Newly Discovered Letters Bring New Insight Into the Life of a Civil War Soldier

A mysterious package holds long-lost correspondence from a young Union infantryman

Re-enactor John Holman displays a newly discovered letter alongside period objects including a hardtack-crate desk. (Claire Rosen)
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The envelope was addressed simply:

POSTMASTER
NEWAYGO,
MICHIGAN 49337

The postmark indicated that it had been mailed the day before—April 23, 2015—from Grand Rapids, 36 miles away; the careful, somewhat spidery penmanship suggested an elderly sender. “Except for the ‘Received Unsealed’ sticker on the back, there was no sign that the packet contained anything other than, say, an authorization to hold mail,” recalls Lori Boes, the warm, hardy woman who then ran the post office in this tiny Muskegon River lumber town.

Inside that envelope was another one, brown and brittle, its edges in tatters. A battle scene, in blue and red ink and bearing the legend “The War for the Union,” was imprinted on the top-left corner. Though the postage stamp had been removed, the name of the city of mailing—Norfolk, Virginia—was partially legible. The addressee: Orrin W. Shephard of Croton, Newaygo Co., Michigan.

The letters within—their mysterious discovery, and subsequent acquisition by the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, disclosed here for the first time—were tidily folded. As Boes flicked through the yellowed pages, she felt a sense of anticipation. “Some were in perfect shape,” she says, “You could read every word.” One began:

“Alexandria, Virginia

My Dear Parents,

I received your ever welcome letter last Sunday and I just returned from Guard and I was just in the right mood to write so I will try it we left Union Mills the next day after I sent you the letter as we passed Fairfax Court House we marched about 6 miles when we were drawn up in line of Battle. But nothing hapend [sic] only a few of our Pickets taken Prisoners the next morning we took three Prisoners Rebels....”

It dawned on Boes that she was reading a note sent home by a soldier during the Civil War. “Suddenly, I felt the enormity of what was in my hands,” she says. “My heart leapt in my throat. I was holding a piece of Americana. I was mortified that I’d ripped open the outer envelope.”

She laid out the pages on her desk, resisting the urge to tape the torn corners. There were two complete letters, a partial letter and several fragments —to the soldier’s folks, also containing notes to his younger brother, Albert. A fascinating insight into a turbulent moment of history, the correspondence stands as a poignant reminder of the terrifying responsibilities shouldered by inexperienced troops. The charm of the letters lies in the informal way they capture the aspirations of a wide-eyed, ambitious young man who had no idea what fate held in store.

Unsure what to do with the cache, Boes phoned Greater Michigan district manager Chuck Howe in Grand Rapids and said: “You’re not going to believe what I just received.” She was right. He asked to see the letters for himself. “I’ll deliver them in person,” Boes said, prudently. “They’re too precious to trust to the mails.”

Howe got in touch with United States Postal Service historian Jenny Lynch, who requested that he email images of the pages to her office in Washington, D.C. Though the letters looked authentic, she verified their provenance by consulting Dan Piazza, assistant curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. After scrutinizing the paper, its size and the ink, Piazza pronounced his verdict. “They are genuine,” he told Lynch.

To fill in the gaps in Nelson Shephard’s biography, Lynch enlisted the help of Steve Kochersperger, a USPS research analyst with a personal stake in the Civil War. An ancestor, Lt. Col. Charles Kochersperger, was second-in-command of a Union regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The following year he led the unit during the Battle of the Wilderness, where he was severely wounded. Curiously, before the war Charles Kochersperger ran a private mail service in Philadelphia, Blood’s Penny Post, that issued its own stamps and competed with the USPS forerunner, the U.S. Post Office Department. The government sued him—United States v. Kochersperger—and eventually prevailed.

The 21st-century Kochersperger is a sleuth who uses a computer screen instead of a magnifying glass. Still, for all his decades of postal gumshoeing, this particular case presented a special challenge. “There were no descendants looking for Nelson Shephard,” he says. “Rather, it felt like Nelson Shephard was looking for us to tell his story.”

That story moved Kochersperger in ways he hadn’t expected. “I identified with him as a boy off to see the world,” he says. “I could also identify with his parents, since I have five kids of my own.”

He began by transcribing the handwriting. Literacy rates were high on both sides during the Civil War—about 90 percent for Union soldiers, above 80 percent for Confederates. Still, many enlisted men preferred dictating messages to comrades whose writing was swifter or neater or both. (Walt Whitman, who volunteered at D.C. Army hospitals beginning in 1862, was the most famous of these scriveners.) Kochersperger determined that Shephard’s letters bore the script of three writers. Only two of the notes, meant for Shephard’s brother, Albert, appeared to have been in his own hand.

Once the letters were deciphered, Kochersperger aligned the events Shephard described with the historical record. Kochersperger’s primary source for the movements of Shephard’s unit, the Michigan 26th Infantry, was Franklin Ellis’ 1880 book The History of Livingston County, Michigan. Kochersperger relied heavily on archival newspapers and genealogical sources like census reports and military rosters.

Here’s what Kochersperger was able to piece together: Nelson Shephard was born in 1843 or ’44, the eldest of Orrin and Sarah Shephard’s three children. In 1850, the family lived in Grass Lake, a whistle-stop of the Michigan Central Railroad. No saint, the adolescent Nelson was arrested for burglary and did a stretch in Jackson State Prison. By the summer of 1860 he was working as a mill hand in the town of White River, where the Shephards had resettled.

After Confederate forces opened fire on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln asked the Northern states for 75,000 militiamen to help quell the insurrection. In Michigan, a general assembly in Detroit pledged to “stand by the government to the last.” Over the next four years more than 90,000 Michiganders would fight in the Civil War. Though no battles took place in the state, Michigan men fought in every major battle.

During the summer of 1862, the 18-year-old Nelson enlisted in the 26th Michigan Volunteer Regiment. He mustered with Company C, which was made up of men primarily from Muskegon County. Under the command of Col. Judson S. Farrar, the 26th reached the District of Columbia on December 18 and was given a couple of days to see the town. In his letter home, Shephard called the capitol “the finest piece of architecture in the United States...a large Mass of Stone and Iron there is scarcely any wood about it....It is all White and completely filled with the most Beautiful Paintings I ever saw.”

After crossing the Potomac, the infantrymen marched to Alexandria, Virginia. To maintain order during the occupation, the regiment was detailed for guard duty. “We are enjoying ourselves hugely here,” wrote Shephard. “Nothing to do but to stand guard once in a while and then play.”

Civil War artifacts
Claire Rosen photographed the letters along with other Civil War artifacts, including a Federal Forage Cap worn by Union soldiers, a canteen, a regimental flag, a glass inkwell, a U.S. standard-issue brass belt plate, a vest pocket memoranda book, a cotton handkerchief, a wooden nib holder and metal nib for writing, a hardtack cracker used in soldiers’ rations and a crate for shipping the hardtack. In the field, the crate often became a makeshift table, perfect for letter writing. (Claire Rosen)

The Michigan troops camped outside the city near Fort Lyon. Shephard was mightily impressed by the post’s firepower:

“The North is getting up some Savage Cannons to shoot. They will shoot one mile through a target of six feet solid Oak and six inches solid iron. Bolted together they are Capable of doing execution at the distance of six miles and a half. They only carry 1000 lb. Slug Balls there is 18 Cannons on Fort Lyons that is from 16 to 18 feet long and one long tom 22 feet. Rifled Cannons all but 8 and them look like a sugar [loaf?].”

He wrote about the weather (“It is Rain one day and Shine the next”). He wrote about not getting paid (“We have been fooled so much that we won’t hear any more of their gas”). He wrote about running into his brother-in-law, Gus Perry of Michigan’s 5th Cavalry (“He is as Fleshy as I ever saw him”). He described a recruit who had been shot in the chest: “He is dead now, it was an accident.” (Army records confirm that a Pvt. Ira A. Nash of Company I died in Alexandria due to a friendly-fire incident on January 25, 1863.)

Shephard closed the note by reassuring his family. “Don’t get downhearted for I feel just as well contented As I ever was since I left home. I am not in any danger here. All the Rebels are a great ways off from here.” In his own hand, he added a postscript for his brother, who was 9 or 10 at the time: “Albert you must be a good Boy and go to school and I will try and send you something.”

The entire regiment bivouacked around Alexandria until April 20, when it boarded the steamer Zephyr and descended the Potomac. At Suffolk, a Union outpost under siege by Confederate troops, droves of wounded passed their camp en route from the front to the hospital. It was there that Shephard and his comrades first confronted the visceral horror of war.

The regiment left Suffolk in mid-May and tramped ten miles to Windsor, where, on May 23, it engaged in a skirmish. A few days later, in a letter to his parents, he described the exhilaration of combat and the spoils of foraging:

“I received your kind letters both of them I was so glad to hear from you. I have been where I could not answer them or I should have written before. I am well as ever we have been out on a 11 days Campaign we went as far as the Blackwater River we had two prety [sic] hard fights we whipped them both times we destroyed everything we came to. I tell you we lived high Chickens Turkeys Geese Pigs fresh Beef and smoked hams and every thing nice.”

After alluding to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1856 novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, he mentions a Southern girl he met along the way:

“This War in my mind is one of Gods judgments on the South for they are certainly one of the most Ignorant set of people I ever saw. I got partialy [sic] acquainted with one of the handsomest girls I think I ever saw she did not know her own age she could remember planting Corn as many times as she had fingers and one more.”

In the fog of combat, Capt. John Culver from Company E was mortally wounded while scouting the woods. “His loss will be severely felt in this Regiment,” wrote Shephard. “He was a good and kind man and a good Soldier. He was shot through the Arm he bled so much that when he had his arm taken off it killed him.”

Private Shephard was a devoted son, assuring his relatives that he could read their letters and promising that he would keep out of harm’s way. He was sure that a Union victory was within grasp. He refers to the recent death of Rebel Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and makes the undocumented claim that “He said on his dying bed that the North would gain the day.”

Death is always within earshot: “The guns were making an awful noise both times when I got your letters.”

In July 1863, Company C boarded a train for New York City, where riots had broken out in opposition to a new draft law. Lincoln had ordered extra conscripts to be raised in the Northern states. The Enrollment Act made most males between the ages of 20 and 45 subject to military draft, but excused any draftee who could pay $300 to buy his way out of service or pay the same amount to an acceptable substitute. This left the poor, often immigrant masses to fight a war many didn’t support.

After names of draftees were published on July 13—a sweltering day—the streets very quickly were convulsed in a saturnalia of lawlessness. What began as a draft riot quickly became a racist rampage, with mobs burning the homes of blacks and lynching them from lampposts. Large parts of the city went up in flames. The Michigan volunteers arrived around July 14 and were quartered in Manhattan, then Staten Island. There, during the monstrous pogrom, the third of Shephard’s letters was probably written. “I have seen some of the most disgusting sights I ever saw in my life,” he wrote. “Women going through the streets so drunk they would almost fall down. Little ragged Children leading their fathers home so drunk that they would Roll into the ditch, get up and try to Whip the Child for pushing him over. So you can [see what] liquor can do, it is as common to see a woman drunk as it is a man.”

Exulting in the latest string of Union victories, Shephard predicted that the war would end within two months. He wasn’t much of a clairvoyant: the South proved tenacious, and fighting would drag on for nearly two more years.

On October 13, 1863, the 26th hopped a train and rejoined the Army of the Potomac. The Michiganders joined the assault on the Confederate works at Mine Run, Virginia. Shep-hard’s final letter was composed as the regiment prepared to make winter quarters 13 miles due north at Stevensburg. Apart from his family for a second Christmas, he directed one side of the page to little Albert:

“My Dear Brother,

I wish I was there.
I wish I could see you all.
I would willingly make you a dozen sleighs.”

The 26th remained in Stevensburg until the following spring. It saw action in Virginia at the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Totopotomoy Creek, Cold Harbor and—at Petersburg on June 16, 1864—began helping to destroy the track of a vital Rebel supply line, the Weldon Railroad. On August 25, the Confederates attacked the Union position along the rail line at Reams Station. Yankee losses in this action totaled 140 killed, 529 wounded and 2,073 captured or missing.

Shephard was one of 14 taken prisoner from the Michigan 26th. He was held at the notorious Belle Isle Prison, west of Richmond, on the James River. Conditions were brutal. According to the testimony of one surgeon, the “great majority” of POWs were afflicted by “such diseases as chronic diarrhea, phthisis pulmonalis, scurvy, frost bites, general debility, caused by starvation, neglect and exposure.”

When Belle Isle Prison was evacuated that October, Shephard was transferred to a military prison in Salisbury, North Carolina. Established in 1861 as the only Confederate penitentiary in the state, the converted cotton factory was designed to house 2,500. By the time Shephard arrived, prisoner exchanges had ended, the population had swollen to 10,000 and most of the structures had been converted to hospital rooms to care for Union soldiers suffering from starvation and disease. Inmates found shelter from the cold, wet winter under buildings, in overcrowded tents or by burrowing into the earth. In 1864, the bodies of perhaps 5,000 were heaped upon each other in 18 trenches, each 240 feet long.

Shephard died at the compound on December 18, 1864. He was 21 years old.

Lori Boes is hoping that disclosure of the extraordinary packet she opened that day will help to solve a tantalizing mystery: Who was the anonymous individual who mailed the cache of letters to Newaygo? The identity remains unknown; there was no return address.

Not long ago a fellow postmaster proposed to Boes that the envelope may have been dislodged from ancient postal machinery.

Boes is skeptical. “A hundred fifty years to deliver a letter is a little long,” she says, “even for the U.S. Postal Service.”

Editor's Note: This story continues with the discovery of the person who mailed the Civil War letters to her local post office. Here's the follow-up with Smithsonian curator Nancy Pope. 

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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