Tuesday, December 18, 2007

When it Absolutely, Positively Has to be There - Express Companies in the Civil War

“Oh! It makes my mouth water every time I think of what I am likely to get in my box,” a Union soldier wrote his wife, and in doing so, expressed the sentiment of every soldier - North & South - who missed many of the special things he took for granted while at home.

Soldiers eagerly anticipated receiving boxes from home containing warm clothing, shoes, prayer books, quilts, and, especially, good things to eat. Small luxuries they were; still, they eased the monotony of life in camp and gave a much needed boost to morale, especially at Christmastime.

As shown above, Winslow Homer drew overjoyed soldiers reveling in the contents of boxes from home for the first Harper's Weekly Christmas cover of the war.

More often than not during the Civil War, those packages were sent to the soldiers from home via an "express company" very much like Federal Expres is used today. The three principal express companies during the war - American Express, Wells Fargo, and Adams Express - are all still in business today. The companies’ missions have changed over the years, but their names have not, and each points with pride to its Civil War heritage.

I wrote a short article about the express companies for the February 2003 issue of North & South magazine.

Since then, I've done a considerable amount of research on the companies - including some wonderful cooperation from archivists at American Express and Wells Fargo - and their role in the Civil War is the subject of a full chapter chapter in my forthcoming book Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008).

In the chapter I feature information on:

a) how the companies supported abolition, and when the war started, encouraged their employees (including Daniel Butterfield, and AmEx executive) to enlist

b) how - despite gestures of patriotism and declarations of fidelity - some citizens accused the express companies of the very opposite, that is, supporting the Southern cause by allowing (or even facilitating) shipments of contrabandto the Confederate states

c) the dangers that expressmen - and the treasure in their care - faced during the war, especially from guerillas

d) shipments of goodies to the soldiers, including some "goodies" that were not allowed

e) shipment of the remains of fallen soldiers back to their homes

f) interesting expres packages making their way to and from the White House (including live animals as gifts to President Lincoln!)

and much more.

Happy Holidays to everyone! I look forward to another year of posting when I return in the New Year.

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