A Prisoner's Story

Lt William A. Smith

Company J 50th Virginia Regiment

John L. Kimbrough MD

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The following article was published in the JAN-FEB 1997 issue of the Confederate Philatelist journal.

The figures referred to in the article are now available for viewing in this on-line edition. Simply click on the Figure Number to see the cover and use the back button to return to the document.

As both a dealer and a collector of Confederate Postal History, I am asked many times where and how I come by the material that I collect for myself and sell or trade to other collectors. There is really no specific answer to that question. Confederate Postal History usually becomes available because another philatelic collector and/or dealer wishes to sell what he or she has. Many covers have appeared in various auctions going back quite a number of years and carry an extensive pedigree. Every once in awhile, purely by chance, totally new material makes its appearance even after 135 years. This is the story of a completely new find that essentially just fell into my hands very unexpectedly and entirely by chance.

In August 1996, I had a table at a small dealer's bourse in Dallas, Texas very close to where I live. An antique dealer in Dallas with whom I have a passing acquaintance came to see me at the bourse. He laid on my table a jumble of 15 covers which he said had been just laying in his desk drawer for at least the last 10 years. He thought that I might be interested in purchasing them because I dealt in Confederate material. I asked how he acquired these covers. He simply told me that they came as part of an estate in Virginia that he bought years ago. Not to keep you in suspense any longer what I had in front of me was 15 covers from the same correspondence and 14 of these covers were Prisoner of War Correspondence back and forth between a Prisoner at Fort Delaware, Maryland and his wife in Hillsville, Virginia. Unfortunately, there were no letters. The antique dealer was unaware of any letters accompanying these covers. I guess you can't have everything. Needless to say, I now own these covers.

This group of covers had not been well cared for. No attempt was ever made over the last 135 years to protect and preserve them. To put it mildly, the condition was below average. The first order of business was to clean and restore the covers so that they can now be preserved for the future. This has been done, and the covers are now ready for public presentation.

The first cover in the series (Figure 1) is not a POW cover. It is a simple adversity cover made from a printed mathematical table with a pair of CSA #7's (part of one stamp was torn away in opening) pen-canceled used to seal the backflap. The cover is dated Sept 9th /63. In many ways, this is the most important cover of the group because it gives the soldier's name with rank and his complete military address. The handwriting on the cover matches the other covers from the soldier's wife. The breakdown of the 14 POW covers is as follows:

The POW covers span a period of time from May 1864 through March 1865. Five covers are from the prisoner to his wife, 1 cover is from the prisoner to another member of the family, 8 covers are from the wife to the prisoner. With information obtained from the national archives, we are able to do a reasonable reconstruction of the story of:

William Alexander Smith of Carroll County, Virginia enlisted as a private in the 50th Virginia Infantry on 25 June 1861. His age was not given but he was described as Dark Complexion, Dark Hair, Blue Eyes, and 5'8" in height. The 50th Virginia was officially organized on 3 July 1861. Pvt Smith must have shown promise as he was very shortly promoted Sergeant. Nothing further is noted concerning Sgt Smith except that he was detailed to "wait on the sick at Lewisburg" during the Fall of 1861. The 50th Virginia Infantry saw distinguished service throughout the war first with the Confederate Army of Kentucky and later with the Army of Northern Virginia. The regiment suffered heavy casualties at Gettysburg and at The Wilderness and was disbanded in April 1865 shortly before the surrender. On 25 May 1862, Sgt Smith was promoted 2nd Lt of Company J. From the records it can be safely assumed that Lt Smith stayed with his regiment throughout the remainder of 1862, 1863, and early 1864. He was captured by the Union forces on 12 May 1864 at Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia.

On 14 May 1864, Lt Smith arrived at the Federal Prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. The second cover in this correspondence (which is the 1st POW cover) (Figure 2) is from the Point Lookout prison to his wife Mrs. Electa A. Smith in Hillsville, Carroll County, Virginia and is dated 16 May 1864. The cover bears both a US #65 and a CSA #11 tied together by the Point Lookout, Md and the Richmond, Va postmarks. The large examiner's manuscript marks are to the left. Lt Smith must have had a supply of Confederate stamps with him when he was captured and then obtained Federal stamps by trading with the guards. One can only imagine that the short letter (now lost) contained in the cover was simply to inform his family that he was alive and well and where he was located so that they could write to him.

At this point in the story, it is now necessary to digress a bit and explain how prisoner's mail was handled. Prisoners when they were allowed to send letters could write only a few lines on one small sheet of paper. All letters were required to be examined, and the examiner's mark applied to the outside either as a manuscript or a handstamp although this rule was not always rigidly followed. The cover then went through the Federal postal system to the point of Flag of Truce exchange which was at Fortress Monroe, Va (Old Point Comfort, Va). There the letter was taken to Richmond, Va where it was placed into the Confederate postal system for delivery to its ultimate destination. Letters from South to North usually went the same route but in reverse. Both Federal and Confederate postage was required since the cover went through both systems. The postage was handled usually in one of three ways:

  1. Both Federal and CSA stamps were applied to the cover at the same time (Figure 2),
  2. A Federal stamp was applied without CSA postage; and then when the cover went through Richmond, CSA "Due" marks were applied so that the postage then had to be paid by the addressee on delivery (Figure 5),
  3. Two envelopes were used one inside the other with the outer envelope showing Federal postage. This outer envelope was then discarded at the transfer point and the inside envelope put into the Confederate postal system (Figure 4).

Now to continue with the story of Lt Smith. On 23 June 1864, Lt Smith was transferred from Point Lookout, Md to Fort Delaware. This prison was located on an island in the Delaware River near Delaware City, Del. It was an old masonry fort which was vintage War of 1812 design. This was the most dreaded prison in the North and at one time held between 9,000 and 10,000 prisoners. Over 2500 Confederate POWs died at this prison. Here Lt Smith would spend the next year of his life.

Cover #3 in the correspondence (Figure 3) is South to North from Mrs. Smith to her husband. The cover bears a CSA #11 pen-canceled and a US #65 with the Old Point Comfort, Va CDS and cork cancel. Hillsville, Va was a very small place and did not have a postmarking device. Covers originating from Hillsville are pen-canceled with or without manuscript docketting. The cover is addressed to Lt Smith at Point Lookout and went through the exchange point on 18 JUL 1864. Pencil period docketting ("No 1") indicates that this was the first letter that his wife sent to the prison. Obviously she was not aware that he had been transferred to Fort Delaware. When the cover arrived at Point Lookout, it was then forwarded to the prisoner at Fort Delaware. This is the only POW cover that I have ever had that was forwarded from one prison to another. There may be others, but I am not aware of them. Period docketting indicates that this cover was received on 25 JUL 1864. It is safe to presume that in his first letter home Lt Smith included a supply of Federal stamps for his wife to use on her return letters. It is also interesting to note that there is no examiner's mark on the incoming mail.

Cover #4 is the third letter from Mrs. Smith to her husband dated 12 Aug 1864 (the covers that are still in existence are not the entire correspondence as some covers are obviously missing and probably forever lost). Cover #4 also bears both a Federal and a Confederate stamp.

Cover #5 (Figure 4) dated 15 Aug 1864 bears only a pair of CSA #7's postmarked in Richmond, Va and is from Lt Smith to his wife with the small examiner's manuscript at upper left. This most likely represents an inside use cover as described above.

The next two covers (#6 and #7 dated 3 Sep 1864 and 20 Oct 1864 respectively) are both addressed to Lt Smith and bear double postage.

Cover #8 (Figure 5) dated 28 Oct 1864 from Lt Smith to his wife bears a US #65 with the Richmond Due 10 mark. It is also the only cover in the correspondence that actually has the Fort Delaware Prisoner's Letter Examined handstamp.

Cover #9 (Figure 6) to Lt Smith with double postage has the Hillsville, Va manuscript dated 2 Nov 1864 but according to the docketting was not received until 29 Jan 1865. The Old Point Comfort CDS is dated 18 Jun which is an obvious mistake. Mistakes do happen in postmarks, and it is obvious in this case that the JUN date slug was mistakenly substituted for the JAN one in the Old Point Comfort transfer postmark. It is also apparent that it took 2 1/2 months for this letter to arrive. According to the dates on the other covers, this delay was most unusual as covers were normally delivered in a few weeks.

Cover #10 from Lt Smith to his wife dated 30 NOV 1864 is similar to Cover #8 with the US #65 and the Richmond Due 10 mark. However, the cover did not go through Richmond until 15 Jan 1865, and there is no examiner's mark. It is apparent that in the closing months of 1864 and later in the early months of 1865 prisoner's mail moved very slowly.

Cover #11 to Lt Smith dated 4 Dec 1864 bears double postage and a manuscript examiner's mark.

Cover #12 is interesting in that it has only a US #65 on it and bears a Gallipolis, Ohio postmark dated 14 Dec 1864 and is addressed to Lt Smith at Fort Delaware in his wife's handwriting. No indication that this cover ever went through the CSA postal system. The best guess is that the cover was handcarried through the lines by a friend or relative and then posted in Ohio.

Cover #13 (Figure 7) to Lt Smith with double postage dated 17 Jan 1865 through Old Point Comfort. Manuscript "Exd" at left. The docketting indicates that it was received 25 Jan 1865 "at Hospital." From this we can assume that Lt Smith was sick, sick enough to be in the hospital. Because of the appalling conditions, prisoners never went to the hospital unless they were very very ill.

We see in Cover #14 with double postage and addressed to Mrs. Smith dated 15 Feb 1865 that the address is in an entirely different handwriting. This would indicate that Lt Smith was indeed sick, too sick to do the writing himself. Someone else obviously wrote this letter and addressed the envelope for him.

Cover #15 (the final cover in the extant correspondence) again bears double postage and is dated 2 Mar 1865. Lt Smith obviously recovered from his illness as the address is again in his handwriting. But this is the only cover in this grouping sent by Lt Smith to someone else besides his wife. The cover is addressed to Mr. Alexander Smith (presumably Lt Smith's father) in Hillsville, Virginia. Did something happen to his wife? I do not know. I was able to discover from the records that Lt Smith did survive his obvious ordeal at Fort Delaware and was released on 16 Jun 1865 and returned home to Carroll County, Virginia. I have no further information on this family.

Thus ends the story of Lt William A. Smith, a story pieced together by the chance discovery of 15 covers from the family correspondence. The specific dates quoted as related to Lt. Smith were obtained from the National Archives. Further information on Civil War prisoner's mail can be obtained from the book Civil War Prisons and Their Covers by Earl Antrim 1961 as well as from the New Dietz Confederate States Catalog and Handbook 1986. More information about Fort Delaware itself can be obtained from the article "Fort Delaware and its Prisoner of War Covers" by Vandyke MacBride in the 16th American Philatelic Congress Book 1950 and from two articles on Fort Delaware Postal History written by Brian Green for Linn's Stamp News 1977. Due to space constraints only 7 of the covers are illustrated with this article. The entire 15 cover correspondence will comprise a one-frame exhibit which will be shown for the first time at the Confederate Stamp Alliance annual convention at ROMPEX '97 in Denver, Colorado 16-18 May 1997. Special thanks is given to General Conrad L. Bush for the expert restoration work performed to ready the covers for public display.

John L. Kimbrough MD

The following comments by Galen Harrision, a well-known collector and exhibitor of CSA POW Postal History, also appeared in the Confederate Philatelist as additional commentary to the article.

I would like to make a point or two in reference to Col Kimbrough's article. Having worked for some time recording every POW cover I can locate, I have recorded almost 2500 covers, not counting 2000 fronts that were addressed to Point Lookout. When Col Kimbrough points out the scarce nature of the cover forwarded from Point Lookout to Fort Delaware, he is absolutely correct. Among the 2500 recorded covers I note only 19 that are forwarded either from prison to prison or from prison to the prisoner's home.

A second point to be made is in reference to his Figure 9, the misuse of the JUN for JAN date slug. I have recorded this misuse on three other covers. This came during a period when an absolute flood of POW mail hit at Old Point Comfort all at once. There had been no flag-of-truce mail since mid-December. Compounding the problem was the fact that a quantity of mail had been held somewhere in the South (probably the War Department in Richmond) for months. Some letters were five months old or more when they reached Old Point Confort. That post office was known to use two canceling devices on the same day. I suspect that during this period in mid-January 1865, there may have even been three devices in use. In support of my contention I would point out that of the four examples of the JUN for JAN error, one is dated JUN 16, two are dated JUN 17, and one is dated JUN 18. This would seem to indicate more than a casual error that would likely have been noticed and corrected. If, on the other hand they were running two devices correctly with JAN, but lacked a third JAN for another device, they may have used a JUN slug, figuring two out of three letters was close enough.

The final point I want to make is in reference to Col Kimbrough's Figure 5. The oval handstamp was used only at Fort Delaware for about seven months. This October 28 (1864) date is only one day before the last date I record for its use. By November 4, the use of an examined marking had been discontinued, although letters were still censored.

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