Once again, and with unprecedented fervor, we’re wrestling with what to do about statues of and things named for Confederate leaders. That means we’re again talking about Texan John H. Reagan, who’s always identified as postmaster general of the Confederacy.
It’s a perennial reference that often makes you say, “Wait a minute, the Confederacy had a postal service?” And was there a RebEx with which it had to compete in the lucrative overnight delivery biz? (OK, you probably haven’t asked that second question.)
Yes, the Confederate States of America had a postal service. How else do you think folks communicated back then? Fax wasn’t invented until 1868, two years prior to the flip phone.
So what do we do about a guy whose job was to get the mail delivered in a nation that went to war with the United States? Does Reagan (John, not Ron) deserve eternal condemnation for down-South delivery of the mail, even if he served our beloved state pre- and post-war?
The University of Texas recently removed a campus statue of Reagan. (And how cool would it have been if UT had hired folks dressed as Confederate postal workers to cart off the statue?) Austin school officials may debate taking Reagan’s name off a local high school. (Here’s an idea sure not to receive universal local support: How about if, to save money on letterhead and stuff, the Austin school district just changes John H. Reagan High School to Ronald Reagan High School?) And state officials might have to deal with what to do about the John H. Reagan State Office Building.
Gnarly situations all. So, as we approach what would have been Reagan’s 199th birthday on Oct. 8, let’s take yet another look at the man known to many as nothing more than the postmaster general of the Confederacy.
Prior to the Civil War, Reagan, a Tennessee native, had served as a congressman from Texas. When the war broke out, Confederate President Jefferson Davis put him in charge of the Confederate postal service. On May 24, 1861, The New York Times published what it said was “CSA Postmaster Reagan’s proclamation (giving) notice to the Federal Government to stop carrying mails for the rebels.”
The U.S. Postal Service notes on its website that Reagan ran a fairly decent operation, considering. We’re told that on March 6, 1861, U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair (great-grandfather of the late actor Montgomery Clift) ordered the U.S. Post Office to cut off mail service in the South as of May 31, 1861.
“Although an able administrator headed the Confederate Post Office Department, its mail service was continuously interrupted,” the U.S. Postal Service website says. “Through a combination of pay and personnel cuts, postage rate increases and streamlining of mail routes, Reagan eliminated the postal deficit that existed in the South.
“But blockades and the invading Northern army, as well as a growing scarcity of postage stamps, severely hampered postal operations,” it says.
The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum tells us Reagan placed 8,535 of the nation’s 28,586 post offices under his control. “Reagan tried to bring not just employees from the Federal system into his, but also all that they could bring in the way of maps, reports, forms and plans that would build and strengthen the new service,” the museum says.
Eventually, the Confederate postal service issued its own stamps. The first featured Davis, which sounds like the equivalent of President Donald Trump putting his visage on a postal stamp, something I don’t think will happen until late next year.
Federal mail service resumed in the South at Civil War’s end, a milestone that didn’t go so well for Reagan.
“John Reagan, traveling with Jefferson Davis, was arrested on May 8, 1865, and imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor,” the postal museum recounts.
Conversation that probably didn’t happen:
Davis: “Well, John H., that didn’t turn out so well.”
Reagan: “No, Jeff, it didn’t. But I thought you looked great on the stamp.”
Reagan spent 22 weeks in solitary confinement and was pardoned and released from prison two years later, the postal museum tells us, adding: “He returned to his home state of Texas. He eventually made it back to Congress, where he became chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.”
The Texas State Historical Association’s “Handbook of Texas” (I’ll tell you in a minute why the association might be a bit biased pro-Reagan) says Reagan wrote “an open communication to the people of Texas in which he appealed to them, as conquered people, to recognize the authority of the United States, renounce immediately both secession and slavery, and, if commanded by the federal government, extend the ‘elective franchise’ to former slaves.”
Reagan later was a delegate to the 1875 Texas Constitutional Convention that came up with the Constitution under which we still operate. He was elected (back then it was by legislators, not regular people) to the U.S. Senate in January 1887, but left that post to become first chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission in 1891.
In 1897, he was a founder of the Texas State Historical Association. He died in 1905 and is buried in Palestine in East Texas.
So, as we mull Confederate leaders, what are we to make of a guy who served Texas prior to and after the war, and, during it, tried to get the mail delivered? Here’s what Rich Heyman, an urban studies lecturer at the University of Texas, says of what we are to make of Reagan, about whom Heyman wrote in this newspaper in 2015.
Heyman denounced what he called “the myth” that Reagan “was actually a moderate who after the Civil War encouraged his fellow Texans to cooperate with the federal government, renounced slavery and secession, and advocated allowing freed slaves to vote.”
“This is a misinformed view of Reagan,” Heyman wrote. “He was an unrepentant defender of secession and white supremacy until the end of his life.”
Heyman noted that in a memoir, Reagan wrote that the “elevation of the slaves to all the dignities of citizenship” was an “evil” to be prevented.
“Reagan, while an influential politician in 19th and 20th century Texas, is not worthy of the honor of having an educational institution named for him,” Heyman wrote. “He does not represent the values or ideals of Austin, the Austin Independent School District or the state of Texas.”
Sounds like there’s much to mull as we decide whether we’re still going to have anything around here named for Reagan. To some, much about the Confederacy remains a gray area. I look forward to the debate.
The decision about the former Confederate States of America postmaster general is an important one, not one that should just be mailed in as we decide if the name should be cancelled and stamped out. It could be time to think outside the envelope.
Yes, you are correct. I should have stopped just before that paragraph. It’s just a proclivity I have that I hope won’t be passed on to my descendents via heir mail.