The morning after the November 1860 presidential election, newspapers across the nation announced what most informed citizens had expected for some time: Abraham Lincoln of Illinois had prevailed. Between election day and Lincoln’s inauguration four months later, South Carolina and six other Deep South states met in separate conventions and voted to withdraw from the Union. The seven then met in provisional Congress in Montgomery, Alabama, commandeered federal property in the seceding states, drafted a provisional Constitution, and mobilized for war. Four additional states subsequently joined them.
Lincoln remained firm in his resolve to preserve a single American Union of thirty-three states. He sought to placate the seceding states in his inaugural address by pledging to protect slavery where it then existed even as he declared the Union to be perpetual and secession unlawful. Following the assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, he called for volunteers to suppress an “illegal combination too powerful to be suppressed by the course of ordinary judicial proceedings.” George Washington had made a similar declaration in 1794 when confronted with the Whiskey Insurrection.
When the Civil War forced an end to postal service between the North and South, express companies carried mail across the lines for nearly two months. They carried primarily civilian business letters. The U.S. Post Office Department ordered an end to such traffic, effective August 26, 1861. Thereafter, mail had to be sent by Flag-of-Truce. The U.S. imposed special regulations to control, inhibit, and delay civilian through-the-lines mail and letters to prisoners on the other side. The same inner and outer envelope requirements as applied to prison mail were mandated for all mail. Mail could only cross the lines at specified exchange points. North-South mail passed through City Point, Virginia, and South-North mail passed through Fortress Monroe, Virginia.
The strong emotions stimulated by the issues and current events of the Civil War found expression in the form of illustrated stationery. Although Union envelopes bearing patriotic illustrations appeared before hostilities began, Confederate stationary quickly broadcast a variety of covers picturing flags, cannons, leaders, soldiers, and other wartime themes.
The United States did not want to inadvertently recognize the legitimacy of the Confederate States, so it initially refused to establish formal prisoner or mail exchange guidelines. On July 22, 1862, the warring parties signed a prisoner exchange cartel. This not only created a formal mechanism for the exchange of prisoners and mail via flag-of-truce, but had the further effect of emptying the prisons by September 1862. Increasing distrust towards the Confederacy, however, caused the U.S. to unilaterally stop most prisoner exchanges in June 1863, and prison populations began to soar. Accordingly, regular flag-of-truce mail exchanges resumed from July 1863 to the end of the war. The most common exchange point was Old Point Comfort, Virginia, although there were numerous other exchange points during the war as well.
Regulations called for a flag-of-truce letter to be enclosed in an unsealed inner envelope and sent in an outer envelope with postage prepaid to the exchange point. At the exchange point, the outer envelope was discarded, and the letter was examined by military authorities. Delivery from the exchange point to destination required postage of the other side. If the necessary postage stamps had not been attached to the inner envelope by the sender, coins could be attached to or enclosed in the outer envelope to prepay the postage to destination on the inner envelope. Because they were handled only by the postal system of the receiving side, these inner envelopes only show stamps and postal markings of the receiving side.
In many cases, correspondents did not observe the two-envelope regulation. Fortunately, it was also possible to have both sides’ postage on a single envelope if the sender had access to postage stamps of the other side, or if the receiving side allowed a postage due charge for its share of the postage. Envelopes with both U.S. and Confederate postage stamps are particularly prized by collectors.
In general, a POW envelope can be ascribed to a particular prison by a postmark of the nearby city on outgoing mail or by the address on incoming mail. In the case of inner envelopes, outgoing mail can only be attributed to a particular prison by letter contents or by service records of the POW correspondent. Examined markings can also be used to identify a particular prison.
In general, letters addressed to prisons are much scarcer than letters from prisons. Because Confederate prisons apparently limited the amount of correspondence allowed, mail from Confederate prisons is much rarer than mail from Union prisons.
Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved over time. In his inaugural and during the first year of the war, he sought to check 'radicals' in Congress, chiefly to mollify slaveholding border states such as Kentucky and Missouri that might join the Confederacy. He also countermanded orders by his generals in the field in favor of emancipation, insisting that the issue was a political one to be decided by the president and Congress. Lincoln moved to embrace a program of compensated emancipation by early 1862, and in September of that year issued a statement that declared if those states in rebellion did not return to the Union within one hundred days, he would declare emancipation on January 1, 1863. Southern intransigence led to the Emancipation Proclamation that day. The abolition of slavery had become an explicit war aim endorsed by Lincoln’s party in the 1864 presidential campaign and achieved on the field of battle by the end of the war.
Following his inaugural address and accepting the reality of an impending war, Lincoln acted to solidify the command structure of the United States Army. He first offered leadership to Robert E. Lee of Virginia. Failing that, he turned to General Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican American War and current commander of United States forces.
General Scott served only briefly. He resigned in July, in part because of his age (he turned 70 in 1861) and also because of his sanguine assessment of the enormous costs of impending war. Lincoln then replaced Scott with General George B. McClellan of Pennsylvania, the second of a series of generals who failed to earn Lincoln’s confidence and trust. Not until 1864 did Lincoln find the general he sought. Ulysses S. Grant of Illinois ultimately proved to be the general Lincoln desired. He—and a much larger Union army than Lincoln envisioned at the outset—ultimately prevailed over the rebels. The war culminated with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox courthouse.
Following Lee’s surrender, Lincoln turned to the question of reconstruction. His plans for a rapid and pacific reintegration of the southern states into the Union, however, died with his assassination at Ford’s theatre in Washington D.C. Having preserved the Union, the burden of securing the peace fell on the shoulders of his successor, Andrew Johnson.