Unlike 20th century soldiers, whose mail home traveled for free—or 21st century soldiers, with access to email—Civil War soldiers typically had to purchase their own stationery, envelopes, and stamps in order to write to their loved ones at home. Our collection of letters which John Barker of Hanson sent home between December 1861 and January 1863—and their envelopes—help tell that story. Writing materials and stamps were not always easy to come by. In an 1862 letter home from East Point, VA, Barker wrote:
I suppose that the girls have begun their school. I would wright them but I have only one stamp and the letters will not go without them now. I should like to have you send me some if you have them for they cannot be got hear for love nor monney.
Barker apologized for his poor writing materials when writing from camp (“Do not know as you can read this for it is poorly written and my pencil is short”) while in a later letter from a military hospital in Pennsylvania, he remarked upon the quality of his stationery (“I must stop now for I have filled this great white sheet of paper”). A first-class stamp for a letter sent east of the Mississippi cost three cents. The 3¢ stamp with Washington’s profile used on Barker’s envelopes was issued after Fort Sumter and used throughout the war.
Stamps were not always available, as Barker notes. Letters would be delivered if labeled “Soldier’s Letter” and accompanied by a soldier’s name and regimental information. The postage due was stamped on the outside of the envelope, to be paid by the recipient. Barker was taken prisoner in the summer of 1862 and after his commanding officer learned that he was well and would be sent North in a prisoner exchange, he wrote the family a letter. Marked “Soldier’s letter” and inscribed with an officer’s name, it was stamped “Due 3” and delivered to the Barkers. (Note the handwritten note, “Good news,” in the lower left hand corner of the envelope, a reminder of what a terrifying prospect a letter from a soldier’s commanding officer would have been in the circumstances.)
Interestingly, Barker did for a period of time have the opportunity of sending letters without buying stamps. He served in the Massachusetts 22nd Regiment, which was organized by Henry Wilson, then a sitting United States Senator from Massachusetts (and later Vice President under President Ulysses S. Grant). Barker’s first letter home, from training camp at Hall’s Hill, Virginia, has no stamp. Instead it was “franked,” i.e., Henry Wilson’s signature appears in the upper right hand corner in place of a stamp. Union military officers did not ordinarily enjoy franking privileges; presumably, Barker was able to send some early letters without postage because his commanding officer was a sitting member of Congress.
Stationery companies met the demand for stationery and envelopes by manufacturing numerous designs and styles for the soldiers’ use. Elaborate patriotic pictures and slogans were common. John Barker wrote home on stationery and envelopes featuring portraits of General Burnside and Columbia; drawings of flags, eagles, and the Masonic “all-seeing eye;” and slogans such as “One Flag, One Government,” “My God first, my Country next and then my Family,” “Victory,” and “Dedicated to the Gallant Defenders of our National Union.”