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A Heartfelt Letter from a Civil War Soldier - Oh Yeah, and a Fancy Cancel

Updated: May 6

A popular collecting area are stamps cancelled with "fancy cancels." These are stamps from the 19th century that were hand cancelled with something other than a circular date stamp (CDS). The U.S. Philatelic Classic Society's electronic library has a book titled, United States Cancellations 1845-1869, that pictures nearly 4,000 of these cancellation designs. Most are unique to a single post office and reflect the creativity and individuality of postmasters and postal clerks. As duplex handstamps (devices that combined the CDS and a killer cancellation in a single device) and cancellation machines appeared in the latter part of the 19th century, fancy cancels went out of fashion. Figures 1 through 4 show examples of CDS, fancy, duplex handstamp, and machine cancels from items in my collection.


Figure 1 - Circular date stamp cancellation, Concord, NH, 1859


Figure 2 - Fancy Cancel - A Bullseye Target, China ME, 1868


Figure 3 - Goldsborough Duplex Handstamp, New York, NY 1886


Figure 4 - Machine cancel from a Universal Stamping Machine Co. device, Philadelphia PA 1894.


I'm not a passionate collector of fancy cancels, but every now and then a cover will catch my attention, Figure 5 being a case in point. The cancellation on the stamp, which is a 3-cent from the Series of 1861 commonly seen on Union covers from the Civil War, is called "prison bars" and was unique to Columbus, Ohio in the early 1860s.


Figure 5 - Cover postmarked in Columbus, Ohio, December 16, 1862 (based on enclosed letter) with "prison bars" fancy cancellation on U.S. Scott 65


What really piqued my interest about this cover is the fact that it contained the original enclosure. I placed the winning bid of $45 on this item at a Downeast Auction, and when it arrived in the mail, I anxiously unfolded the letter only to realize it was written in something other than English (Figure 6)!

Figure 6 - First page of letter

The script looked to me like Slavic. We live across the street from someone who grew up in Poland, so my wife showed it to her. The neighbor thought it looked like German. When she said that, two light bulbs went off in my head.


First, it made perfect sense that it would be written in German, since Columbus had a huge German-born population in the 1860s. Second, I knew just the person to translate this letter: Abby Huber (https://www.ajordanhuber.com/), an expert in translating historic German documents. She had previously translated a stampless letter from 1845 for me (see this article: https://www.mypostalhistory.com/post/a-stampless-letter-to-germany-1845).


Working with a colleague to corroborate her work, this is the translation Abby provided me:


Miss Mattie Bohm

Care [of]: Miss E. Bohm

No 74. Oregon St.

Cleveland, Oh.


Columbus, Dec. 14, 1862

 

My dear sister,


Today has been a nice day for you, one of joy and best wishes, and I must make my contribution, too. My dearest Mathilde, I send you my best, most sincere wishes for your continued wellbeing at the start of this new year for you. May the good heavens always grant you uninterrupted health, an ever-cheery disposition, and the fulfillment of all your best wishes. If it had been possible, I would have so gladly wished you a happy birthday in person, but, as it was not possible for me to do so, please accept them on this paper, and believe me: They come from the heart of your brother who loves you truly. As soon as I can go to Cleveland, which I hope will happen around Christmas, I will tell you this myself.

 

It has been a long time since I received any letter from you, and I ask that you not forget me. Write and tell me whether or not Father has received the letter from the 10th of this month and followed the advice given therein, and how you all are. For me, things are always tolerable, meaning that my health is good, but I lack the peace of mind necessary to make me happy. I dare not share my doubts and fears with my little wife, out of fear that it would put her in a melancholy mood. But I can share them with you. I fear, not for my sake but for her sake, that in the next main rotation, my name will come up. Something tells me [this will happen]. For me, this would simply represent the long-hoped for fulfillment of what was once a burning desire, as I am a soldier through and through and cannot enjoy this lazy garrison life so long as there are still laudable honors to be won on the battlefield and enemies to defeat. But you know the sort of baseless fears that afflict my little Eva, as though I were absolutely certain to be one of the first casualties as soon as I returned to the field. Be that as it may, but I live in constant fear that she, if the rotation that she so dreads were to occur, that she would so fret and worry, that I would have serious concerns about her life or her health. That is what worries me so greatly. Whether I should have waited to make her my wife later has nothing to do with it, in my opinion, because she loved me just as much beforehand as she does now and her health suffered very much due to her worries and dread during my imprisonment.

 

But now I will be quiet. I wished you a happy start to this 21st year of your life, and I fear I may have ruined your fun by telling you my cares. Give my warm regards to parents and brothers. I will hopefully be able to wish you all a happy and joyful New Year in Persona propria [sic]. Until then, I bid adieu to my dear Mathilde and am, as always,


Your faithful, loving brother,

Eduard


What a beautifully crafted 21st birthday greeting from Eduard to his sister, Mattie! But who was Eduard and what of his wife, "little Eva"?


"Eduard" was Edward H. Bohm. He was born in Germany in 1837. In 1851, he and his family emigrated to the U.S., arriving in New York before moving to a farm near Cleveland, Ohio. His sister, Mathilde - Mattie for short - was just 10 years old when they made the trip across the Atlantic.


Edward was working for the Cleveland & Toledo Railroad Company when the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861. Within a week, Edward enlisted for a three-month stint and was assigned to Company K, 7th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In early May, the 7th Regiment, which was training in Columbus, was reorganized into a three-year unit, and Edward reenlisted and was made a sergeant. The 7th Regiment then marched off to western Virginia.


It wasn't long before Edward saw his first action (i). While on a reconnaissance mission on August 20, 1861, Edward's company was attacked by Confederate forces, and Edward was captured along with several of his comrades. He could have escaped but opted to stay with his captain who was mortally wounded in the attack.


Edward moved around quite bit as a prisoner-of-war (POW). He was held, "very pleasantly" he noted, for the first three weeks at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. He then spent a month at the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond before being transferred to Parish Prison in New Orleans where he stayed until February 1862. He was subsequently transferred to prisons in North Carolina, and then after more than nine months of captivity, he was finally paroled on May 24, 1862. He returned to Columbus on June 7, 1862.


His duty in Columbus was to organize provost-guards. These were units that functioned as a combination rear guard and prison keeper. Clearly, this was not exciting duty, and he was itching to get back into action. It was during this lull that he not only penned his letter to Mattie (on December 14, 1862) but married Eva Miller. Eva and he tied the knot on July 13, 1862, a little more than a month after he returned as a POW.


I assume Eva and he knew one another before he enlisted so his captivity must have been very hard on her - harder on her, it seems, than on Edward based on the tone of his letter.


Despite his misgivings of how his return to the field might impact Eva, Edward was commissioned a second lieutenant in January 1863 (Figure 7), and in March 1863, he returned to action in the eastern theater. Edward fought in some of the most horrific battles in 1863 including Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge. He was wounded in the upper left arm at the Battle of Ringgold Gap in Georgia in late November 1863. He was promoted to first lieutenant in January 1864 (backdated to November 1863) and participated in a few more engagements before his unit's three-year term ended in July 1864. Edward returned to civilian life at that point.


Figure 7 - Edward Bohm as a Lieutenant During the Civil War


In the midst of all this action, Edward must have been crestfallen when he learned, probably from a letter he received in the field, that his "little Eva" died at age 20 in October 1863. She died in Cleveland and was buried in Woodland Cemetery in that city.


Eva's cause of death was listed as "confinement." Confinement does have a medical definition, but it was typically identified as the cause of death of women who died during or shortly after childbirth. Given that Edward and Eva married about 16 months before her death and he returned to action about seven months before that fateful day, it is very possible she was pregnant and died from complications of pregnancy.


What Edward did immediately after he was mustered out in July 1864 is unknown, but in January 1865 he married again, this time to Alvina Jassaud with whom he had three children. Tragically, Alvina died in 1875 at age 32 from "puerperal fever," a 19th century term for a postpartum infection meaning that like Eva, Alvina also died during or shortly after giving birth. In 1877, Edward married for a third time to Hedwig Schmale, with whom he also had three children. Hedwig made it through her childbearing years and passed away at age 84 in 1939.


In between losing his first wife Eva and his second wife Alvina, Edward also lost his dear sister Mattie. Mattie married a Herman Stuhr in September 1867, and less than a year later, in July 1868, she passed away at age 27. No cause of death has been found, but it would not come as a shock if also she also died in childbirth. While infectious diseases were the leading causes of death in mid-19th century America, deaths due to childbirth-related complications were also common.


While visited with the death of loved ones often in the 10 years after the Civil War ended, Edward forged ahead. Always interested in politics, Edward was elected a school board member in Cleveland in 1870 and served in that capacity until 1873. He also was nominated and elected recorder of Cuyahoga County in 1870, a position he would hold until 1876. An ardent Republican, he served as a presidential elector for Ohio in 1876, but he then became disillusioned with the Republican Party and became an equally ardent Democrat. He formed a short-lived German-language newspaper in Cleveland, served as a member of the Soldiers & Sailors Monument Commission, and served 18 years as a justice of the peace, despite not becoming a naturalized citizen until 1905.


Edward died of a heart attack at age 69 in 1906. In the May 8, 1906, Plain Dealer, he was described as "one of the most widely known residents of Cleveland. ... For fifty-six years he lived a life of remarkable activity in this city." The photo of Edward in Figure 8 is obviously from later in his life and was the picture printed in the Plain Dealer article on his death.



And oh yeah, the "prison bars" fancy cancel is pretty neat too.



(i) For a comprehensive look at the 7th Regiment, see Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry 1861-1864 With Roster, Portraits and Biographies, edited and compiled by Lawrence Wilson, The Neale Publishing Company, 1907. Edward Bohm was a significant contributor to this work, and his death in 1906 before the book was completed came as a shock. Wilson, who had recently been named regimental historian wrote, "The first great shock and irreparable loss was experienced in the sudden and unexpected death of Capital Bohm, who had with his usual force and zeal taken hold of this project with a zest and will presaging certain success. His strength of character, physical and mental force, zeal and enthusiasm were sadly missed by his associates and his untimely death deeply mourned."

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