Return to Sender: A debate over Confederate soldiers and the Confederate Post Office near the end of the war

Near the end of the war, the Confederate Congress decided that newspapers would be delivered free of postage to soldiers at the front. 

The way newspapers were delivered (or not delivered) to soldiers had elicited complaints even early in the war. An 1861 editorial in the Richmond Daily Examiner said soldiers who wanted the news had to pay excessively for the privilege of getting it.[1]

The Examiner, like other Confederate papers, was in a bad mood where the Post Office was concerned. Unlike the case under the United States government, where newspapers were (and are) carried through the mail at subsidized rates, Confederate papers had to pay their own postage, leading to higher expenses than these papers were used to. In return for this higher postage, they got slower and less reliable delivery. The bad service was not limited to newspapers – postal customers in general experienced these problems with the mail. Newspapers cheerfully took up the complaints of all postal customers, themselves included.[2]

The problems of the Confederate postal service can largely be traced to the disruptions of the war, but the other factor was a postal reform which might have been of public benefit in peacetime but in wartime served to make a bad situation worse.

When it first met, the Confederate Congress reacted against the abuses of the subsidized U. S. postal service, with its tax-supported newspaper circulation, extensive franking privileges for officials, and large contracts (or proposed contracts) for railways and steamship companies. The Confederate Post Office, in contrast, was to pay its own way, without tax subsidies, and the Confederate Constitution codified this principle: “the expenses of the Post Office Department, after the 1st Day of March in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty three, shall be paid out of its own revenues.”[3]

From the beginning, long before the March 1863 cutoff date, the post office in the Confederacy was required by Congress to operate on the self-supporting model. With all the looming challenges, politicians at the founding of the Confederacy anticipated that the postal service would be bad enough to taint the reputations of whoever managed it. Two candidates whom President Davis approached for the position of Postmaster General refused the offer. John H. Reagan, the Texas frontiersman-turned-politician who finally accepted the job, had to be importuned three times. Reagan, too, worried about becoming a “martyr” in public opinion.[4]

While Reagan started off well enough, stealing supplies and recruiting officials from the U. S. Post Office Department, and getting deals with railways to carry the mail at reduced rates, things started going downhill from there. Finalizing deals with the railroads was a problem, trains prioritized troop transport over mail transport, shifting military boundaries made delivery to many destinations difficult, the military kept trying to draft mail-carriers and clerks (over 9,000 civilians worked on the Confederate mail), and in general, personal letters as well as newspapers took longer and cost more to reach their destinations than under the previous regime, assuming that the mail reached its destination at all. Personal letters from soldiers’ families to the soldiers at the front might go undelivered because of the soldiers’ inability to pay postage, leading to pleas that families pay the postage themselves.[5]

Frustrated citizens resorted to private express companies to carry their mail. Reagan sought to invoke the postal-monopoly laws to prevent the public from bypassing the official mail. After all, if the public wouldn’t use the Post Office, then the Post Office wouldn’t get money.[6]

Despite all these problems, the Confederate Post Office was always solvent as required by the Constitution. For one thing, the public bought stamps to use as currency.[7]

It seems that President Davis vetoed a bill for using tax money to send letters to soldiers postage-free.[8] This was probably a pocket veto – killing a bill passed in the final days of a Congressional session – so as not to provoke a veto message and debate.

By 1865, author John Nathan Anderson says, the only way to make sure a letter was delivered was to have someone deliver it by hand, and “the only viable mechanism left for the distribution of mail and news between cities were the express companies.” But even this late in the war, Senator James McNair Baker of Florida, from his consultation of the Post Office Department’s reports (perhaps in connection with his study of mail routes), decided that there was enough of a surplus in the Department budget to deliver newspapers to soldiers without postage. Congress promptly passed a bill to that effect – in the Senate the bill passed unanimously.[9]

Showing his usual gift for public relations, and his stiffed-neckedness where he saw a principle involved, President Davis vetoed the newspapers-for-soldiers bill. His January 25, 1865 veto message invoked the Post-Office solvency clause, stressing the importance of setting a correct precedent for the interpretation of this novel constitutional provision, at a time when it was still possible to get “a contemporaneous interpretation of the Constitution by those best acquainted with its meaning.”[10]

Davis said that the solvency clause was aimed at “two great vices” of the U. S. postal service. One was the franking privilege with its “wasteful extravagance” and “increased  government patronage.” The other abuse was “taxing the whole people for the expense of the mail facilities afforded to individuals.” Given this intention, laws for free postage struck Davis as “violating the tru[e]st intent and meaning of the Constitution.” The veto message invoked equal-protection principles: “where shall we find in the Constitution any power in the Confederate government, express or implied, for dividing either the people or the publick servants into classes unequally burdened with postal charges?”

Davis cited two other provisions in the Confederate Constitution – requiring uniformity of taxation and forbidding “bounties…from the Treasury.” Admitting that these clauses were “not directly applicable to the subject of postage,” Davis wrote that these clauses were meant to provide a “just equality of privileges and burthens.” Paying for postage for one “class” of people at the expense of the postage paid by another “class” would violate this equality.

The Senate received the vetoed bill, and the accompanying message, on January 28. Senator Baker, the bill’s sponsor, rejected Davis’ analogy to the uniformity-of-taxation requirement: “every tax had exceptions and preferences were made.” Baker referred to postage-free newspapers as “this poor boon” offered by Congress to the soldiers.[11]

Likewise, Senator Thomas Jenkins Semmes of Louisiana (cousin of the commerce-raiding Raphael Semmes) said there was no constitutional ban on using the Post Office’s “surplus revenue” to pay for delivering paperss to soldiers. There was no analogy with the old franking privilege, Semmes declared.[12]

Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi was a rare voice opposing the bill and supporting Davis’ veto. To Brown, there was no guarantee the postal surplus would last. Yet Brown seemed willing to support a bill which would be open to objections similar to what Davis raised: “He [Brown] would vote for a bill which should provide that letters and papers, too, be sent to the army free of postage, if the expenses were to be defrayed out of the general revenue, or if an exact account should be kept at the expense of transmitting these newspapers to the army, and crediting the Postoffice Department therewith, to be paid back whenever the postoffice should require it.”[13]

Senator Augustus Hill Garland of Arkansas supported the bill – it was a perfectly acceptable increasse in soldiers’ compensation. Sen. Williamson Simpson Oldham of Texas, who chaired the Senate Committee on Post Offices, supported the bill as constitutional and “expedient.”[14]

Next to speak was the old fire-eater (and Davis foe) Louis Trezevant Wigfall of Texas. Wigfall’s usual sarcastic style comes through even in the summary of his speech in the reported proceedings. Wigfall credited the postal surplus to the draft exemption for postal workers, who, he claimed, worked for low compensation in order to stay out of the army. The Post Office would thus have a surplus so long as this draft exemption was in force, and the soldiers should get “some small gratuity” in exchange for “spar[ing] men from the ranks” to work for the Post Office. There would be a postal surplus so long as the war lasted, and the bill could be financed from this surplus. After the war “there would be no soldiers,” so the issue would be moot.[15]

William Alexander Graham of North Carolina, an administration foe, complained that President Davis was abusing his veto power to oppose any bill which Davis might have voted against as a member of Congress. Graham opposed the self-sustaining post office clause, and wished it repealed for the sake of helping “out of the way neighborhoods.” But the soldier-mail bill, to Graham, didn’t violate the clause. As to the constitutional prohibition on bounties from the Treasury, Graham said it was “very common,” and perfectly constitutional, to grant bounties to soldiers to “induce enlistments.”[16]

By a 13-4 vote, the Senate overrode Davis’ veto and sent the bill to the House.[17]

The House took up the newspaper bill on January 31st. William Nathan Harrell Smith of North Carolina believed Davis’ objections “hypocritical, and not warranted by any fair construction of the Constitution.” Franklin Barlow Sexton was a rare supporter of Davis’ position, opposing the bill and deeming the President’s “objections well taken.” Yet even though Sexton chaired the House Committee on Post-offices and Post Roads, House members showed little sign of deferring to him or to Davis. Waller Redd Staples of Virginia supported the bill, as did fellow-Virginian John Brown Baldwin, who echoed Wigfall’s point tracing the postal surplus to the savings of having draft-dodging postal workers willing to accept low pay. William Waters Boyce of South Carolina was prepared to overrule Davis’ veto, noting that if successful, this would be the first veto override against Davis. An administration opponent and a proponent of a negotiated peace, Boyce would probably rejoice at this chance to humble Davis. LaFayette McMullin of Virginia “thought it [the bill] too small a matter for our Chief Magistrate to be vetoing” and “differed with [Davis] in toto” about the constitutional question.[18]

The House overrode Davis’ veto by a vote of 63 to 13.[19] The administration’s most vocal adversaries in the House and Senate had been joined by an overwhelming number of Congressmen who thought this time Davis’ naysaying had gone too far, and who wanted to make this last-minute bid to boost soldier morale.

It didn’t work.

[1] Quoted in Ben H. Procter, Not Without Honor: The Life of John H. Reagan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), 137.

[2] Procter, 131-32, 134-38; John Nathan Anderson, “Money or Nothing: Confederate Postal System Collapse during the Civil War,” American Journalism, 30:1 (2013), 65-86, at pp. 67-68.

[3] William C. Davis, “A Government of Our Own”: The Making of the Confederacy (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 138, 194; Winifred Gallagher, How the Post Office Created America (New York, Penguin, 2016), 87, 89. Confederate Constitution, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_csa.asp, Article I(8)(7). This “permanent Constitution” should not be confused with the “provisional” Constitution under which the Confederacy operated until early 1862. 

[4] Procter, pp. 129-30; Anderson, p. 67; Davis, p. 182-83.

[5] Procter, pp. 130-40; Davis, p. 194-95; L. R. Garrison, “Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office Department, I,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 19, No. 2 (October 1915), pp. 111-41; L. R. Garrison, “Administrative Problems of the Confederate Post Office Department, II,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 19, No. 3 (January, 1916), pp. 232-50; Walter Flavius McCaleb, “The Organization of the Post-Office Department of the Confederacy,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 12, No. 1 (October, 1906), pp. 66-74; Paul P. Van Riper and Harry N. Scheiber, “The Confederate Civil Service,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 25, No. 4 (November 1959), pp. 448-70, at 450.

[6] Anderson, pp. 72-73, Procter, pp. 138

[7] Anderson, pp. 77-78; Garrison, Part I, 125.

[8] Proceedings, Second Confederate Congress, Second Session in Part (December 15, 1864-March 18, 1865), Southern Historical Society Papers, New Series – Number XIV, Whole Number LII (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1959), p. 250 (remarks of Senator Baker).

[9] Anderson, pp. 74-75; Proceedings, p. 249 (quotes are taken from this source, and apparently represent paraphrases of the speakers’ remarks); Ezra J. Warner and W. Buck Yearns, Biographical Register of the Confederate Congress (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975), pp. 11-12.

[10] Proceedings, pp. 246-49 (the veto message, unlike Congressional speeches, is given in the Proceedings as written, without paraphrase).

[11] Proceedings, p. 249.

[12] Ibid; Warner and Yearns, 216-17.

[13] Proceedings, p. 249; Warner and Yearns, 34-35.

[14] Proceedings, p. 250; Warner and Yearns, pp. 95-96, 187-88.

[15] Proceedings, p. 250; Warner and Yearns, pp. 256-57.

[16] Proceedings, pp. 250-51; Warner and Yearns, pp. 104-05.

[17] Proceedings, p. 251.

[18] Proceedings, p. 265; Warner and Yearns, pp. 12-13, 27-28, 161-62, 217-18, 226-27, 230-31.

[19] Ibid.



1 Response to Return to Sender: A debate over Confederate soldiers and the Confederate Post Office near the end of the war

  1. Amazing… to be focused on the minutia of the Post Office in the midst of a war not going exceptionally well. Thanks to Max Longley for sharing this example “of the Confederacy becoming wonderfully less… and less…”

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: