Academic journal article Southern Cultures

When Mail Was Armor: Envelopes of the Great Rebellion, 1861-1865

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

When Mail Was Armor: Envelopes of the Great Rebellion, 1861-1865

Article excerpt

A country, and especially a young one, cannot be made self-conscious overnight. At the birth of this nation, most Americans thought of themselves only loosely, grandly as Americans, and many who gave it real thought did not fancy the idea at all. Like the paddlewheel, electoral politics, and the Battle of New Orleans, the mail system was an important part of the process by which Americans came to conceive of themselves as such, and it was possibly the most important network stitching together the disparate regions of an expanding empire. When John C. Calhoun urged his countrymen, "Let us conquer space," he was not making the case for a war with Mexico, but for an expansion of the mail system. "It is thus," he continued, "that a citizen of the West will read the news of Boston still moist from the press. The mail and the press are the nerves of the body politic."(1)

But if the mails brought the country together, they also brought the North and South to a closer understanding of their unassuagable differences. Had debates over labor forms been confined to the House and Senate, the South might have been content to remain in the Union and work out another and another compromise. But the mails made possible a popular debate over slavery the South could never accept. When a mob broke into the Charleston post office in 1835, they were not after the thousands of dollars the letters likely contained, but the abolitionist literature that had arrived at the harbor that afternoon; and they were not common hoodlums, but prominent citizens. The mail system, in other words, did not merely reflect sectional tensions--it deepened them.(2)

Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that during the Civil War, designs on the outside of envelopes became a popular medium for the transmission of nationalistic propaganda. While northern and southern armies battled in the field, northern and southern stationers battled on envelopes, creating some of the most colorful and emotionally charged lithographs the nation had ever seen. The Civil War has long been recognized for its "firsts" in modern warfare: mine fields, flame throwers, repeating rifles, naval torpedoes, and even aircraft carriers (a boat designed for transporting balloons). These envelopes represent several "firsts" of their own. Their incredible popularity with a public unaccustomed to such eye-candy made them one of the country's first fads. Their colorful encroachment on public space constituted a first, unfortunate step toward the visual bombardment of modern image advertising. And most significant, their use of vivid imagery to manipulate the emotions and secure the allegiance of a civilian population marked an important first in the development of wartime propaganda.

These Civil War patriotic covers, as they are called, represent an engaging and long-neglected historical source. The artwork has an unvarnished immediacy, laying bare not only the pageantry of war, but its evils. In their very wordlessness, the images cut through more verbose arguments and capture the ironic essence of civil conflict--the war waged against the self. While interest in the covers has been keen and steady in philatelic circles, historians of material culture and iconography have yet to turn their attention to them. The result is that we know better how much a particular cover would fetch on the open market than how we should "read" the images and the processes by which they were put there.

Civil War patriotic covers drew on three relatively new developments in the image market. With the maturation of the second party system, for instance, the iconography of campaigning had grown increasingly elaborate as Whig and Democrat alike moved to a more popular political style. Though differing in their policies on tariffs and plankroads, each party based its legitimacy on a Revolutionary heritage and used traditional symbols (the flag, the eagle, Columbia, George Washington, etc. …

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