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It All Started a Mere 150 Years Ago

"People who are anxious to bring on war don't know what they are bargaining for. They don't see all the horrors that must accompany such an event." — General "Stonewall" Jackson

In many civic parades, marching military personnel are a regular sight. It's often stirring but certainly not new. It's also a reminder of how quickly time passes. For some, seeing Vietnam, Korean or World War II veterans is a reminder of something in which they were involved. For younger viewers, it might seem like ancient history. It's anything but.

The fathers of today's vets surely watched World War I soldiers marching in their time. And their fathers invariably saw Union Civil War veterans parading. That's how quickly time passes.

While there's always a proud celebratory air when viewing troops, I have to believe it wasn't quite as jubilant for those shortly after the end of the Civil War. After all, in just five short years, over 650,000 Americans were killed — fully 2 percent of the entire U.S. population of the day and more casualties than all other U.S. wars combined. And hundreds of thousands of others were wounded or crippled for life. Although there were parades and celebrations after it was over, it was probably more a collective sigh of relief. Last week, all that began a mere 150 years ago.

While the war certainly started with a major "bang" in 1861 at Fort Sumter, it would have been nice if all battles had a similar result for those fighting. You see, 43 cannons and mortars bombarded the fort and its 83 federal defenders. Those troops fought back gallantly, but they finally succumbed and surrendered. The good news was that no one was killed on either side. It gets more bizarre. Afterward, while firing a planned 100-gun salute to the American flag, an errant spark set off a pile of ammunition that killed one Union soldier and almost leveled the fort. Oops.

Subsequent battles were entirely different. Shortly after, the First Battle of Bull Run took place near Manassas, Va. Of the 75,000 participating soldiers, 5,000 men were killed or captured. It went downhill from there — destroying farms, towns, cities and innumerable families for decades to come.

It goes without saying that mail has been the lifeblood of communication during every war. Mail during the Civil War was especially interesting. There were no phones, and the Union and Confederacy both had their own stamps and postal systems. Amazingly, mail was one of the few things that made it through battle lines almost unhampered. After all, it was a war fought between brothers, uncles and cousins. They may have disagreed, fought and even tried to kill each other, but they still communicated.

Following on that same spirit and the heels of previous commemorative stamps issued to honor major milestones, the U.S. Postal Service has just issued the first two stamps in what will be an ongoing five-year series recognizing the Civil War.

The stamps show images of the attack on Fort Sumter and the Battle of Bull Run. The Fort Sumter image is based on a Currier & Ives lithograph of the fort's bombardment. The Bull Run visual was taken from an oil painting of the capture of Ricketts' battery at the battle.

Most impressive about the images is that they are both reminiscent of previous commemorative stamps that colorfully convey a rich message and tell a story. Prior to today's countless digital distractions, they were the type of stamp that made both kids and adults interested in stamps and historic events.

Just issued, sheets of 12 self-adhesive stamps are accompanied by substantial history-related copy and significant quotes from participants in the war. Each sheet also contains vintage photographs of people, troops and places taken during the era.

While the stamps were officially issued last week in Charleston, S.C., those interested in special first-day-of-issue cancels can still obtain them by mail. To do so, purchase the stamps at a local post office and affix them to a self-addressed envelope. Send that inside of a separate mailing envelope to: Civil War: 1861 Stamps, Postmaster, 7075 Cross County Road, Charleston, S.C. 29423-9998.

All specially canceled envelopes will be returned via regular mail. There's no charge for the cancel, but all orders must be placed NO later than June 13, 2011.

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