Sunday, February 14, 2021

Foolish Desire - Postal History Sunday

Welcome to the February 14th edition of Postal History Sunday on the Genuine Faux Farm blog!

This is the place where I take a few moments to share some of the aspects of the postal history hobby that keep me interested and encourage me to keep exploring.  I put these blog posts out here each Sunday and invite you to join me in the time and location travels that are created when we look at some of these items.  Take a few moments and see what we have to offer this week and stuff those worries into your filing cabinet (should you still have one) under "N" for "Not Now Please."  Let's see what new things we can learn this time around!

This week I wanted to feature this small letter that was mailed from New Haven, Connecticut on December 15, 1863 to London England (arriving Dec 26).  The letter was written by Harriet Silliman Shepard DeForest to her cousin Erastus Lyman DeForest - and most of the letter came along with the envelope when I acquired it several years ago.

Postal History Stuff

This letter is similar to several other items we have featured in our Postal History Sundays in that it shows a 24 cent stamp paying the 24 cent rate for the first 1/2 ounce in weight for a letter going form the United States to the United Kingdom.  The letter was mailed in New Haven, where it then traveled to New York City.  The foreign mail office there marked the letter for a December 16th departure on the Cunard Line's Scotia, which was reported to arrive at Queenstown (Ireland) on December 24.  It was taken out of the mailbag in London on December 26.

The letter was sent to Baring Brothers & Company, a financial institution that provided travelers with lines of credit and mail holding (or forwarding) services.  There are no markings on this envelope that seem to imply that Baring Brothers sent this to Mr. Erastus DeForest, so it is likely that it sat in their offices until he picked it up along with the rest of his mail from whichever side-trip he was on.  The alternative is that several letters were bundled together and forwarded to his current location.

The other interesting postal history aspect is the artistic design used for the device that canceled the stamp.

Postal administrations used canceling devices to recognize the stamps that paid for the service by marking or defacing them.  The primary motive was to avoid the loss of revenue that would come from people trying to re-use postage stamps without buying new ones.  Some postmasters took the time to carve cork handstamps into various designs that they could use to cancel the stamps and the New Haven postmaster was evidently one such person.

As you might guess, these carved handstamps wore down quickly, so the period of use for a particular design is often quite short.  There are many who appreciate these cancels and enjoy researching their background.

Social History Stuff

This particular item has some short-comings.  The envelope has fallen into two pieces (a front and a back) and the letter itself is incomplete, with a closing page apparently missing.  If I wanted an item that showed off the postal history aspects (other than the neat star cancel), I would probably select something in better condition.  But, that's not the biggest reason why this particular letter from 1863 is interesting to me.

In this case - it is primarily about the letter - and the people referenced in the letter.  I'll start by sharing my best effort at transcribing the contents. 

 A cousin (Harriet Silliman Shephard De Forest writes to Erastus Lyman DeForest while he travels in Europe:

New Haven Dec 11th
Dear Erastus,
I have so much I will tell you.  I shall write very closely & as small a hand as I am capable of.  You know how I can fill up a letter with my sprawly writing & tell precious little news.  Well, mon ami, as things have turned out I wish I had remained in Paris. That is if you are going to be there this Winter. New Haven is of course very dull & now you and Charlie are away I am more solitary than ever -

As to my husband obtaining a furlough it is all nonsense to talk of the thing.  Gen Banks has positively forbidden the application even for leave of absence unless in the case of disability leave.  Mr. De Forest continues perfectly well & has no excuse except the foolish desire.  I see his wife & soldiers are supposed to have no feelings or just suggest the government ignores such weak mindedness - but seriously, it is  ???, the prospect of not seeing my lord & master until his time is up next October. 

Sometimes I am ?? & mentally ?? ?? ?? & ?? put up with it.  But what is the use?  I am helpless these ?? grass we know are to be pitied and the war drags on at snail's pace.  I do not think it nears the end in spite of the predictions of those who pretend to be wise.  Mr. Curtis (I should say Curtis, he is not (?) distinguished to have a handle to his name) called last evening after his lecture ? Lee ? and we talked war, abolition & politics for ? hours.  For comfort he promises me the war nice and over before eighteen months!  I presume he knows about as much as you and I do about the prospects of peace.  We have had another  ? to Richmond and are safely back again.  Charleston we begin to believe we do not want - ??? - I am getting fearful unpatriotic & impatient .  Maybe when Mr. De Forest gets home I shall be for a vigorous prosecution of the war.

Here I am in ?? pretty much as of old.  I can hardly realize I have been over the waters & with you in Paris so recently.  I wish you were here. I mean for my own sake, for your good & pleasure.  I wish it as it is?  My porter? is very pleasant (???) I have Julie ? piano and plenty of music in the evenings.  ???  Mary was getting too great an influence over the boy (*presumably her son Louis*) ...??sentence???

Mrs. Beers  says so and of course it must be so.  By the way, aprapos of Mrs Beers  ... at my door ?? Mrs B " Oh,  Mrs. De Forest - have you heard the news?  Your cousin Erastus went to a bull fight in Spain on Sunday." 

"Who says so, I asked without showing any signs of surprise." 

"Mr Thomeson wrote to some one here in town that he & Erastus had just returned form a bull fight on Sunday.  Do you believe it Mrs De Forest?" 

"You say it is so, why do you ask me anything about it?"

"Oh I suppose you know more than I do about it.  Erastus has written and told you all about it!" 

She was mistaken this time.  Mrs B left, disappointed as she shut the door remarking "You d'not seem to be surprised, I suppose you d'not think it is very dreadful"  No reply from me.  So you see that your sins have gone before you to ??? No doubt you are tried & condemned by Mrs. B & some of her ?? friends & put down as a hopeless sinner, past praying for.  But d'not let Mr Thomason write such items home about you, it is best to keep in with the witches (?).

? of my old friends, Mr. Stine (?) the artist (you may remember him) has been here for the past six weeks.  He has a studio on this floor, he has been painting Geo Baldwin, J?? Ingersoll & seven or eight other portraits he ??? return to New York this coming week.  I hope his work will hold out longer.  Julia & I will miss him very much.  He is very agreeable company. 

Be sure you write and tell me all about your trip to Spain.  I envy you the prospect of being in Italy this Winter.  I shall depend on long and many letters.  D'not disappoint me.  If you knew how glad I always am to hear from you, you would write often. 

Your aunt was here looking at ?? the other day.  She is still undecided what to do.  I meet (?) her in the eatry (?) with Mrs. B and was introduced.  She told me she received a letter from you on Thanksgiving day.  I was glad to hear of you.  I am in the middle of a dress-making campaign.  I have another love of an alpaca (black) ??  I thought I must tell you as you are such an admirer of alpaca.  If is ever prettier than the ? I got in Paris. 

I am a perpetual wonder to myself.  I am in such splendid health ?? I am shamed to ? 145 pounds.  I have not had a sick day.  I can't remember when!  I walk for hours and sometimes more every day.  This is when it is pleasant.  Dr ? came to make a friendly visit last week.  "I never saw you looking so well, what does it mean?  You must have friends  ??? in Paris of ???"  So you see, I have no........

And then, I find I have no more of the letter!  Well, sometimes you just have to appreciate what you have.

And now we'll take a look at the people who are referenced, one way or another, in this letter.  Well, at least the people I could identify!

Who was Erastus?

Cousin Erastus sure does sound like he is an interesting fellow, doesn't he?  Trotting off to Spain to see bull-fighting - much to the chagrin of Mrs. Beers and those in society who saw this as a scandalous activity!  

Erastus Lyman De Forest was, it turns out, quite the scholar in mathematics, he completed the Bachelor's degree in engineering at Yale by the age of 20 and completed an advanced degree by the time he was 22. 

After completing the advanced degree, Erastus was scheduled to travel with his aunt, but disappeared, leaving his luggage behind.  The family searched for some time, even putting notices in the New York Times looking for him.  Eventually, they assumed he had been murdered.

After a couple of years, it was discovered that he had gone to California and Australia and was teaching there.  He returned in 1861, only to travel again for a few years in Europe (1863-1865).  If you want more of a biography, this link provides an excellent overview.  The photo is from that site and is also found on wiki commons.

Upon his return, he dedicated his study to mathematics and is credited with making improvements to the mortality tables used by the Knickerbocker Life Insurance Company owned by an uncle.  His work was not initially recognized by mathematical scholars, but have since been given more attention.  He is even given credit for the initial discovery of the chi-square distribution (for those who know some statistics).  Four of his papers (published from 1866 to 1871) are listed in this Catalog of Scientific Papers compiled by the Royal Society of London 1877 (vol VII). 

One wonders if some of those mortality tables referenced the likelihood of a bull-fighter living past of the age of 25?

Who were Mrs. De Forest and the referenced Mr. De Forest?

This is where the detective work must begin.  It was not hard to figure out Erastus, because his name is on the envelope and he happens to be well enough known for me to find information about him.  But, there are many, MANY noteworthy De Forests in Connecticut and New York and actually MORE than one who was an officer under the referenced General Banks.  

The keys for locating the proper Mr. De Forest were to recognize that he had to be an officer under General Banks in December of 1863 and that it is likely he had strong ties to New Haven, Connecticut.  After a number of dead ends, I have concluded that our Mr. De Forest from the letter is none other than John William De Forest, a realistic fiction writer, who was a captain in the Union army, forming Company I from New Haven, the 12th Connecticut Volunteers.  

Another clue in the letter that lines up is the mention of Charleston (South Carolina), where the DeForests lived prior to the barrage on Fort Sumter.  They were on the last boat to leave Charleston, returning to New Haven.

At the time of this letter, John William De Forest had just been assigned to be the inspector general of the first division, 19th Corps.  He was finally mustered out of service and could return home on Dec 2, 1864, when his health could not longer allow him to continue his work in the Louisiana campaign.

Mrs. De Forest (nee Harriet Silliman Shepard) was apparently known to be quite intelligent and an 'exceptional classical scholar' according to this Master's thesis by Elizabeth Maxwell Bright focused on John William's writing.  She was the daughter of Charles Upham Shepard who was a professor of chemistry and somewhat prolific author of papers on mineralogy.  He taught at the medical school in Charleston during the colder months and returned to New Haven in the Spring.  This further confirms the connections to New Haven and makes it fairly certain I have found the correct people!

It is a bit of a shame that Harriet, and most women of her time, are not featured prominently in histories as she seems like she could have been a most interesting person.  At least, with this letter, she has a voice - and we have the opportunity to hear it.

Apparently, many of the De Forest family papers are held in the archives at Yale and could be accessed for further research if someone desired to dig through them.

But Wait, There's More!

This week, you hit the jackpot, because we're going to take this just a little bit further by bringing us back around to another connection that a postal historian enjoys.  The General Banks, in question is Nathaniel Prentice Banks, an individual who might fit the prototypical "American story" of a person who started with modest means and went on to "greater things."  He worked as a 'bobbin boy' at a textile mill his father managed and went on to publish newspapers, serve in the state legislature (Massachusetts) and then as a congressman in the House of Representatives (first as a Democrat and then as a Republican).  He was then elected governor of Massachusetts in 1858 and ran to be the presidential nominee for the Republicans, losing to Lincoln.  Lincoln appointed him to the position of Major General (as a political appointee) in May of 1861.

In December of 1862 he was transferred to New Orleans, which is where he and John William De Forest were at the time this letter was sent.

While General Banks is not a household name, nor does he feature prominently in most history books for his roles in the Civil War, he is fairly well known to postal historians that study this period in the United States.  In 1861, Banks decided that his division would have superior mail services and apparently used his connections to do just that.  Banks secured a special agent of the Post Office Department to work out of Banks' headquarters. 

This arrangement resulted in the use of multiple hand stamps, such as the one on the envelope shown above, that indicated the origin of the letter as being from the Banks Division.  This letter was postmarked on August 1, 1862 when I believe the division headquarters was located at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).  An excellent article by Richard Graham can be found here outlining more details about the Banks Division postal services.   

Bull Fighting to End of War Predictions

Harriet mentions a prediction that the war would end in 18 months and greeted it with some skepticism.  After all, she was worried about her husband.  As she said, "Maybe when Mr. De Forest gets home I shall be for a vigorous prosecution of the war."  It's a normal sentiment, of course.  I'm all for our troops taking the victory, but I would rather they do it without my husband in harms way.  

Amazingly, the war did end in approximately 18 months, but Mr. De Forest would depart the forces prior to its end, having only received a small wound - but still suffering from other maladies that ended his service time.  Apparently in December of 1864 he had more than the foolish desire as an excuse to go home again.

Each of these stories are far more complex than what I have written here.  If you desire to read more details about any of these individuals, feel free to take the links I provide in the text and read to your heart's content.  Or, you can decide you have had enough of this silliness.  The good news is - you have a choice!


Thank you so much for joining me in this longer than usual journey into the real of postal history and the social history attached to it!    I hope you enjoyed it. 

Have a great remainder of the weekend and a good week to follow.

Do you want to learn more?

A couple of references to some of the printed materials that are now also on the web:

Richard B. Graham, G.B.D. and Banks' Division Markings, US Philatelic Classics Society, Volume: 20 Number: 3, 1968 - the Chronicle is one of the best US journals for early postal history and much of the earlier publications are searchable online.

Elizabeth Maxwell Bright, An analysis of the methods used by John William De Forest in An analysis of the methods used by John William De Forest in translating his personal war experiences into realistic fiction as translating his personal war experiences into realistic fiction as shown in Miss Ravenel's conversion. shown in Miss Ravenel's conversion.  University of Louisville, 1949.  - this is the Master's thesis referenced in the text.  There are many interesting tidbits in the biography section.  

But, if you want to appreciate the rest of the thesis you should consider reading:

J.W. De Forest, Mrs Ravenel's conversion from secession to loyalty, New York, Harper & Bros, 1867.


  1. Dear Mr. Faux,
    Thank you for transcribing this letter. It is from my great great grandmother, Harriet Silliman Shepard, and refers to, among others, her husband, John William De Forest, author, as you correctly deduced. She was the daughter of Charles Upham Shepard ( and Harriet Taylor, the adoptive daughter of Benjamin Silliman ( Their son, Louis Shepard De Forest, was my mother's grandfather. How did you get the letter?


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