Civil War Patriotism

In the first blush of the Civil War, citizens of both North and South were puffed up with pride and patriotism, bursting with a boisterous bravado. Their surging emotions found an outlet in a now forgotten form of personal expression: illustrated envelopes.

Mail was the primary method of doing business or conducting long-distance conversation, so what better way to broadcast your point of view than to send letters in envelopes that shouted out your sentiments to all the world? Countless numbers of such envelopes were printed during the war. They offer us a window into the passions that seized the imagination of everyday people in the 1860s. In a time before the Internet, postcards, bumper stickers, or T-shirts, these "patriotic covers" (as they are called today by collectors) offered individuals a means to crow over victories, taunt the enemy, vent anger, and support the troops.

Most of the 3-by-5-inch illustrated envelopes produced during the war were printed in the North, because the South suffered a shortage of both paper and envelope-making machinery. More than 116 printers in 39 Northern cities turned out thousands of designs. They were by turns boastful and vengeful, sarcastic and sentimental. Many appealed to people's prejudices, whipping up hatred and disdain for the enemy. They portrayed Southerners as cowards, depraved drunkards, rubes, and unsophisticated brutes; animal references were very popular. Jefferson Davis and other secessionists were depicted as asses, monkeys, rats, chicken, mice, turtles, vultures, gorillas, and pigs. Some exhibited a blustering machismo tone that sounds quite familiar to modern ears. One Northern envelope depicted a Confederate flag with the words "This Flag will run" underneath.

Other Union envelopes venerated such heroes as President Abraham Lincoln, Gen. Winfield Scott, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. A surprising number commemorated the death of Elmer Ellsworth, a romantic figure of the war's earliest days who organized New York firefighters into a volunteer Zouave regiment, and was one of the first Union officers killed in the war. Southern envelopes tended to be more about pride and honor, often featuring the Confederate flag-not the familiar "Stars and Bars," which was only a battle flag, but a version of the Stars and Stripes with a star for each Confederate state. Since the envelopes were prized by collectors even during the war, some Northern printers showed their Yankee ingenuity by printing up counterfeit Confederate covers.

The envelopes were quite the rage in the early days of the conflict, before the grim realities of a war that would lay more than a million young men in their graves became fully apparent. Although they were manufactured throughout the war, there are far fewer from the later and bloodier days, suggesting they came to be viewed as an unnecessary indulgence as casualties mounted. They continued to be printed after the war for propaganda purposes, but never regained the popularity they enjoyed in the early 1860s. They were eventually made obsolete by a new technology: the picture postcard.

Like wearing your heart on your sleeve, proclaiming your partisanship on an envelope during wartime could cause occasional awkwardness. One writer used an envelope with a Confederate flag to write to a Union Army captain in Springfield, Mass. Under the offending symbol of the South, the embarrassed writer scrawled a face-saving explanation: "I have no other envelope."