Post Office, Mooresville, Alabama. The oldest post office in Alabama, this Mooresville structure dates to the early nineteenth century and exemplifies the humble but significant nodes of the postal network that connected antebellum Americans to each other – and to their government. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

If your state seceded from the United States today, how would it first affect your daily life? Scholars typically study the secession crisis of 1860 to 1861 in terms of high politics, with the action unfolding in Washington and southern state capitals. For humbler residents of the seceding states, however, a distant convention did not necessarily make disunion a tangible reality. Instead, many literate white southerners first encountered the practical consequences of secession through the mail.

Historians have long noted that the Post Office was a primary connection between antebellum Americans and the federal government. “For many Americans of that time,” writes one scholar, “mail service was the only daily – or even regular – contact they had with their government. Indeed, in some of the country’s smaller settlements, the post office was the only manifestation of the federal government that people would ever come in direct contact with.”[1]One should not overstate this point: it would be difficult to convince a Cherokee survivor of the Trail of Tears, a post-1848 resident of California or New Mexico, or a fugitive slave captured after 1850, that the antebellum federal government was small and unobtrusive. But the Post Office theme does dramatize changes wrought by the Civil War, during which the federal government conscripted citizens, taxed incomes, and otherwise extended its reach. Less well-known, however, are the ways in which rituals of sending and receiving mail brought the reality of secession into routines of daily life.

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

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