Just as the U.S. Civil War was four years in duration, so too, is its sesquicentennial, which Americans are observing 150 years later from 2011 through 2015.
It’s a much-anticipated anniversary that has spawned books, art, memorials, exhibits, re-enactments and yes, even postage stamps.
A few weeks ago I stopped into my local post office to stock up on stamps as my supply was getting low. Surprisingly, there was no line at all which meant the clerk could actually chat with me for a bit. When she found out all I needed was to replenish my stamp supply she went into full sales mode which, for once, I was actually grateful.
Normally I’m all about speed and accuracy when it comes to dealing with the post office—in and out, please. Toss me your basic “Forever” stamps with the image of a flag on top and I’m good to go. Not that day, though. I guess the history gods were with me because that’s the day I learned the Postal Service offers a series of first class stamps commemorating key battles of the Civil War.
And collectibles, they are.
Fortunately, even though I was already a year behind, I was not too late to begin and add to my collection of philatelic keepsakes of Civil War history.
The five year series began last year in 2011 with the availability of two stamps featuring significant Civil War battles of 1861: Fort Sumter, a federal garrison in South Carolina which kicked off the war on April 12, 1861; and the first battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war which occurred July 21, 1861, near Manassas, Virginia, just 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
The Sumter stamp, which features the fort in a blaze of fire and smoke, is a reproduction of a Currier & Ives lithograph titled “Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor.” The Bull Run stamp, a panorama of soldiers on foot and on horseback, is a reproduction of a 1964 painting by Sidney E. King titled “The Capture of Rickett’s Battery.”
The stamps can be purchased as books of 12 or 20 for everyday use or they’re available in collectible, double- sided souvenir sheets. Each sheet contains 10 stamps and a brief history of the battles on one side, with 2 more stamps, a background photo, and quotes from key Civil War figures of the year on the reverse.
Scenes depicted in the 1862 stamps include the battle of New Orleans, which occurred in April 1862; and the battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, which took place September 17, 1862. The battle at Antietam has gone down in history as the bloodiest day of the entire war with more than 23,000 men killed, wounded or listed as missing on that day alone.
The New Orleans stamp is a reproduction of an 1862 lithograph by Currier and Ives titled “The Splendid Naval Triumph on the Mississippi, April 24th, 1862.” The Antietam stamp is a reproduction of an 1887 painting by Thure de Thulstrup, one in a series of popular prints commissioned in the 1880s by Boston publisher Louis Prang.
So whether you’re a rabid stamp collector, a Civil War aficionado, or someone who’d just like to perk up outgoing mail with something more than a generic flag, these stamps just might be for you. If nothing else they may give you or the recipients of your letters a cause to pause, take a look, and—just for a moment—contemplate the depth, breadth and ramifications of a civil war that took place on our soil 150 years ago.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the Post Office delivers over the next three years in this colorful, historic series.
Pat Biallas is the author of Pursuing the Past, a monthly column in The In-Depth Genealogist about navigating different media outlets to learn about the past. She can be found blogging at Genea Journeys.
© Patricia Desmond Biallas