Monday, July 16, 2018

Confederate Courier Service

Col. Walter Taylor

For the past few days, I've been reading through Lee's Adjutant: The Wartime Letters of Colonel Walter Herron Taylor, 1861-1865 (edited by R. Lockwood Tower). Taylor served on the staff of Robert E. Lee throughout the war. The letters were written (mostly) to his sister and his fiancée. There is much good information in these letters, although from time to time, Taylor writes that he will not bore his loved ones with military matters (I wish he had bored them more!).

Taylor writes on May 22, 1864, to his fiancée Bettie that her letters to him could be dropped off at the Adjutant General's office: "a courier comes up from the Adjt Gnls office & can always deliver my letters safely." (161) My question is this: who were these couriers? Were they members of the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, or where they assigned to Gen. Samuel Cooper?

This leads to a larger discussion about communication between the authorities in Richmond and the Confederate armies in the field. For now, we will focus on the Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate commands in Georgia, or further west, are a different matter we will look at in the future. Lee's army was close enough to Richmond to be in direct communication.  Lee frequently visited Richmond, conferring with Davis about military matters. At the same time, Lee was connected to Richmond via the telegraph. While this is a somewhat grey area in scholarship, it seems that when in stationary or winter camp, dispatches would arrive via the wire. There are several members of the 39th Batt. VA Cav. that state they did duty in the telegraph office, delivering those messages to the commanding general. Speculation on my part: the telegraph office was probably located at the closest railroad depot. An officer or clerk would be present, transcribe the message, and give it to a courier to deliver to headquarters.

Telegraph lines, however, could be tapped. Mosby's Rangers did it several times during the War. Important documents undoubtedly were sent by courier to Lee's command. Taylor's letter leads me to believe that the courier service was regular. Of course, he is writing in the midst of the Overland Campaign, when regular telegraphic communications might have been interrupted. Probably one of the most famous was the telegraph that Lee sent the War Department in April 1865, telling the president that Richmond and Petersburg had to be abandoned.
Confederate scout

Who were these couriers delivering messages and dispatches between the Adjutant General's office and Lee's Headquarters? At this point, I really don't know. I do know that couriers were a vital part of army operations, relaying orders and intelligence not only on the battlefield, but during downtimes as well. From my research so far, it would appear that delivering messages was the prime occupation of the 39th Batt. VA Cav. Of course, many men from traditional regiments were employed as aides and couriers during the war. Brig. Gen. James H. Lane used two of his brothers in this role. One brother was killed at Chancellorsville and the other at Spotsylvania Court House.

PS: on September 4, 1861, the Oneida Independent Cavalry Company was mustered into service under the command of Capt. Daniel P. Mann. The company was from New York. They served as escorts, did guard duty, and provided couriers for the Army of the Potomac. They were discharged and mustered out of service on June 13, 1865. This would be the Federal equivalent of the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry.  

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