When a mystery letter was delivered to a Michigan post office in 2015, its postmark suggested that it was recent. Yet what postmaster Lori Boes held in her hands was actually an exciting piece of 150-year-old history. But who had sent the correspondence? And why had it appeared a century and a half after it had been composed?
In April 2015 Lori Boes, who works as a postmaster in Michigan, was handed a mysterious letter. The handwriting offered her a mental image of who the author might have been, but otherwise nothing about the delivery struck her as particularly notable or outstanding.
As Boes recalled to the Smithsonian magazine in November 2016, “Except for the ‘Received Unsealed’ sticker on the back, there was no sign that the packet contained anything other than, say, an authorization to hold mail.” She did, however, recognize that the ZIP code was in different handwriting.
The postmark read April 23, 2015, and also indicated that its origin was in Grand Rapids, less than 40 miles away from the Newaygo office. The sender, however, hadn’t included a return address. Yet as Boes studied the missive further, she felt like she was holding something of great significance.
So she opened the envelope. And inside the mystery package was another envelope. The paper, frayed at the edges, had begun to brown with age. The handwriting, too, appeared to come from another place and time. What’s more, the precise and spidery script, Boes believed, could only have belonged to a person of a certain age.
What became apparent to Boes, then, was that the second envelope was fairly old. Nevertheless, the letters inside had been neatly kept. “Some were in perfect shape,” the postmaster recalled. “You could read every word.” And as she read each one, in fact, a sense of excitement came over her.
She initially noted that there was no postage stamp on the correspondence – but the postmark was still partially visible. The old envelope appeared to have originated from the Virginian town of Norfolk, in fact. The recipient, Orrin W. Shephard, actually lived in the very same area it had been sent back to. And as it turned out, it had been addressed to the sender’s parents.
“My Dear Parents,” the note inside the envelope began. “I received your ever-welcome letter last Sunday, and I just returned from guard [duty]. I was just in the right mood to write so I will try it. We left Union Mills the next day after I sent you the letter.” Already a picture begins to build of the missive’s author.
The letter continued, “As we passed Fairfax Courthouse, we marched about six miles when we were drawn up in line of battle. But nothing hapend [sic]; only a few of our pickets taken prisoners. The next morning we took three Prisoners Rebels…” At this point, it’s hard not to get a sense of the writer’s circumstances.
The envelope provided a further clue to the letter’s origin too. Imprinted on it was another stamp mark, you see, this time in red and blue ink. It depicted a scene of battle and included the inscription, “The War For The Union.”
“Suddenly I felt the enormity of what was in my hands,” Boes explained to the Smithsonian magazine. “My heart leaped in my throat. I was holding a piece of Americana.” In fact, she believed the letter had been sent home by a soldier fighting in the Civil War. The postmaster added, “I was mortified that I’d ripped open the outer envelope.”
Boes’ initial reaction was to fix the damage she had inadvertently caused, but she thought better of it. Instead, the postmaster concentrated on what she had in front of her: two full letters, one incomplete letter and several segments of other correspondence. All were addressed to the parents of the same soldier and contained passages intended for Albert, his younger brother.
The letters also evoked an image of a young man, old enough to have his whole life ahead of him and yet too young to fully grasp the consequences of the battle he was in. It was, indeed, a rare, first-hand glimpse into a monumental time in U.S. history. And it revealed the weight of the responsibilities bestowed on such novice soldiers.
Boes, understandably, was unsure what to do with the letters next. So she decided to contact Chuck Howe, the post office district manager in the Greater Michigan area. He, in turn, sought help in verifying the authenticity of the notes and looked up Jenny Lynch, a historian specializing in the United Stated Postal Service.
Howe then sent images of the letters via email to Lynch at her Washington, D.C., office. And from what she saw, Lynch believed the letters were authentic. Nevertheless, the historian wanted a second opinion. She therefore sought the expertise of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. More specifically, Dan Piazza, an assistant curator at the institution.
Piazza later took a closer look at the size and type of paper utilized in the correspondence as well as what kind of ink was used to compose the letters. And when he was satisfied with what he had learned, the assistant curator took the results back to Lynch. “They’re genuine,” he told her.
Yet although the authenticity of the letters had been confirmed, it only raised more questions than those involved could answer. For example, where had the letters suddenly come from? Why were they addressed to the postmaster in Newaygo? And who was the soldier who wrote them?
So, in order to get a more complete picture of the author, Lynch needed help. She therefore roped in Steve Kochersperger, a USPS researcher with an interest in the Civil War. Kochersperger, in fact, had an ancestor who’d run a private mail service in the Philadelphia area prior to that war before serving as a high-ranking officer at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
If anyone could piece together the story, then, it would be someone with a vested interest in both the postal service and the Civil War. But that’s not to say it would be easy. Because although the researchers had the soldier’s name － Nelson Shephard － they actually had little else to go on.
“There were no descendants looking for Nelson Shephard,” Kochersperger explained to the Smithsonian magazine. “Rather, it felt like Nelson Shephard was looking for us to tell his story.” So, if no relatives were known to have been searching for information on the soldier, how did the letters come to surface 150 years after the war?
Lynch then hit upon an idea. If an article appeared in the Smithsonian magazine and on its website, maybe it would strike a chord with its nearly eight million-strong audience. The piece subsequently ran alongside an evocative photo-shoot recreating a historically authentic writing space.
The article also told an imagined story of the soldier’s life using details described in his letters. And as Lynch had hoped, the Smithsonian magazine’s audience widely shared the piece. And it did indeed spark something inside one reader in particular.
Within weeks of the article’s publication, you see, Lynch received an email from Courtney Cresta, who lives in Spring, Texas. It turned out that she recognized the letters as those found by her grandmother Nancy Cramblit, who resides in Muskegon, MI. And wasting no time, Lynch was soon able to speak with the 78-year-old on the phone.
It seems that Cramblit’s husband, Marvin, had been an avid collector. He’d often scoured antique stores and even yard sales in search of interesting historical artifacts and keepsakes, in fact. And when he passed away in 1978, his wife found the letters among his personal effects. But she had no idea where they had come from or who had sold them to him.
And after reading the letters some time later, Cramblit hadn’t realized their historical significance. So rather than sending them straight to a museum, she figured that the correspondence would be better placed with surviving members of the soldier’s family. But where to start the search when the only clue is an address from 150 years ago?
Well, the grandmother began looking the only way she knew how. She therefore mailed the letters to the post office of the town in which the soldier’s family had once lived. Cramblit’s thinking was that if anyone would know the whereabouts of any family members, if, indeed, any were still living in the area, then it would be the postmaster.
With a population of around only 2,000 people, you see, Newaygo seemed to Cramblit like it could be a small town that’s tightly connected. So surely someone local would know a Shephard or two. Without supplying a return address, however, the grandmother was taking a big risk that the letters might be tossed aside and lost forever.
Fortunately, Cramblit’s gamble paid off; Boes and her colleagues had known exactly what to do. And with the letter in the hands of an expert, the search began in earnest for any surviving relatives. In fact, with Kochersperger on the case, it turned into somewhat of a personal mission for the research analyst.
As Kochersperger told the Smithsonian magazine, “I identified with [Shephard] as a boy off to see the world. I could also identify with his parents, since I have five kids of my own.” Yet despite his heart being invested in the case, the researcher still didn’t have many clues to work with. So he concentrated on the letters he already had.
And in studying the handwriting more closely, Kochersperger discovered something interesting. In fact, it appears that only the notes to Albert, Shephard’s brother, came directly from the soldier’s hand. Because although the majority of Civil War soldiers could read and write, it’s probable that many nevertheless preferred to dictate letters to those with faster, more legible handwriting.
The next job for Kochersperger was to align the incidents described in Shephard’s letters with those recorded in the history books. For this, the researcher used several sources, such as newspaper archives, military records and the census. But most notable among them was The History Of Livingston County, Michigan by Franklin Ellis, published in 1880.
And from the information that Kochersperger collated, he worked out that Shephard had been born around 1843. He’d also been the eldest of three children born to Sarah and Orrin Shephard. In the 1850s, the family had called Grass Lake, MI, home. But they’d later moved to White River, where Shephard had worked in a mill.
In April 1861, not long after the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War broke out. In a conflict ignited mainly over slavery, the southern Confederate States fought the loyalist Union soldiers in the northern states.
None of the battles that comprised the Civil War were actually fought in Michigan. However, the state’s men were nevertheless involved in all of the war’s major clashes. Though Lincoln had initially requested the services of 75,000 northern men to combat the southern uprising, you see, eventually 90,000 Michiganders would fight in the conflict over its four-year duration.
And it seems that Shephard enlisted just over a year into the war, when he was only 18. But rather than describing bloody conflicts, he wrote about the America outside of Michigan that his tour of duty took him to. At one point, for instance, his regiment – the 26th Michigan Volunteer Regiment – visited the Capitol Building.
Writing about this experience, the young soldier described it as “the finest piece of architecture in the United States… A large mass of stone and iron, there is scarcely any wood about it. It is all white and completely filled with the most beautiful paintings I ever saw.”
Yet although the letter reads like the diary of a young man going out into the wide world for the very first time, the horrors of war were still to come. Shephard’s regiment had yet to reach their battle lines, in fact. So, in order to do that, they crossed the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, where they were deployed for guard duty.
In subsequent letters, Shephard offered small talk about the weather. “It is rain one day and shine the next,” he wrote. He also described the army’s firepower. And, in one note, the bonding he did with other soldiers. “We are enjoying ourselves hugely here. Nothing to do but stand guard once in a while and then play,” he related. The soldier also ran into his sister’s husband – and made fun of him. “He is as fleshy as I ever saw him,” he wrote.
But the young man had enlisted to fight in a war. And it was this that would eventually take his life. After many brutal battles, in fact, the soldier was captured. He then died in likely savage conditions at a military prison in Salisbury, North Carolina, on December 18, 1864. He was 21 years old.
For families of the young soldiers fighting in the war, the time taken to hear from their loved ones must have been excruciating. Yet although Shephard’s story didn’t have the happy ending that his family would have hoped for, the correspondence offers a rare insight into what life was like on the front lines of the Civil War. The letters are now at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.