"My dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and as my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name . . . If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you . . . "
This excerpt is from a letter written on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run--150 years ago last Wednesday--by Union soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah. While Sullivan could not know his fate with certainty while writing this letter, he was mortally wounded in the battle and died without putting his final letter in the mail. The letter, recently published in an article in The Washington Post, was delivered to Sarah along with her husband's personal effects after his death.
SITES is planning a new exhibition that examines just this sort of epistilary drama. Mail Call, an exhibition created in partnership with the National Postal Museum, investigates all aspects of communication between the home front and the front lines, from the Revolutionary War to the present.
Civil War artifacts, including hand-written letters like the Sullivan Ballou letter, stamps, envelopes and Confederate “adversity covers” (envelopes fashioned from old letters and scraps of paper) are included in Mail Call. In addition, the exhibition explores several important changes in the postal system which got their start during the Civil War.
For example, money orders--a secure way to send relatively small amounts of money via the postal system--emerged during the war as a way for soldiers to send money home, and they continue to be used by both military personnel and civilians today. In addition, sorting mail on a moving train car (a difficult feat) began as an experiment during the Civil War. The change increased the efficiency of mail delivery to soldiers in Missouri so much so that after the war, it became standard procedure on all mail trains in the U.S.
But, not all Civil War-era changes in the postal system were inspired by a need for efficiency or security. One aspect of the postal system which I’ve always taken for granted—home delivery—began during the Civil War as an act of kindness toward women. Each day, women flocked to the Cleveland post office in anticipation of letters from their loved ones in battle, but the contents of the letters they received were often highly personal and difficult to bear. Sensing that these women might prefer to receive such news in the privacy of their own homes rather than in front of the assembled masses, a creative postman organized a system for delivering letters to individuals at home.
The excitement around the Civil War anniversary this year has caused us to take special note of the exhibition’s Civil War content, but this is just one piece of the Mail Call story. The exhibition goes on to explore related technical innovation and social change in the 20th and 21st centuries while paying special attention to those aspects of the story that are the same in all times. The distance and danger involved in military pursuits continue to inspire heartfelt correspondence like the “Sullivan Ballou letter," and letters and packages—and the dedication, courage, compassion, and ingenuity of everyone involved in transporting them—continue to be a vital source of communication and strength for our military personnel and their families around the globe.
The National Postal Museum will open a permanent Mail Call exhibition in November 2011. Check out the exhibition website. For information about hosting SITES's traveling version of Mail Call, please contact Ed Liskey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Robin Meyer, SITES publications intern