Tuesday, January 15, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 1862

Mail Call

Twenty-eight-year-old Cpl. Alfred D. Searles, a member of Company H, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, is in winter quarters in western Kentucky. Alfred frequently writes letters and he expects his family to do the same. Today he sits down to send his parents a common complaint.

I take this opportunity…of writing a letter to you today to find out what we have done that we cannot have another letter from you. It is now over 3 weeks since we have heard [from you], but we shall write no more till we hear from home.

Searles’ distress at receiving no mail is one of many examples, found in Civil War archives, of pleading by soldiers for news from home. Tired, lonely, dispirited bored soldiers yearned for reassurance they were cared for and not forgotten. Folks at home were just as anxious to receive letters assuring them their men were safe and sound. To pressure correspondents to send more mail, soldiers counted the letters they received, compared with the ones they sent.

It would take quite a while before both sides learned that mail delivery in Civil War times was a chancey thing, with weather, bushwhackers, and military operations—not to mention weary horses—combining to delay and sometimes lose mail.

But both parties kept trying, with soldiers unaccustomed to putting pen to paper scrambling to find writing utensils and struggle with the mechanics of putting sentences together while using a knapsack or drum for a desk.

Montgomery Meigs, postmaster general in the Lincoln administration, came to the soldiers’ aid by introducing money orders and “soldier’s mail,” which required payment of postage from recipients rather than the soldiers, who not only had little money, but had trouble getting and keeping stamps.

Searles is not optimistic about coming home any time soon. “If reports be true we have only just begun in the war.”

He goes on to describe camp conditions: “It is dreadful weat and mudy here…It is an awfull time for mud here. We have some awfull cold nights here, but very little snow.”

Searles includes a foreboding comment: “Perhaps I shall stay the 3 years out and perhaps I shall never get back. That is more than a man can tell…”

Time will tell if Corporal Searles’ comment is a prescient one.

ELSEWHERE IN THE WAR: A Union gunboat on a reconnaissance mission sails up the Tennessee River almost as far as the Confederate fort called Fort Henry. It is worrisome omen for the Confederates. In Washington, the U.S. Senate confirms Lincoln's nomination of Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war. It took the Senate less than two days from nomination to vote. Those were the days!

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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