With the Civil War Sesquicentennial series, art director Phil Jordan seeks to reflect the prevailing emotions of those who lived through the four-year ordeal. (Read about the artistic process of The Civil War: 1861 issuance, and view The Civil War: 1862 release.) But what do the stamps issued during the era reveal about a nation divided? Here, we take a look at the stamps of the Confederacy.
On June 1, 1861, mail flow between the Union North and seceded South ceased. From that day forward in the war of “brother against brother,” as it’s often called, brothers could no longer communicate across the Mason-Dixon line.
Three months prior, the newly formed Confederate States of America (C.S.A.) had acted on foresight to create its own postal department; but it wasn’t until Union forces bombarded Fort Sumter that any hopes for peaceful reconciliation were dashed, and the need for separate systems became fully apparent.
Immediately, the U.S. Post Office Department ordered that all pre-war stamps be demonetized, for fear that the Confederate postmasters would take them, sell them, and put the profits in their coffers.
And so the C.S.A. Post Office, with John Henninger Reagan as postmaster general, found itself needing to provide citizens with new stamps. Of the 13 issuances that resulted, the first — issued in October 1861 — perhaps reveals most about the Civil War South and the mood across the new Confederate nation.
The first Confederate issue off the presses was a 5-cent stamp featuring a portrait of C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis.
In effect, Davis became the first living person to appear on a postage stamp — reflecting a break from how things were done in the U.S. postal system. (For comparison’s sake, even Abraham Lincoln wasn’t portrayed on a stamp until after his death, in 1866.)
Not only did the Confederates have a new country and a blank rule book to play by; they also had a new leader they needed to establish. At the time, putting his portrait on a postage stamp was the most effective, expedient way to do so.
The rate on the stamp reveals the economic desperation of the Confederacy. For the 1- and 3-cent rates in circulation across the North, the South issued 2- and 5-cent rates — and the 5-cent rate quickly escalated to 10 cents. Mail crossing the Mississippi River cost a steep 40 cents.
The poor production quality of the stamp — lithographed and imperforate — demonstrates the difficulties the South faced in finding proper contractors for printing. Though PMG Reagan desired steel-plate printed stamps (similar to those issued in the North), the South was a largely agricultural region and lacked a large pool of skilled printers to pull from.
And so, for the first two years, only the inferior methods of lithography and typography were used. Similarly, all C.S.A. stamps issued during the Confederacy’s existence were imperforate, as perforations weren’t as easy to execute as they were in the machinery-laden North.
But though the Jefferson Davis stamp — and the others that followed it — tell of the South’s backsliding during the war, they also hint at the spirit of the Confederacy. Hard-pressed by wartime conditions, the Confederates persisted and made the best of what was available.
By war’s end, their printers were engraving on par with the Yankees, and the C.S.A. Post Office Department had actually made a profit. After the systems were united in 1865, the post-war U.S. Post Office Department even extended a position to PMG Reagan — a sign that family peace was being restored throughout the nation.