The Civil War: Neither Short Nor Cheap

Earlier this year, USPS began a series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, joining others across the country in paying tribute to the American experience during the tumultuous years from 1861 to 1865.

A souvenir sheet with two stamp designs will be issued each year through 2015. For 2011, one stamp depicts the beginning of the war in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, while the other depicts the first major battle of the war three months later at Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia.

The Fort Sumter stamp is a reproduction of a Currier & Ives lithograph, circa 1861, titled “Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor.” The Bull Run stamp is a reproduction of a 1964 painting by Sidney E. King titled “The Capture of Rickett’s Battery.” The painting depicts fierce fighting on Henry Hill over an important Union battery during the Battle of First Bull Run. For the souvenir sheet’s background image, art director Phil Jordan used a photograph dated circa 1861 of a Union regiment assembled near Falls Church, Virginia.

This is the first in a series of occasional posts devoted to the people, places, and events of the Civil War, a four-year ordeal that would result in the loss of 620,000 lives—by far the bloodiest conflict in American history.


When Abraham Lincoln ran as the Republican candidate for President of the United States in 1860, his views on slavery were considered incendiary in the South. Slavery, according to Lincoln, was a “monstrous injustice” that deprived America’s republican example “of its just influence in the world.” The nation could not remain half slave and half free; it would “become all one thing, or all the other.”

South Carolina acted swiftly in response to Lincoln’s election in November 1860. On December 20, it became the first state to secede from the Union. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office as President on March 4, 1861, six more southern states had seceded from the Union, the Confederate States of America had been formed, and Jefferson Davis had been elected President of the Confederacy. On April 12, 1861, Confederates began shelling Fort Sumter, a federal garrison located on a man-made island off the coast of South Carolina near the entrance to Charleston Harbor. After a day and a half of steady bombardment and with provisions nearly exhausted, federal forces at Fort Sumter surrendered and were evacuated. On April 15, Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 militiamen to serve for 90 days to put down the rebellion.

The Civil War: 1861 Commemorative Folio

Northerners and Southerners alike believed the war would be a quick affair, but the Battle of First Bull Run (or Manassas, as Southerners called it) dispelled any notion of a prompt resolution to the conflict. The battle took place on July 21 in Virginia some 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., near a stream called Bull Run. Union leaders decided to engage Confederate forces there, hoping to avenge Fort Sumter, crush the rebels, and move on to Richmond, the newly established capital of the Confederacy.

Soon after midnight on the day of the battle, Union forces were roused with the intent of crossing Bull Run early and catching the Confederates off guard. But the men moved slowly through the darkness and fell behind schedule. By 9:30 a.m., when they finally began the crossing, the Confederates had repositioned some of their forces.

The Civil War: 1861 First Day Cancelled Full Sheet

Although Union forces seemed on the verge of a major victory by midday, the tide turned after more confederate troops arrived, forcing a Union retreat late in the afternoon and ending in a decisive Confederate victory.

Southerners hoped one victory in battle might dissuade the North from further attempts to preserve the Union, but by the fall of 1861, it had become clear that the war would be long and expensive. President Lincoln responded to the defeat at Bull Run by recognizing the need to prepare for a long war. On November 1, 1861, he appointed George B. McClellan general-in-chief of the Union army. A string of Union victories over the next six months threatened to destroy the Confederacy by April 1862.