Southern Post Office Fought Uphill Battle; System Turned Profits amid Spirit of Sacrifice

Article excerpt


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. …