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"With Love From Nashville"

by Alan Hiebert

Volume 4, Issue 4
October–December 1995

From the earliest known cover originating in Nashville (1797) to the experimental "Buffalo Balloon" mail flight 80 years later, the philatelic history of Nashville is unique. Nashville's singular position as a central point for transfer of mail between North and South during the Civil War produced philatelic rarities. The story is told in the exhibition "From Nashville with Love: Tennessee Rarities from the Jeanette Cantrell Rudy Collection," which opened in the rarities vault of the National Postal Museum's Stamps and Stories gallery Nov. 7. 

Twenty-four album pages from the collection of Jeanette Cantrell Rudy are on display. A member of the Nashville Philatelic Society, Rudy began collecting philatelic items related to Nashville more than twenty-five years ago. Her attention to quality and careful research of each item has won her collection three gold medals in national competition. 

Among the items in the collection are the "Buffalo Balloon" stamps and covers. Referred to as "semi-official" by exhibit curator Joseph Geraci, the "Buffalo Balloon" stamps were printed by Samuel Archer King. King built a balloon called the "Buffalo," which first flew in Buffalo, New York on September 16, 1873. His planned flight four years later in Nashville created so much interest that King printed 300 stamps which the public could attach to envelopes, along with three-cents postage, and have their mail delivered via balloon. On display are used and unused "Buffalo Balloon" stamps, as well as a rare cover that was actually flown in the balloon. 

Ten years ago, the Smithsonian Institution hoped to acquire one of the rare "Buffalo Balloon" covers, then up for auction in Connecticut. The Institution, however, was unable to purchase the item. Years later James Bruns, director of the National Postal Museum discovered that Jeanette Cantrell Rudy had outbid the Smithsonian. Bruns is pleased the cover is now on display. "We don't have many balloon-related items in our airmail collection, so the 'Buffalo Balloon' cover is a welcome addition," he said. 

Even before the "Buffalo Balloon" flight, Tennessee produced many philatelic rarities, particularly in light of its unstable status during the Civil War. Tennessee seceded from the Union on June 8, 1861, but was not admitted into the Confederacy until July 2, 1861. For one month Union postage stamps were unavailable in Tennessee. To cope with the emergency, then-postmaster W.D. McNish reinstated the old system of hand-stamping "paid" on envelopes, creating pre-paid envelopes. He also commissioned a local printer to design and print 3 cent, 5 cent and 10 cent stamps called "provisional" stamps. Because this period of "independent statehood" lasted for only one month, items bearing the handstamp are rare and McNish's 3 cent provisionals were never used, although the other denominations covering Confederate postage rates were used through November 1861. 

Though U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair discontinued exchange of mail between North and South on Jun e1, 1861, private companies were allowed to carry mail across the border for a short time. The Adams Express Company and the American Letter Express Company both carried letters across the border. The American Letter Express Company would forward all north-bound letters to Nashville and south-bound letters to Louisville, Kentucky. Blair discontinued the practice on August 26, 1861. On display is an envelope with a patriotic eight-star Confederate flag, with a postmark reading:

"Adams Ex. Co.
Louisville, Ky., Aug. 7, 1861."

Since the letter was addressed to Pennsylvania,

"Opened by Confederate States
Vigilance Committee at
Nashville, Tenn."

is written in pen on the back flap as an indication of censorship. 

To show loyalty to one side or another during the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy produced patriotic envelopes, so called for the art work depicting pro-northern or pro-southern sentiments. Among the items on display is a particularly rare, graphic "Hanging Lincoln" southern patriotic cover that depicts President Lincoln hanging by his feet from a tree. 

On February 16, 1862, Nashville was captured by Union troops and was under Union control for the rest of the war. The city became a hub for mail traveling between the North and Union-controlled parts of the South. While the city was under Union control, some covers were marked with the handstamp "Mail Suspended." Only six covers bearing this handstamp ar known to exist. It was probably applied when a letter from the North could not be forwarded because the flow of mail was interrupted due to conditions of war. 

Letters from soldiers make up a good portion of the letters on display at the Museum. They speak of the hardships, fears, and loneliness soldiers in the field face. One of the biggest hardships for Civil War soldiers was finding postage. When it was recognized as a problem, soldiers were allowed to mail stampless letters if they were endorsed by a chaplain or proper officer. Many soldiers' letters went through Nashville, including one endorsed by "W. Vette, Chaplain, Wis. Vols." which was addressed to Germany. Postage was collected by the addressee. However, if a letter was not properly endorsed, it was held for postage and sent to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, If it was determined to be a soldier's letter after it was opened, it would be handstamped accordingly. One such cover is on display. At Nashville it was marked "Held for Postage," then marked "Soldier's Letter" in Washington. It was delivered with three cents postage due. 

In addition to the "Buffalo Balloon" and Civil War items, the exhibition contains other rarities. Also on display are letters sent by former President Andrew Jackson. The letters, marked with his signature, or frank, passed through the Nashville mail. The exhibit contains the only cover originating in Nashville bearing a 90-cent "Bank Note Company" stamp, which became obsolete in 1875 when international postal rates were reduced. 

The history of Nashville is told from the perspective of the mail in "From Nashville With Love." Rare items from the Civil War, along with unique pieces from before and after make the exhibition a fascinating look into the colorful history of an important city.