 at Po River, Va.; exchanged 12/1/1864;
prom. Corpl. 5/26/1865; must. out 6/30/1865.

This kind of stuff gives me chills. I particularly loved seeing the professions of the individual soldiers: blacksmith, tinsmith, butcher, teamster, printer, seaman, spinner, compositor, (I think that’s a typesetter) clerk and actor. It’s unvbelievable to me that we know so many details about something that happened so long ago.

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