- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

Jefferson Davis had difficulty finding someone to become postmaster-general of the Confederate States of America.His selection, John H. Reagan, twice declined the offer and was the third choice for the job. Reagan turned out, however, to be one of Davis’ best appointments.

Reagan had good reason for his reluctance. Spoiled by regular mail delivery, Southerners would not tolerate the disruption of service, and the task of re-establishing a postal department seemed insurmountable.

“Poor service or no service … would probably lead to the supposition that the fault lay in the incapacity of the head of the department. … I did not desire to become a martyr,” Reagan said.

Though his fears were real, under his leadership, the Confederate Post Office Department actually made a profit during the war. Such a remarkable achievement, never again seen in our postal history, tells us as much about the history of the Confederacy as it does about the tenacity of the first and only CSA postmaster-general.

Recruiting trip

Hardly minutes after he accepted the job, Reagan set about to raid the U.S. mail service of its Southern personnel. On March 6, 1861, he dispatched H.P. Brewster to Washington with letters addressed to department heads, offering them jobs with the new postal department and imploring them to bring with them reports, maps, personnel books and copies of forms.

As Reagan and three assistants waited in a one-room headquarters at the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery, Ala., much of the U.S. Post Office moved southward. On March 9, the Confederate Congress authorized a department on the model of the U.S. Post Office and, by the end of the month, Reagan had set up shop in a three-story building on Bibb Street.

To qualify applicants, Reagan started an evening school. As records, maps and reports arrived from Washington, clerks (the department had grown to 38 employees) prepared contracts, listed postmasters in several states, estimated revenue and revised the complicated network of mail routes.

Reagan advertised for postal supplies such as mailbags, twine, sealing wax, paper, locks and keys and began negotiations with private firms for stamps and envelopes.

Two hurdles

Reagan next turned to the department’s greatest challenges: the transfer between the old and new systems and the economic viability of the new CSA postal department. He instructed postmasters to honor all accounts and pay whatever money was due to U.S. authorities until the Confederacy could assume control.

Thus, for a short time, Confederate postal business was conducted with U.S. money and postage stamps, as “[such a] course is rendered necessary by the utter impracticability of mixing employees of the two Governments.”

In a May 13 proclamation, Reagan fixed June 1, 1861, as the day for taking the reins. The date apparently met with the approval of the postmaster-general of the United States, Montgomery Blair, who suspended all mail routes in the Confederate states on June 1.

The second hurdle seemed harder: The Confederate Constitution required the mail department to be self-sufficient by March 1, 1863. To the informed observer today, this task would seem impossible. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1860, the U.S. Post Office had spent more than $2.88 million on mail service in the states that came under Confederate control. Receipts from those same states amounted to just $938,105.34, leaving a deficit of more than $1.94 million (about $40 million in today’s dollars).

In fact, not once since the Post Office was established in 1789 had the mail service ever paid for itself. The Confederate Congress jettisoned the franking privilege; started requiring postage on newspapers, periodicals and magazines; and raised rates. In 1861, postage for a letter weighing 1 ounce or less within a mailing distance of 500 miles was set at 5 cents (the equivalent of about $1.10 today). Letters sent more than 500 miles were 10 cents.

After July, the Confederate rate for all mail was set at 10 cents. With the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July 1863, a special 40-cent-per-half-ounce trans-Mississippi rate was introduced to pay the extra charges for smuggling the mail across the river.

Cost cutting

Reagan also cut expenses to the bone. Routes were cut, duplicate services were eliminated, and long runs were shortened to encourage competition. Also, with the onset of the war, expensive overland mail to California would no longer be necessary. Nor would ocean mail once the Union naval blockade became effective.

Revenue increased: The department issued a 10-cent stamp and stamped envelopes and started shipping larger items, such as books. Despite an angry press, the department also doubled the rate on newspapers and magazines.

The most significant economies were exacted from the railroads. In 1860 in the South, more than two-thirds of all postal revenue went to the railroads. On April 16, 1861, Reagan sent a circular requesting railroad executives to meet with him to consider “means of reducing cost [and reaching] some … equitable understanding.”

By appealing to their patriotism, he persuaded the rail executives to reduce twice-daily mail service to once a day, to accept Confederate bonds as payment and to cut transportation charges in half.

Bitter complaints

By the end of May 1861, less than three months after his appointment, Reagan had organized a new Confederate Post Office Department and, in all, placed 8,535 of the nation’s 28,586 post offices under Confederate control. Although the department enjoyed a net income of receipts over expenditures throughout the war, inevitably, as Reagan predicted, people put aside their commitment to self-sacrifice and began to complain about the decline in service.

Postal rates skyrocketed, yet delays were common. Unsorted mail stacked up in the post offices, and stamps and stamped envelopes were scarce, prompting the Richmond Daily Examiner to declare, “An ox cart could do better.”

Stamps were unavailable for five months, and throughout the war, essential materials were virtually unavailable at any price.

Even Reagan conceded that it could take up to two weeks to get a letter from his home state, Texas. Letters from home cheered the troops, just as the lack of correspondence demoralized them.

“There is something wrong in the Post Office affairs somewhere,” wrote one soldier cut off from mail from home, “and the villainous perpetrator of the deed ought to be found out, and no punishment too bad to be administered to him, not even the burning pit of H-ll.”

Railroad executives screamed loudest. Faced with inflation, economic instability and low payments from the post office, they lost their patriotic ardor, but Reagan kept them in line by threatening a boycott. Even postal workers rebelled against the long hours and low wages. The Richmond Post Office even went on strike for a time in 1863.

Great difficulties

As the war progressed, personal attacks against Reagan lessened as many began to appreciate the difficulties faced by the postal service. To his credit, Reagan persuaded Congress to use some of the sizable surplus to raise postal salaries. Yet, despite its fiscal soundness (in December 1863, Reagan reported that annual revenues exceeded spending by $675,048.44), people were never satisfied with the postal service.

To have expected otherwise seems quixotic: In a quest for self-sufficiency, Reagan accepted lower bids for contracts, which meant inferior service, limited manpower and the reduction of routes to an absolute minimum. The haste in which the department was formed inevitably led to disruptions. Above all, the greatest cause for a slow and inefficient postal system was the war itself. Union armies disrupted routes, sacked postal facilities and intercepted the mail with increasing regularity.

Reagan’s effort to procure stamps is a story in itself. Until adhesive stamps could be had, postmasters reverted to the 1847 pre-stamp practice of hand-stamping “Paid” with the appropriate rate. These stamps are called “provisionals.” Other postmasters used their own personal adhesives or “locals,” a practice that encouraged counterfeiting.

The major printing centers were in the North, but after Fort Sumter, a Southern firm had to be found to print stamps. The first contract went to a small Richmond lithographer, Hoyer & Ludwig. It took five months after service between the North and South was suspended to put the first Confederate stamp into circulation, the 5-cent green Jefferson Davis.

Davis was the first and only living president in what’s now the United States to appear on a postage stamp. Reagan was forced to use cheaper lithographed and typographed stamps, a product far inferior to the steel-plate-printed stamps used by the Union.

When a better-quality stamp could be found, the department contracted with Thomas De La Rue & Co. of London to print 5-cent blue stamps picturing Davis, designated by collectors as the “London prints.” The first shipment of nearly 5 million stamps never made it — the Confederate blockade runner Bermuda was captured by a Union warship.

Archer & Daly of Richmond made poorer-quality copies called “local prints” from the La Rue plates. A 1-cent orange stamp of John Calhoun was printed but never issued.

Express companies

When service was suspended, express companies made good money carrying mail across lines until the U.S. Post Office ended the practice on Aug. 26, 1861. Thereafter, mail was sent by “flag of truce,” though some express companies continued to flourish illegally.

To send a piece of correspondence by express carrier, the patron sealed an addressed letter with 15 cents to 20 cents enclosed in a second envelope to cover the postage and the express company fee. A 2-cent rate applied to circulars and “drop” mail — letters that were posted and left in a post office or charge box for pickup.

Because few people enjoyed street delivery, Confederate covers were simply addressed to a person in a city with no street address. Prisoners’ and flag-of-truce covers are important to Confederate philately; they document the Confederacy’s well-organized postal system and the fate of the individuals involved.

Letters from Union prisoners, for example, usually contained the prisoner’s name, rank and company and are marked “Examined” by prison officials. Soldiers were allowed to send letters postage-due because it was difficult to find stamps in the field and these covers identify the soldier’s name, rank and company and traveled between military addresses.

Covers showing the trans-Mississippi rate and those going to and from Europe through the blockade are especially rare, as are the so-called “adversity” covers, which were made of wallpaper and other fabrics and were used three or four times, with previous stamps either removed or covered with a new one. When, toward the end of the war, the adhesive quality of gum on stamps deteriorated, enterprising Southerners used needle and thread to fasten the stamps to covers. This practice was rare; an authentic sample commands a high price at auctions today.

Resumption of U.S. mail service in the South was gradual as the war came to an end. By November 1865, 241 mail routes had been restored, and by the following November, 3,234 of the 8,902 prewar post offices in the South were returned to federal control.

Postmaster-General Reagan, arrested at the end of the war, was pardoned and eventually returned to Congress, where he became chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.

Ken Kryvoruka is a Washington lawyer who also teaches writing at the George Washington University Law School.

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