1. A mysterious letter arrives
On April 24, 2015 Lori Boes was going through the motions at her work, as the Post Master in a very tiny town called Newaygo, Michigan. Newaygo is a small mining town, with a population of only about 2,000 people.
Historical finds rarely came her way, but there was no way she could’ve known that on that April day, she was about to become part of a mystery dating back over 150 years. As Boes went about her daily routine, a letter arrived on her desk that was addressed to her…kind of. The only words on it were Postmaster, Newaygo, Michigan 49337.
2. She couldn’t help but open it
Well hey…fair game then! She was indeed the Postmaster of Newaygo. The envelope was exceptionally unassuming in that it was a regular white envelope with a forever stamp on it, but there was no return address. That was a bit odd to Boes, but that really didn’t succeed in piquing her curiosity.
She later said, “there was no sign that the packet contained anything other than, say, an authorization to hold mail.” That means she could’ve just let the letter sit until someone claimed it. But something told her she needed to open it. When she carelessly tore the top and looked at the letters inside, she was baffled by what she found.
3. A message from the past arrives
When Boes opened the letter, she almost cursed herself for the way she went about it. What lay inside had such historical importance, she was mad she didn’t open the envelope with more care. But inside the envelope was another envelope that looked like it had been through a battle. The contents of that envelope nearly knocked her socks off.
The envelope had picture on it that depicted a Civil War battle scene, with the words, “The War for the Union.” The original postage stamp appeared to have been ripped off, but suddenly it became evident that the letters had been sent 153 years earlier, but arrived at the post office on that April day in 2015.
4. The letters were written in 1862
There was more evidence on the old envelope about where the letters originated and who wrote them. The original stamp was removed, but when it was sent in the mail in 1862, the Postal employee who sorted it placed an ink stamp that said, “Norfolk, VA.”
Not only that, but the original addressee’s name was on the envelope too. It was addressed to Orrin W. Shephard of Croton, Newaygo Co., Michigan. That helped explain how the letter found its way to the small Michigan town, but in no way explained how it arrived on Boes’s desk over 150 years later.
5. The letters were written by a Union soldier
Had a letter from the Civil War era somehow circulated in the postal system for 150 years and shown up in Newaygo? That seemed highly unlikely, but there was no way to tell how the letter arrived. Boes decided to have a closer look at the contents.
That’s when Boes nearly hit the floor. The first words read, “My Dear Parents, I received your ever welcome letter last Sunday and I just returned from Guard…we marched about 6 miles when we were drawn in line of battle…” Boes had just uncovered a letter sent home from a soldier who fought in the Civil War.
6. She was speechless
“My heart leapt in my throat. I was holding a piece of Americana. I was mortified that I’d ripped open the outer envelope,” Boes said. “Suddenly, I felt the enormity of what was in my hands.” Boes then decided to read what they had to say.
Boes carefully laid the letters down, and even though her years as a postal employee told her to repair the tattered edges of the letter, she thought it prudent to preserve the historical significance of the letters. When she laid them down, she found two full letters, and partial letters, all meant for the soldiers’ mother, father, and brother.
7. She realized she needed help
If Boes hadn’t been so excited to open the letters, she probably would’ve gotten emotional. As she carefully poured through the contents of each letter, a tale began to unfold of a young, lonely soldier who missed his home while caught up in throes of the bloodiest war in American history.
Boes realized quickly that she was a bit over her head. The significance of the letters was not lost on her, and even though they were addressed to her, she knew she needed help in discerning where the letters came from. She also knew that the letters were too fragile to go anywhere, so she placed a call to her boss.
8. Her boss examined the letters
“You’re not going to believe what I just received,” Boes said to her boss. “I’ll deliver them in person. They’re too precious to trust to the mails.” It’s funny that a postal worker would say that, but since her boss was only a 45-minute drive away, she hopped in her car and sped off to Grand Rapids.
Chuck Howe received Boes and her new letters with the same enthusiasm, except Howe felt that they needed to be authenticated. After all, they were both seasoned postal employees, and finds like this were one of a kind. They were optimistic because of the detailed nature of what was written in the letters.
9. The letters talk about the soldiers experience
The soldier sent the letters from Virginia, but he was fighting for the Union cause. Sometimes the scenes he described were nothing more than boring soldierly duties, while others showed his sad feelings about his comrades getting killed in battle.
He speaks about the weather, as any soldier on active duty had an especially close relationship with the weather given they were always outside. Howe felt pretty good about the letters being real, but he had to bring in an expert to make sure. This time, it was Howe’s turn to escalate the situation, and that’s when he called United States Postal Service historian, Jenny Lynch.
10. Smithsonian investigators take the case
Lynch was all the way in Washington DC, so Howe took some pictures of the letters and sent them in an email to her. But even Lynch needed help, and that’s when America’s premier historical museum got involved, as Lynch contacted the Smithsonian.
A curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum examined the letters, down to the handwriting and even the type of ink. His expertise was in postage stamps, so he looked at the envelope and the various ink stamps on it. He determined that the letters were indeed authentic. But who in the world sent them? It was clear more analysis of the letters was needed.
11. An investigator tries to solve the mystery
The USPS took these letters very seriously and went to great lengths to learn everything they could about them. For this, they needed an expert on Civil War history and had the skills to identify one individual soldier out of the more than three million that served.
His name was Steve Kochersperger, and he had a very close connection to the Civil War. One of his ancestors was a Lieutenant Colonel who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg and led a unit into combat in the Battle of the Wilderness. Kochersperger was also a self-proclaimed sleuth, and he was going to get to the bottom of this mystery.
12. Nelson Shephard’s story is revealed
The soldier who wrote the letters was named Nelson Shephard, and finding information about him presented a very difficult challenge. Kochersperger said, “There were no descendants looking for Nelson Shephard, rather, it felt like Nelson Shephard was looking for us to tell his story.”
Kochersperger was right, as the letters had gone over 150 years without finding their intended recipients. But even so, somehow the letters arrived in Michigan, and the story they tell was about to be deciphered by Kochersperger. The only questions was, would he even be able to find out who sent them? There wasn’t much to go on, so he started with the letters.
13. The letter had three sets of handwriting
Kochersperger started with the basics and analyzed the handwriting of the author. Of course, this is where an expert on the Civil War was necessary, because it was likely dictated by Shephard, but actually written by another soldier with better handwriting.
According to sources, about 90% of Union soldiers were literate, but even so, it was common for soldiers to dictate to friends or even dedicated transcribers. Even Walt Whitman worked in this capacity, as he often wrote letters for wounded soldiers when he served in a hospital during the war. Kochersperger was able to discern three different writers, and one of them was Nelson Shephard.
14. Shephard did time
“I identified with him as a boy off to see the world,” Kochersperger said about Shephard. “I could also identify with his parents, since I have five kids of my own.” Kochersperger clearly saw parallels in both their lives, but one must wonder if Kochersperger’s kids were as much of hell raisers as Nelson Shephard.
Shephard was born in the early 1840s and lived with his family in Grass Lake, Michigan. Kochersperger was able to find out that Shephard actually did hard time for burglary, as prior to the Civil War, he did a stretch at Jackson State Prison. Kochersperger was just scratching the surface.
15. The Civil War erupts
Evidently, Shephard’s folly with the law was just an adolescent phase, because by 1860, he was out of prison and making an honest living as a mill hand in the town of White River. This is where the Shepard family was living on the eve of the Civil War.
On April 12, 1861 Confederate forces opened fire on the federal, Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, and even though no one was killed in the battle, the fight had begun. To smash the insurrection in the South, President Lincoln called for nearly 100,000 volunteers. At first, Shephard stayed home, as the war never did make it to Michigan. But his apathy was short lived.
16. Shephard enlists
Kochersperger was making great progress in figuring out what happened to Shephard, but he was nowhere close to solving the mystery of how they ended up in postal circulation 150 years later. He was going to have to dig deeper, and he got a big break when he figured out that Shephard served in the 26th Michigan Volunteer Regiment.
We don’t know what led Shephard to make the decision to enlist, but we do know it happened in the summer of 1862. By that time, the war was going awful for the North, and perhaps that is what compelled him to enlist.
17. The war wasn’t going well for the North
By the summer of 1862, the Union army had already lost two battles trying to take the Confederate capital (Battle of Bull Run, Second Battle of Bull Run), and was on the verge of eking out their first major victory at the Battle of Antietam.
Who knows if youthful enthusiasm accompanied Shephard at a time when moral was pretty low in the North, but as an 18-year-old, we know he was certainly excited about going off to fight for the cause and see the country for the first time. In early December, his unit began the long march to the nation’s capital, and that’s when Shephard started writing.
18. Shephard visits Washington DC
Kochersperger used the letters to piece together this personal account of an important moment in American history. The setting in Washington DC is the first thing that Shephard wrote home about. Upon arriving in the nation’s capital, and despite the fact that National Mall had only barely been started (oddly enough, only the Smithsonian was complete), the Capital building had an incomplete dome, and the Washington Monument was only halfway finished, Shephard was absolutely mesmerized.
“The finest piece of architecture in the United States,” Shephard wrote about the Capital. “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.”
19. The letters go viral
Kochersperger was having the time of his life moving through the letters and piecing together the story of Nelson Shephard, but he was still no closer to figuring out who mailed the letters. Upon completing his research, Kochersperger still had nothing to go on, as there were no living descendants of the Shephard family.
Fortunately for Kochersperger, the Smithsonian is more than just a national museum — it also has a magazine with two million readers, and another six million visit their website every year. So in November of 2016, Kochersperger and the Smithsonian published the letters and their findings, and then prayed that some reader might know something about it.
20. A shot in the dark pays off
Eight million readers were a drop in the bucket compared to a population in the US of over 325 million people, but publishing his findings was Kochersperger’s only hope. Perhaps if the article went viral, it might appear in front of more eyes, and the Smithsonian was pleased to see that their article was very popular among readers.
“In any museum, provenance, or the history of any item, is critical in helping to understand and share its importance with the public,” wrote a Smithsonian writer. “We needed to know how the letters got to us — who was the mysterious sender?” They were about to find out.
21. The answer to the mystery
“Newly Discovered Letters Bring New Insight Into the Life of a Civil War Soldier” was the title of the article written by Franz Lidz and was published online in November of 2016. It was just a week after the article was published that the Smithsonian received an email from an unlikely source.
To the astonishment of Smithsonian researchers, an email from a woman in Texas revealed that it was her grandmother who mailed the letters! The Smithsonian immediately reached out to 78-year-old Nancy Cramlit, who lived in Muskegon, Michigan, to figure out how she came across the letters and why she mailed them.
22. Her late husband bought the letters
Cramlit had quite a story of how she found the letters. According to Cramlit, her late husband was a collector historical items, antiques, and “junk.” He attended yard sales often and Cramlit suspects he may have bought them at one.
The Smithsonian suspects that the letters did make it to Shepard’s parents and brother, but then they probably lay forgotten for decades. It’s unknown if Cramlit’s husband purchased the letters from the Shephard family, but what is known is that when he died in 1978, the letters were among his possessions. Cramlit went through them and found several letters. Some she returned to his family, and others she put away for almost 40 years.
23. She had the letters for 37 years
In early 2015, after 37 years, Cramlit finally went through the difficult task of revisiting some of her late husbands’ belongings. Her husband had clearly picked up other letters over the years, but when she picked up these ones and read their contents, she got emotional.
Ever the loving mother, Cramlit set her sights on returning the letters to their rightful owners: The Shephard family. For six months, the letters lay on her desk without her doing anything about it. She didn’t even tell her adult son and daughter about them, until finally on April 23, 2015 she placed them in a new envelope, put a Forever stamp on it, and mailed it to the Newaygo, Michigan Post Master.
24. Shephard’s story is incredible
One thing that people from small towns know is that the Post Master knows all when it comes to the people in the community. Cramlit correctly assumed that this person, who turned out to be Lori Boes, would go through painstaking efforts to find the letters rightful owners.
Boes wasn’t able to do that, but she was able to do the next best thing. Thanks to a whole team of unlikely collectors, postal workers, and historians, the Shephard letters are available for the world to read. They tell the story of comical moments, painful ones, and allows us to peer into a person that sacrificed so much for his country.
25. A letter to his brother
Steve Kochersperger had a source that he mainly used to learn more about Nelson Shephard, and it was Franklin Ellis’ 1880 book The History of Livingston County, Michigan. But in terms of the battles he fought, and the campaigns he bled in, Nelson Shephard’s letters are the source for information, and the story he tells is incredible.
A shining example are the simple words he wrote to his 9-year-old brother Albert prior to his second Christmas away from his family. “My Dear Brother, I wish I was there. I wish I could see you all. I would willingly make you a dozen sleighs.” – Christmas 1863.
In May of 1862, Shephard experienced his first round of combat when his unit reinforced a Union garrison in Suffolk, Virginia. Although his unit was exposed to horrifying scenes of a Union army badly battered by the Confederates, Shephard was exhilarated that his unit drove the enemy from the field.
“I am well as ever we have been out on a 11 days Campaign… we had two prety [sic] hard fights we whipped them both times we destroyed everything we came to. I tell you we lived high Chickens Turkeys Geese Pigs fresh Beef and smoked hams and every thing nice.”
27. A couple funny moments
One thing that Shephard writes that shows his commanding officer may have been having some fun with him is when General Stonewall Jackson died on May 10, 1863. Evidently, someone told him that “He said on his dying bed that the North would gain the day.”
You can see a commander telling his young troops that to motivate them, because his actual last words are well documented (“Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”). There were other funny lines too, like when he encountered, “the most Ignorant set of people I ever saw… one of the handsomest girls… I ever saw… did not know her own age she could remember planting Corn as many times as she had fingers and one more.”
28. This one time in Manhattan…
That wasn’t the only funny moment that Shephard described, as this next line is as comical as it is sad. In mid-July 1863, his unit passed through Manhattan and witnessed quite the scene. “I have seen some of the most disgusting sights I ever saw in my life.”
“Women going through the streets so drunk they would almost fall down. Little ragged Children leading their fathers home so drunk that they would Roll into the ditch, get up and try to Whip the Child for pushing him over. So you can [see what] liquor can do, it is as common to see a woman drunk as it is a man.”
Of course, any soldier that experienced combat in the Civil War wasn’t in for just fun and games. Thanks to the research done by Steve Kochersperger we know that his unit was involved in some intense combat in the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Totopotomoy Creek, and Cold Harbor among others.
On August 25, 1864 the Michigan 26th was defending Reams Station when it was caught by surprise from an attacking Confederate army. Shephard, along with 14 others from his unit were taken prisoner. He was transferred to a prison in Salisbury, North Carolina, and though his war was over, his battle had just begun.
30. The Shephard story ends
Salisbury prison was grossly overcrowded when Shephard arrived in October of 1864, as it was meant to hold 2,500 people and actually held 10,000. It’s unknown if his parents received word that their son was captured, but they must’ve known something was wrong when the letters stopped coming.
Unfortunately for Shephard, who would become victim to disease and starvation like so many at the Salisbury prison, he would not live to see a third Christmas in uniform. We don’t know how it happened, but on December 18, 1864 Nelson Shephard died at the tender age of 21. But thanks to a forgotten set of letters that somehow found their way to people who cared, he lives on through the story that he shared.