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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

The Confederate Postal Service in West Virginia

By Boyd B. Stutler

Volume 24, Number 1 (October 1962), pp. 32-41

The area included in the present State of West Virginia was never in fact a part of the Southern Confederacy, yet there was a brief period when the Confederacy could claim nominal control over the whole region. That was the brief interlude between May 9, 1861, when Virginia was admitted into the Confederate States, and June 20, 1861, when the secession of the western counties from seceded Virginia was completed at Wheeling as the Restored Government of Virginia, loyal to the Federal Union. Authority of the Confederate government was not respected in the western area and it was at best a paper control.

But the organization of a loyal government and, two years later, the creation of the State of West Virginia could not and did not prevent Confederate control, civil and military, over certain areas held for a short time only, while others -- notably Monroe County, as a single unit -- were dominated by Confederates down to the closing days of the conflict. In these counties money for support of Confederate soldiers and their families was appropriated by the county courts; to maintain trade fractional money "shinplasters" were issued under authority of acts of the Confederate Congress, and such essential services as postoffices and post routes were maintained.

The Confederate postal service did operate in West Virginia, and continued in operation as an organized service at various places after statehood was achieved, and on down until very shortly before the final scene at Appomattox. Official records are lacking -- the story of the Confederate postoffices west of the mountains must be patched together from little scraps and mentions in letters, diaries, newspapers, and the recollections of persons who had first-hand knowledge of the events of the wartime years. The only official evidence of Confederate operation of postoffices west of the mountains is found in the postmarked envelopes (covers, as termed by collectors) which are treasured in a great many outstanding Confederate philatelic collections. These covers are exceedingly scarce and when offered on the market usually command a premium over items of like date bearing the postmarks of offices east of the mountains.

A minimum estimate of the postoffices in West Virginia that were operated by the Confederacy would number well over fifty,1 but only a few of the major offices can be certainly identified as having once served under the Stars and Bars. But starting with Harpers Ferry, at the tip of the Eastern Panhandle, the line of known Confederate postoffices runs to the south and south-west through Shepherdstown, Martinsburg, Charles Town, Rippon, Moorefield, Franklin, Romney, Travellers Repose (now Bartow), Huntersville, White Sulphur Springs, Frankford, Lewisburg, Red Sulphur Springs, Salt Sulphur Springs, Union and Peterstown -- the last five offices named are in Monroe County. Reaching into the interior there are several covers bearing the Beverly manuscript postal markings, and on to the south Fayetteville and Kanawha Court House (now Charleston) served briefly under the Confederates.

These offices, with the exception of Beverly, Fayetteville and Kanawha Court House, are all located in the fringe of counties ranging along the Virginia-West Virginia border, from Beckley on the north to Monroe on the south. There is no doubt that many others of the established postoffices in the Confederate area were pressed into service at some time, but no postmarked covers have been found to make that service certain. And it is equally certain that there are still many covers bearing West Virginia postal markings, now held in family archives or cached away in "grandma's old trunk," that fine old repository from which so many treasures emerge.

The little that is known of the operation of the Confederate postoffices has, in the absence of official records, been reconstructed through the patient researchers of such advanced students of Confederate philately as Colonel Harvey E. Sheppard, United States Army, Fort Hood, Texas; the late Van Dyk MacBride, Newark, New Jersey; George N. Malpass, St. Petersburg, Florida; Earl Antrim, Nampa, Idaho; David Kohn, Washington, D. C., and a few others, each contributing something to round out the history. It is, however, chiefly due to Colonel Sheppard, who has specialized in Virginia and West Virginia Confederate postal history and who has contributed a number of articles to philatelic publications, that we are able to trace the operation of the West Virginia branch of the Southern service with some degree of accuracy.

The Confederate postal service as a national entity may be said to date from June 1, 1861, though Postmaster General John H. Reagan had been in office for some months working out the details of a postal organization. It was on June 1 that the United States postal service was withdrawn from the seceded Confederate States and the United States regular postage stamps were no longer valid for the transmission of mails. The Confederates had no stamps of their own, and it was not until October 16 that the first stamp -- a five cent green bearing the portrait of Jefferson Davis -- was issued to the postoffices, and then to but few of the operating offices in the disputed territory of Western Virginia. In this stampless period from June 1 to October 16 -- and for many of the smaller offices until the end -- postmasters merely stamped or wrote "Paid" with the amount of postage required at some place on the cover. These envelopes mailed and marked after June 1, 1861, are easily distinguished from the United States mail covers because of the difference in the rates of postage.

The Confederate postage rate at first was five cents per half ounce for the first five hundred miles, and ten cents for letters to be carried a greater distance; heavier letters were charged at the initial half-ounce rate. After July 1, 1862, the rate was upped to ten cents per half ounce for all letters, and by this boost in the carriage charge Postmaster General Reagan performed a minor miracle in keeping the Confederate Postoffice Department on the profit side of the ledger. The United States rate was three cents per ounce.

When Reagan took over the postal system he sent an order to all postmasters to hold fast to all mail bags, locks, keys, marking and rating stamps, and such blank forms as would be needed or helpful in accounting and in making the regular returns, and in fact to latch on to any other United States property that could be used in keeping their offices going.2 And to maintain a staff of experienced agents Reagan urged old postmasters, if loyal to the Confederacy, to retain their offices. Not all of the postmasters, especially those in the smaller offices, had handstamps and cancellers. These people followed the old system of postal markings by writing on the cover the name of the postoffice and date of mailing. By some curious bit of cork-screw reasoning postmasters were not required to write the year, thus most of the covers found bear only a record of the month and day.

It seems quite probable that most of the United States postmasters in the disputed area served both sides alternately as the towns changed hands from time to time, but of all the postmasters serving the Confederacy in West Virginia the names of only a few have been preserved. An exception seems to have been made at Shepherdstown where David Rentch was commissioned by Reagan, while James I. Towner was seated as the United States postmaster.3 Rentch ran the Confederate office during the first year of the war with the help of Jerome Dushane, but when Rentch was captured on November 24, 1862, Dushane closed the office, gathered the supplies and equipment in a big, red bandana and took refuge in the Confederate army. It is claimed that he carried out with him some $10,000 worth of Confederate postage stamps4 -- no doubt a huge overstatement. At any rate, Shepherdstown was one of the few offices that used the regular issue stamps, cancelled with a queer "Shepherdstown" handstamp.

John P. Brown, the United States Postmaster at Charles Town, was also commissioned by the Confederate government and served each side when in control of the town5 -- probably that was the reason why he was relieved of his Federal office in 1862. It seems very likely that William M. Brown served alternately as United States and Confederate postmaster at Harpers Ferry -- he was appointed in 1858 and served continuously until 1865. But the old veteran who served the Confederacy longest was Major James A. Shanklin, postmaster at Union, Monroe County, who held the office uninterruptedly through all the changes of administration and the Civil War from 1821 until 1865. Major Shanklin was appointed to his office during the administration of President Monroe, but having served the Confederacy he could not take the test oath at the end of the war and thus deprived of his office. His 44 years as Union's postmaster made him senior in the postal service in the whole country.6

Harpers Ferry was occupied by Virginia troops on the night of April 18, 1861, and from that time until the evacuation on June 15 -- or actually until June 20 when the last dated Confederate cover is known -- the office may be said to have operated under Virginia or Confederate auspices. But though in nominal control of the postoffice, it was not until May 27 that Governor Letcher, of Virginia, issued an order for the seizure of the postoffices at Harpers Ferry and Grafton, and the appointment of postmasters in the interest of the State government.7 Harpers Ferry had been designated as the point of concentration for Virginia troops in the Shenandoah and Potomac areas; the influx of these troops soon depleted the local supply of postage stamps, and no more were to be had from any source. Colonel J. T. L. Preston, of the Virginia Military Institute, wrote his wife on May 9: "I would write you daily if I had time and postage stamps. These latter relics and mementos of things gone by are not to be had, though much sought for in all the camp. Strange! that we should feel the want of stamps when we have declared that we have no need of the government that issued them! I had a stock of them in my trunk, but my trunk is in Staunton. But the want of stamps is nothing to the want of time."8

When General Joseph E. Johnston abandoned Harpers Ferry in mid-June 1861, the Confederate postoffice at that place closed, and though the Confederates later controlled the town for brief periods it was never again opened to serve the South.

At the time Governor Letcher ordered the seizure of the Harpers Ferry and Grafton postoffices he wired Mayor Andrew Sweeney, of Wheeling, to seize the Customs House and postoffice at that place. The answer came promptly in a wire from the mayor: "I have seized upon the Customs House and postoffice in the name of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, whose property they are." Wheeling, of course, was never called upon to become a Confederate postoffice, and neither was Grafton. That town was occupied only nominally by Colonel George A. Porterfield and a few recruits the latter part of May. No evidence has been found that Porterfield took over the postoffice at Philippi when he retreated to that town from Grafton -- his stay there was probably too short.

In the first campaign in West Virginia in May and June 1861, Beverly became the central office used by the Virginia and Georgia Confederate troops, though a large part of the force was stationed at Laurel Hill, near Belington. On taking command of the shattered forces after Porterfield's defeat at Philippi, Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett rallied the men and reorganized the regiments at Huttonsville, twelve miles south of Beverly, where for a few weeks he maintained his headquarters camp. Nothing has been found to indicate that Huttonsville was used as a Confederate postoffice, though it most likely was. A few weeks later when McClellan forced the Confederate troops out of the Tygarts Valley, Huttonsville became the principal mail center for the several thousand Federal troops under Brigadier Generals Reynolds and Milroy who wintered in that town, at Elkwater, and at the fort on Cheat Summit. Union Huttonsville covers with both manuscript and handstamped postmarks are not at all scarce.

Running a Confederate postoffice in the disputed West Virginia area was an off-and-on business because of the frequent interruptions by Federal troops raiding through or taking over the area served. Some of the offices operated only for a brief time, such as Fayetteville in June and July 1861, when Generals Wise and Floyd held that section and carried on a blazing private feud between themselves. Charleston, too, the postoffice then called Kanawha Court House, twice had its moments of Confederate control; first in June and July 1861, when General Wise occupied the town, and again in September and October 1862, when General W. W. Loring defeated Brigadier General J. A. J. Lightburn in the battle of Charleston on September 13 and took possession of the town and all its facilities. The postoffice was reopened under the Stars and Bars, but of all the letters mailed from Kanawha Court House by Confederates during the periods of the two occupancies only two covers have been traced.

The position of the Confederate postmasters was slightly more secure along the line of the present Virginia border, with the exception of Romney which, it seems, operated as a United States postoffice one day and a Confederate the next, as the town shifted fifty-six times from one side to the other during the course of the war. Greenbrier and Monroe counties were more consistently in Confederate hands throughout the war, both through the Restored Government period and after June 20, 1863, when West Virginia became a State. Lewisburgh (note the "h") was an important center from first to last, and was one of the offices west of the mountains that was supplied with Confederate stamps. In passing, it may be noted that, according to Colonel Sheppard's records, more covers are known from Lewisburgh than from any other West Virginia town. The first of these covers are postmarked with a circular handstamp; this stamp was apparently lost in a fire at the postoffice set by raiding Union troopers some time in the fall or winter of 1862. After that fire the known covers bear manuscript markings.9 White Sulphur Springs was also supplied with Confederate stamps and served as a troop center for several months.

A recent discovery, hailed as one of considerable importance in philatelic circles, is a cover with pen and ink manuscript markings, but with no rate or "paid," which was sent from Frankord, Greenbrier County, enclosing a letter dated November 11, 1862. The letter clearly proves that Frankford, only about eight miles from Lewisburg, was operating as a Confederate postoffice.10

Union, the county seat of Monroe County, was the least disturbed though Federal troops passed through the town several times. Fortunately for the citizens they did not tarry long enough to oust Mayor James A. Shanklin from his place in the postoffice, or to hinder the mail service at five other known offices in the county -- Salt Sulphur Springs, Red Sulphur Springs, Sweet Springs, Peterstown and Rocky Point (now Sinks Grove). One distinctive cover mailed at Salt Sulphur Springs, January 21, 1865, addressed to Rocky Point,11 proves conclusively that the postal service in Monroe County was continued until the eve of Appomattox.

Withdrawn from the active battle area, though lying in a natural invasion route to and from the south-east, Union was an important supply center. Here, too, was located the headquarters of Nitre District No. 4, Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau, in charge of Captain James Bradford Noyes, Charleston salt maker, then engaged in extracting nitre, or saltpeter, from the limestone caves of Monroe, Greenbrier, Pendleton and some adjoining counties in Virginia. But with all this activity and the certainty of handling a big volume of mail, only six covers bearing the Union postmark are accounted for.

For about three months in the fall of 1861 a heavy concentration of Confederate troops held Camp Bartow, Pocahontas County, at the crossing of the Greenbrier River in the trough between the Allegheny and Cheat Mountains. The camp was located around the established postoffice known as Travellers Repose, taking its name from the noted wayside inn. The town that has grown up since the war on the site is now known as Bartow, though the old inn is still standing. Here the battle of Greenbrier Crossing was fought on October 3, 1861, when Georgia's Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson beat off a heavy attack made by the Federals under General Reynolds. The encamped soldiers used the Travellers Repose postoffice, as is clearly proven by the number of covers that have turned up in major collections, most of them sent to the home folks by homesick soldiers of the 1st and 12th Georgia and Albert Rust's 3rd Arkansas Infantry Regiments, with a scattering from the East Virginians.

James E. Hall, a Barbour County lad who was a private in Company H, 31st Virginia Infantry, was detailed to serve in the Travellers Repose postoffice -- a welcome break from the round of camp and guard duty. He mentioned his work in his diary a few times, the most significant entry being: "We mail daily near 800 letters."12 With this volume of outgoing mail it seems passing strange that only a dozen or so manuscript postmarked covers can be accounted for today.

While General H. R. Jackson had his headquarters at Camp Bartow, other troops in General Loring's command were stationed at Edray and Huntersville, both in Pocahontas County. Huntersville is known as a Confederate postoffice; possibly Edray had similar service, but no covers have been found -- a long letter from Chris C. McKinney, 8th Regiment Tennessee Volunteers, written from Edray to his wife in his home State, dated August 21, 1861, is known, but the cover to show place of mailing has not been preserved.

As early as August 24, 1861, an "express" or courier service was established from both Travellers Repose and Huntersville to meet at Monterey. The Assistant Quartermaster at the Monterey supply center wrote General Jackson that the courier must start from Camp Bartow at seven o'clock in the morning in order to meet the express from Huntersville at Monterey in order to get the mail and express matter to Staunton the same day it starts from Greenbrier River.13

After the battle at the crossing the camp was moved to Allegheny Summit, some eight miles to the southeast and use of the Travellers Repose office was discontinued. Mail from the new camp was sent direct to Monterey, perhaps because of better service; certainly Monterey was in more solidly secure Confederate territory.

Strangely enough, no evidence has been found that a Confederate postoffice operated in Mercer County, though it is hard to believe that in such a highly developed center as Princeton -- a strong Confederate town in a strongly Confederate county -- the residents would be content to get along without mail service of some kind, or would permit a Federal office to operate. Doubtless, Princeton and perhaps other offices in the county did serve the Confederacy, but the proof in postmarked covers is yet to be found. But Princeton is not unknown in Confederate philatelic circles -- some years ago a fake circular handstamp postmark device, "Princeton Va. Apr 19," no year, appeared on the market. This fake cancellation is found on the two cent red-brown and the twenty cent green stamps, but it was quickly detected as fraudulent and is so listed in the standard catalogues. Another West Virginia fake cancellation is a Charlestown, West Virginia, postmark on a Confederate twenty cent stamp issued in 186414 -- patently a fraud; in the first place Charlestown (now Charles Town) did not use a West Virginia handstamp until a year or so after the war ended.

The higher prices commanded by covers postmarked from offices later in West Virginia made an open field for the forger and faker, but fortunately only a few such pieces have been detected. In addition to the faked cancellations purporting to be from the Charlestown and Princeton postoffices, there are at least three examples of handstamped "paid" covers floating around, two with Buckhannon postal markings, "paid 5," and one with Burton marking, also "paid 5." These were good enough to get into the official listing of extant Confederate covers,15 but would fool no one familiar with the Civil War movements in West Virginia. Burton, Wetzel County, is up near the Pennsylvania border in a section never reached by Confederate troops; Buckhannon, Upshur County, was occupied several times by Confederate raiders, but at no time did they tarry long enough to set up a postal service. Another distinguishing point is that the Buckhannon covers are both Union patriotics, one addressed to a town in Ohio and another from one soldier of the 12th West Virginia Infantry, USV, to another who was then stationed at Beverly.

Transporting the mails was filled with danger, particularly in the central part of the State which was infested with Bushwhackers, so much so that many of the regular routes were abandoned and the postoffices along the routes suspended. Even the United States mail in the interior and down to within a few miles of the Ohio River was interrupted and some routes were abandoned because of the frequent robberies and guerrilla sniping. A notable example was the once-a-week, eighty-mile route from Charleston to Glenville serving a half dozen postoffice between the two points. This route when abandoned forced the suspension of at least three or four of the offices because they had no other supply route -- Roxalana, in Roane County; Arnoldsburg, in Calhoun County, and Letter Gap, in Gilmer County, were in suspension during the entire war, though the Arnoldsburg office, in a secession center, continued to serve as a clandestine Confederate "drop." Letters, both sending and receiving, were a problem to men in Confederate service whose homes were behind the Union lines. Letters to the home folks could not be sent through the Confederate mails, but this handicap was partially overcome by an active volunteer "underground" mail service; letters were passed by hand from one person to another on this irregular line until the addressee was reached, or until the message reached a convenient Confederate mail center, or "drop," such as the Arnoldsburg office, where it was held until opportunity to deliver it was presented.

Raids on United States postoffices by Confederate irregulars, sometimes well within Union held territory, was a common occurrence. One striking instance was the Moccasin Ranger raid on Ripley, Jackson County, led by Dan Duskey on the night of December 19, 1861, when the postoffice was looted and even the mail on hand was carried away. Finding the door of the postoffice locked and on demand Postmaster John H. Wetzel refused to open it, Duskey said he had a key that open any door. He promptly kicked it down.16 Practically the same kind of a raid was made on the postoffice at Bald Knob, Wyoming County, when Confederate irregulars seized Postmaster Jasper Workman and his brother William, tied them together for a day and a night while they looted the office and rested. The raiders got only $16.06 in stamps and envelopes and some little other booty.17

Military personnel was impressed into the mail service in the active theaters, but for the most part, especially on the Confederate side, volunteer carriers slipped through the lines with their pockets bulging with letters, making their way by unfrequented roads and mountain paths to the nearest point of dispatch, or back to the home area. Young women were especially active in handling this sort of mail, often passing through the Union lines on some innocent pretext when they were loaded down with contraband mail.

Sometimes, because of precautions taken to mask the identity in case the letter should fall into the wrong hands, it was difficult to make proper delivery. One case is noted in the war events diary of young Victoria Hansford (later Teays), who lived just below Coalsmouth (now St. Albans), who served her area as the clandestine Confederate mail distributor. One day a bundle of letters came to her from Virginia, carried by a soldier who came home on furlough. One letter was addressed simply "To Callie." Miss Hansford was puzzled; then on reading the letter she found further confusion in that it was signed only with the initial "I." Cudgeling her brain to recall who among the residents of the Kanawha Valley answered to the name of "Callie," and what soldier could be writing her whose first or last initial was "I," but from the tone of the letter she could determine that the parties were husband and wife. After some talks with neighbors she finally delivered the letter -- and properly so -- to Mrs. Callie Quarrier Smith, of Charleston, wife of Major Isaac N. Smith, 22nd Virginia Infantry, then serving in the active battle area in Eastern Virginia.18

1. Harvey E. Sheppard, "The Confederacy and West Virginia," Confederate Philatelist 6 (August 1961): 100.

2. Report of the Postmaster General, C. S. A., November 27, 1861, 41.

3. Dietz Confederate States Catalog and Handbook of Postage Stamps and Envelopes, (Richmond, 1959), 280.

4. Millard Kessler Bushong, A History of Jefferson County, West Virginia, (Charles Town, 1941), 153.

5. Major T. T. Perry, Jr., Charles Town, W. Va. to the author, April 2, 1953. The commission of John P. Brown was then held in a private collection.

6. Obituary notice of Major James A. Shanklin from undated clipping from Monroe Watchman, (Union, W. Va.), circa April 1881. Major Shanklin died March 25, 1881. Also Oren F. Morton, A History of Monroe County, West Virginia, (Staunton, Va., 1916), 402.

7. George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac . . . Campaign in Western Virginia, (New York, 1864), 13.

8. Elizabeth Preston Allan, Margaret Junkin Preston, Life and Letters, (Boston and New York, 1903), 119.

9. Harvey E. Sheppard, "The Mails and the War in Virginia, 1861-1865," Weekly Philatelic Gossip, February 2, 1957.

10. Cover and letter owned by the author.

11. Cover and letter owned by the author.

12. Ruth Woods Dayton, editor, The Diary of a Confederate Soldier: James E. Hall, (Charleston, 1961), 32.

13. Original letter owned by Judge Harry J. Lemley, Hope, Arkansas.

14. Dietz Catalog and Handbook, 269-271.

15. Dietz Catalog and Handbook, 74.

16. Letters of J. L. Armstrong and John H. Wetzel, Ripley, Dec. 20 and 21, 1861, to Colonel Daniel Frost, in Wheeling Press, Dec. 27, 1861.

17. Marshall Cushing, The Story of Our Post Office, (Boston, 1893), 481-482.

18. Unpublished diary of Victoria Hansford (Teays), of Coalsmouth, now St. Albans, who served as a volunteer mail distributor for the unofficial "underground" Confederate mail service.


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