by Alison Arnold
For a soldier in the Civil War, letter writing was the main form of communication with loved ones at home and helped to relieve the tedium of camp life. Almost all soldiers begged for their parents, wives and friends to write back right away as there were few pleasures greater than receiving mail from home.
March 4, 1863
A march today. Bleak wind blows. Drills in bayonet exercise. Wrote a long letter to Laura. Am wondering why Laura doesn’t write. Got a letter from [illegible] with one from Hulda Watson. Letters from Abbie Magoun and Mother Peterson.
From the Civil War journal of David Meechan
To write their letters home, soldiers bought paper, envelopes, ink and pens from a sutler–a civilian merchant who sold provisions to an army in the field, in camp or in quarters. Stationary makers printed many styles of patriotic stationary and envelopes with engravings of camp scenes or political humor and these were quite popular among soldiers.
Envelopes, also known as “covers,” with elaborate printed patriotic scenes or political statements were some of the most popular to use. Some printers even produced envelopes for specific regiments serving in the army.
The Union armies had a post office near forts and camps, and a mail service that followed the armies for the men could purchase stamps and mail their letters. But even in the best of times, it was difficult for soldiers to send and receive mail from their loved ones at home. While it was relatively easy for the army post to find soldiers when they were encamped for several weeks, periods of intense action saw both armies in perpetual motion. This continued changing of location made delivering the mail a very real challenge. Even with this great challenge of locating the soldiers, most of them received their mail within two weeks of it being sent.
According to Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, a civilian worker with the U.S. Sanitary Commission reported that many regiments sent out an average of 600 letters per day. About 45,000 pieces of mail per day were sent through Washington D.C. Areas with a heavy concentration of troops were inundated with copious amounts of mail.
Almost every soldier made an effort to write letters home to describe their experiences, give their opinions on local matters and politics, and to assure their families not to worry. The times of inactivity between battles went slowly for the soldiers and they longed for news from home.
Later in the war, organizations such as the U.S. Christian Commission and U.S. Sanitary Commission gave out paper and envelopes to Union soldiers free of charge. In 1864, the U.S. Mail Service announced that Union soldiers could send their letters home for free as long as they wrote “Soldier’s Letter” on the outside of the envelope.
Feb. 17th Tuesday.1863
Finished appraising our cargo; rained very heavily during latter part of the day. Got three letters, from my darling wife,. No news of importance. Have had no letter from Daniel for a long time. I don’t think I shall write again till I hear from him direct. Had a letter also from dear mother, full of news.
Civil War journal of Edward Baker
Then as with now, a soldier longs to stay in touch with home to make sure they are not forgotten.