Across and Down: An Unusual Civil War Letter

Today’s post comes from Dorothy Dougherty, Programs Director at the National Archives at New York City. 

By current estimate, the National Archives has over 5 million cubic feet of traditional records in its holdings. Those textual records include manuscripts, memorandums, official business letters, and even the occasional personal letter. 

Today’s post features one such personal letter that is quite unusual among our holdings, not so much for what is written in it but because of the way in which it was written. The letter is written in a way referred to as a crossed letter, also known as cross-writing or cross-hatch style. 

While our archival staff come across many types of paper, adhesives, and connectors among our documents, this style of writing is one we don’t often find. The crossed letter writing style was common in the 19th century. It demonstrated an effort to make the most of scarce paper, and perhaps postage, by fitting as much information as possible on the letter in a very decorative manner. As with any letter, you write across the page, top to bottom, but if you get to the end of the paper and still have more to write, turn the paper 90 degrees and write “between the lines” to continue your story.  

This letter is part of a Civil War prize case file found in the National Archives at New York City. The letter was among the items collected from a ship seized as result of running the Union naval blockade. 

The National Archives has a number of “prize materials” seized from blockade-runners. The captured papers often included business dealings and captain’s personal papers as well as unrelated mail items. Our letter, found in box 41, is item 166-167 of the 228 items listed in the United States v. Ad-Vance case file. 

The letter was part of the mail being carried from one port to the next and not related to the actual operation of the steamer Ad-Vance. These papers related to the Ad Vance include auction returns on both the vessel and cargo. The contents of the case file were recently scanned and uploaded to the National Archives Catalog. Case files like these tell the story of ships’ travels during the Civil War, and seized letters can give us a glimpse of the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people during the war. Like many other personal letters found in these Civil War prize cases, these letters were never delivered. After becoming part of the court testimony, they eventually found their way into the National Archives. 

This particular case was researched by a historian to compile the history of the steamer Ad-Vance and its Scottish captain, Joannes Wyllie, who ran the blockade of southern ports during the Civil War. John F. Messner’s  recent book, A Scottish Blockade Runners of the American Civil War: The Story of Joannes Wyllie, Commander of the Steamer Ad-Vance, used archival materials from a number of sources, including the National Archives at New York City and the National Archives at Boston.

The author presented his findings in a public program now viewable on the National Archives YouTube channel:

Scottish Blockade Runners of the American Civil War

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