- Historic Sites
A Zip Through History
The U.S. Post Office, 1775-1974
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
The potentialities of the railroads for moving the mails were mentioned in the Annual Report of the postmaster general in 1835, and three years later Congress declared all railroads to be post roads and authorized the post office to enter into mail-carrying contracts with the railroads. There were difficulties at first. Railroad technology developed more slowly than had been anticipated, and the companies also wanted to be overpaid—sound familiar? Even religious controversies were stirred up. Several formidable religious organizations made an issue in the nineteenth century of the movement and delivery of mail on the Christian Sabbath. There were petitions, mass meetings, and counter mass meetings; and at Philadelphia on Sundays, Major Ben: Per ley Poore remembered, chains secured with padlocks were stretched across the streets traversed by the mail coaches. But the secular forces won out on the historic principle of the separation of church and state. Now, deep into the twentieth century, cost cutting has brought about what religious scruple could not accomplish: no regular deliveries on Sunday. By the time of the Civil War the rail network was the dominant facility for moving the mails, and two great monopolies were linked in an uneasy partnership. It is significant of the changed conditions that in 1863 the statistical tables on the transmission of mail by stagecoach were dropped from the postmaster general’s Annual Report .
When Civil War hostilities began, the mail service was the last bond between the North and the seceded states to be broken. It is one of the incongruities of history that the service had not in the crunch strengthened the bonds of Union but actually served to consolidate the irreconcilable opinions already held as the confrontation approached. The post office had been unavoidably caught up in the slavery question before the war when southern postmasters removed objectionable printed matter from the mail sacks. As far back as the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory was prepared to disregard the First Amendment in order to bar the odious doctrines of the abolitionists from circulating in the southern states.
At last, and with great reluctance, in the summer of 1861 the United States prohibited the exchange of mail with the Confederate states, except for the Union portions of Virginia and Tennessee, and changed the postage rates, which left the southern postmasters without valid stamps. During the conflict steady progress was made in improving the postal system in the North, with such innovations as the money order and free home delivery in the larger cities. Finances improved because the war cut off the operation of unprofitable units in the southern states.
The Post Office Department of the Confederacy began operations on June i, 1861, under John Henninger Reagan, a former Texas congressman who accepted the task with great reluctance. But Reagan proved to be an energetic cabinet officer who made the postal service selfsustaining despite the enormous difficulties encountered by a government at war. When the Confederate post office collapsed early in 1865, the U.S. Post Office Department again took over the routes.
In the Great West the mountain men were followed by the soldiers, the traders, gold and silver prospectors, land speculators—and postal clerks. The first mail service to the Pacific coast was by ship, with the mid-stage crossing of the Isthmus of Panama accomplished by canoe and mule power. But the main emphasis soon shifted to the Overland Route. There were other objectives in addition to delivering the mail—to determine the best emigrant route and to scout the right of way for a future transcontinental railroad. Senator William H. Seward spoke to the point when he said that the post office was “a great instrumentality for maintaining, preserving and extending this Union.”
The first or southern route was, roughly speaking, a great semicircle extending from St. Louis via El Paso, Tucson, and Los Angeles to San Francisco, nearly twentyeight hundred miles long, the longest stagecoach line in America. It was a day of universal joy and excitement at San Francisco on the October day in 1858 when the first mail coach turned from Market Street into Montgomery. The driver blew his horn lustily, cracked his whip. The horses dashed bravely. Dust flew. The coach rattled, and the air was filled with hats and hurrahs. At about the same time the eastbound coach arrived at its terminus. John Butterfield, who operated the stages and “celerity wagons” of the Overland Mail Company, sent a jubilant telegram to President Buchanan, whose reply called the feat “a glorious triumph for civilization and the Union.” After the Civil War began, there were depredations upon the mails by Texas Confederates, and the Butterfield mail coaches were shifted to the central route.
There were also Indian troubles. Horses were run off. Post stations were destroyed and personnel massacred. But the drivers and mail guards gave a good account of themselves, barricaded behind their coaches and mail pouches, “well equipped,” according to a breezy western account, “with Colt’s persuaders and Arkansas toothpicks” (bowie knives and daggers). By the time the war ended, the Indian menace was largely contained, as soldiers were shifted west for service on the Plains.