Mystery of Civil War Letters Mailed To Newaygo Solved
In April 2015 an envelope full of letters written from an infantryman serving in the 26th Michigan Regiment during the Civil War arrived at the Newaygo Post Office. The envelope they arrived in was post marked 'Grand Rapids' and had no return address.
Who mailed them, and why?
Smithsonian Magazine first reported on the puzzling question earlier this month, when they published a story on their website about the mysterious letters.
The letters were written by a private named Nelson Shephard to his father, Orrin, who resided in the town of Croton in Newaygo County. It gave historians a wonderful glimpse into the day to day life of a common foot soldier in the Union Army.
Historians were immediately able to piece together some of the details of Nelson's life. He was born in 1844 near Grass Lake, and had moved to Newaygo County with his parents, Orrin and Sarah. They even found out he had done a stretch of time in Jackson State Prison for burglary before heading off to war.
Although a poor speller, Shephard provided many details about his experiences in the 26th Regiment, which saw action at famous battles like Wilderness and Cold Harbor in Virginia.
“This War in my mind is one of Gods judgments on the South for they are certainly one of the most Ignorant set of people I ever saw. I got partialy [sic] acquainted with one of the handsomest girls I think I ever saw she did not know her own age she could remember planting Corn as many times as she had fingers and one more.”
In the fog of combat, Capt. John Culver from Company E was mortally wounded while scouting the woods. “His loss will be severely felt in this Regiment,” wrote Shephard. “He was a good and kind man and a good Soldier. He was shot through the Arm he bled so much that when he had his arm taken off it killed him.”
Shephard died of disease while a prisoner of war at Belle Isle Prison near Richmond VA in 1864. He was 21 years old.
The mystery then shifted to who had sent the letters to the Newaygo Post Office and why. After the article highlighting the find first appeared on Smithsonian's website and in their magazine, a Muskegon woman stepped forward to admit the letters were sent by her.
Nancy Cramblit said she found the letters amongst her late husband's belongings (he bought them at a yard sale years earlier). Not wanting to keep them, she figured someone in Newaygo County may find them to have sentimental value, so she sent them to the post office there.
She was floored to see the letters featured in the magazine, which she regularly reads. She explains her thinking was to find a relative of the soldier:
My husband passed away in 1978 but he was always dealing in junk. So I found the letter and eventually, I put it in with his funeral stuff and forgot about it. There was other letters that had his family name on it so I sent those to his family, and one day I was going through the funeral stuff and I found them. They laid on my desk probably another six months before I decided what I could do with them. Hoping they could find a family member, I put them in the mailbox.
The letters have been donated to the Smithsonian Postal Museum in Washington DC.