‘Delivered Under Fire’: the man who moved the Union’s mail during the Civil War
Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel
A poignant letter, penned 160 years ago, begins:
“I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and I want to see you as bad as ever
“Oh! My dear Children how I do want to see you ... ”
Those aching words from a soldier to his family have lost none of their power in a century and a half.
The writer, Pvt. Spottswood Rice of the 67th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry, was born a slave in the autumn of 1819. In 1864, Rice had volunteered to fight for the Union. His letters from a military hospital in St. Louis convey his longing for his kin, and odium for the woman named Kittey Diggs who held them as property.
“I want you to understand Kittey Diggs,” Rice wrote in one letter, “that were ever you and I meet we are enmays [enemies] to each othere. My Children is my own and I expect to get them ... ”
Rice’s grim determination, in itself, was wondrous. Yet it was compounded by another little-studied miracle: the process by which his impassioned letters and the letters written by and to Union soldiers on the ever-shifting front lines were collected by courageous postal agents even as the bullets flew.
In all, tens of millions of messages were conveyed safely and reliably from the parapets to the homes of the men’s loved ones, and from waiting wives and anxious parents to their husbands and sons encamped in the valley of the shadow of death.
To historian and author Candice Shy Hooper, whose ancestors fought on both sides of the conflict, it is the astonishing performance of the Northern mail system, and, in particular, the life story of the devoted civilian called the “messenger of joy” who organized and led it, that deserves to be memorialized and celebrated after all these years.
“There are a hundred thousand books about the Civil War, and that’s just the ones that they can count,” Hooper told Linn’s Stamp News at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in December. “Yet I could not find any of them that explained how the letters that they all cite were delivered.”
“How did the mail get through?” she pondered. “It was almost like magic. Even the most receptive Civil War audiences don’t know the story.”
Hooper’s rejoinder was to write the missing book herself. The result is Delivered Under Fire: Absalom Markland and Freedom’s Mail, the first full biography of Markland, the special agent of the United States Post Office Department — and childhood schoolmate of Ulysses S. Grant — whose command of the posts was so resolute and efficient that his flotilla was waiting offshore at Savannah, Ga., with 20 tons of letters even before William Tecumseh Sherman’s battalions completed their March to the Sea.
This was not a fairy tale. It was devoted public service at what was, in Hooper’s words, “The magical point in our history when we had a literate population eager to communicate with each other and no censorship.”
It was Sherman who christened Markland the “messenger of joy,” and it was Grant who dubbed his old Kentucky friend “colonel” and put him in charge of the military postal service even though there is no evidence that Markland ever spent a day in uniform.
Markland hardly was the archetype of the soldier in William Wordsworth’s poem, Character of the Happy Warrior. “He had a particularly morbid sense,” Hooper said.
Markland’s own letters exude a melancholy air typical of the age that is on display in the following quotes.
“I will be at home if alive about the 10th [October]. ... ”
“I will not fall into the hands of the Secessionists if I can help it, yet I should be with the Star-Spangled Banner and if it falls, I may go with it ... ”
And of his wife’s ailing father, Markland grimly observed, “I might not see him again this side of the dark valley that separates us from the land Hereafter ... ”
Before Markland, Hooper writes in her book, “Soldiers’ families had to wait in long lines at the post office, often to receive terrible news of the wounding or death of a loved one in a letter passed across the crowded counter or in a newspaper death roll tacked to the wall.”
Those “public stages for private heartbreak,” as another historian called them, would be replaced by city home delivery as the volume of mail from the front exploded.
Grant, of course, would serve two terms as president. Markland evaded the “land Hereafter” until 1888.
And the tempest of war would blow away the chains of bondage and return Rice, now a free and famous man of God, back to his wife and children, with whom he would live until 1907.
But for the millions of Rice’s fellow soldiers and their wives and widows, only the handwritten word endures in fading ink on browning paper. Unknown but by their letters, the soldiers of the Civil War march on.
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