By Jeffrey Miller
While the history of the American Civil War (1861-1865) itself is a little too complex to tackle in a short article, I have recently been exploring the collections here at the historical society, and have come upon some interesting documents from the era. A number of men from Mattapoisett served during the war, the names of which were compiled by the Mattapoisett Improvement Association in 1904. The town was well represented, and appears to have furnished its quota of enlisted men with little trouble. According to the Improvement Association records, a total of 180 men from Mattapoisett served in the army and navy throughout the war.
Many of these men were stationed far from home, and letters were important links to their families and friends. Up until the mid-19th century, postage was charged by the sheet and most letters were merely folded and sealed with wax. However, a change in postal rates – to a flat fee of 3 cents for up to half an ounce – caused envelopes to surge in popularity, and creative printers began selling envelopes with a myriad of designs and decorations. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate envelopes were produced, but the bulk of surviving examples are from the North.
The Mattapoisett Museum houses several of these envelopes (CW-22, Env. 20, Document Box 2-B), and they serve as an example of one of the ways in which patriotism (and propaganda) were expressed. The majority of these envelopes were designed to appeal to the nationalism of the Union’s supporters and to encourage solidarity with the Northern cause. Fig. 1 depicts an image in which the flag features prominently, along with the words “Washington via Baltimore”. The caption is a reference to attacks made by Confederate supporters on federal troops as they marched through Baltimore in the early days of the conflict. Similarly, the envelope in Fig. 2 shows a red-, white-, and blue- clad woman, in this case representing the state of Virginia, shooting herself with a cannon that is labeled “secession”. The message here is clear – Virginia has made a mistake by joining the Confederacy.
Others were more overtly critical and aggressive in their villainizing of the Confederacy, its leaders, and slavery. Fig. 3 displays a simple envelope with a clever play on words. War bonds were an important source of funding for the confederate states during the conflict, and the artist here has shrewdly played to Northern anti-slavery sensibilities by suggesting that true “Confederate Bonds” are in reality the shackles of slavery.
Fig. 4 shows the most violent and straightforward of the images in the MHS collection. Here Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate states, is portrayed having been hanged. The barrel of whiskey suggests that he was a drunkard, a common theme for Union depictions of Confederate leaders. This envelope illustrates the seriousness with which people in the North – and, presumably, Mattapoisett – took the conflict, and how Southern leaders were vilified. However, other envelopes represent a slightly lighter take on the war. In Fig. 5 we see a boot labeled “A.L.” (Abraham Lincoln) connecting with the rear end of a person labeled “J.D.” (Jefferson Davis). The caption suggests that either Lincoln is going to leave his mark on Davis, or that Davis is Lincoln’s target. While the essential message is the same – victory over Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy – the difference in tone between these two envelopes illustrates the breadth and variety of the envelopes being produced.
Most of these designs are upbeat, optimistic, and have a sort of plucky attitude that represents public sentiment in the North during the early years of the Civil War. As the conflict dragged on, however, production was stopped on most of these elaborately decorated envelopes, as resources and spending money became more limited. The pomp of the early patriotic images contrasts sharply with a more conflicted view of events as expressed in letters written to some Mattapoisett residents in the later years of the war. George Pierce wrote several letters to an unidentified Mary, in which he gives a firsthand account of tensions among soldiers approaching the 1864 presidential election:
“There is not much news to write but there is some excitement going on in camp now about the Presidential election. But the soldiers all want McClellan for President, that is most of them. There was a fight today in camp between the Lincoln men and the McClellan men, but the McClellan men came off best. It was a regular knock down.” (10/18/1864, L-GP-74, Document Box 6A)
This account suggests that confidence in Lincoln was waning, at least among some of the soldiers, and that tensions were high. Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan, was a general and popular with the troops, but was nevertheless soundly defeated in the election. While it seems that most Northerners supported the war, there were still those who felt uncomfortable with the conflict. Writing to Hattie LeBaron from Barbados, Alfred Crosby, a sailor, expresses distaste:
“It makes me feel very badly to hear such sad news from home about the war, ‘tis awful to think about. Such a sacrifice of life and all for [nothing] but I guess I won’t say any more on the subject for I know that my views are entirely different from yours and my other friends in Matt. How it makes one feel to hear our country slurred by foreigners, the country that was once our pride and the envy of the whole world.” (04/22/1863, L-A-22, Document Box 6A)
In another letter to Hattie, Crosby observes that he’d rather “fight whales than Southerners” (09/28/1863, L-A-23, Document Box 6A). Crosby’s account demonstrates that, while many supported the war and its goals were generally seen as noble and righteous, others were more critical in their views. In another Mattapoisett account Andrew Dexter describes how the fighting took its toll on the Confederate soldiers as well:
“we took the house and 27 prisoners – they were a looking set of devils – I tell you they said that they was glad that we took them for they was tired of this war – they said they did not want to fight any more” (04/27/1863, L-AD-15, Document Box 6A)
These letters and envelopes demonstrate how perceptions of the Civil War shifted during the progression of the conflict. Mattapoisett seems to have more-or-less followed the trend of the rest of the northeast. The early days of the war were characterized by a hopeful, optimistic, and patriotic attitude, but after several years of fighting and a struggling economy, some began to question its efficacy and necessity. Fortunately, in 1864 the Union secured some important victories, and by the beginning of 1865 it was over. By that time, however, the war had claimed approximately 750,000 lives, half of the country’s infrastructure was in ruins, and it would be decades until the nation recovered.