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KN, p. 292 “Vicksburg and the Civil War”

In January of 1861, spurred by deep political and societal differences, Mississippi became the second State to secede from the Union. Soon after, Mississippi combined with others to form the Confederate States of America. In April of that year, the Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, and the Civil War was truly underway.


Strategically located at a bend in the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was recognized by both President Abraham Lincoln (Union) and President Jefferson Davis (Confederate) as a key to ending the War Between the States. In 1862, Vicksburg was vital to the supply of deliveries for the South, providing food, etc. to the neighboring States. Lincoln knew that Federal control of the Mississippi would provide a lifeline to the Northern supply lines as well, while cutting off half of the Southern States, for both the military and civilians.


Confederate General Pemberton was in charge of the military presence in the Vicksburg area and was ordered to hold the river and surrounding countryside at all costs. Union General Grant was tasked with taking control of the southern section of the Mississippi (Cairo, IL, and southward). Pemberton, motivated by duty and allegiance to the Confederate cause, was fully aware of the Vicksburg geographical advantages and was determined to mount a great defense. With swamps and bayous on one front, 170+ cannon overlooking the river approaches, and 50,000 Confederate troops scattered throughout the region, he was sure that he would prevail.

Left: Pemberton, Right: Grant

But, Grant was relentless. By October, 1862, his armies had secured the Mississippi south of Cairo, IL, and up from the Gulf, with only Port Hudson, LA, and Vicksburg, MS still under Confederate control. Vicksburg was the stronger of the two, so Grant focused his efforts on it.


Naval warfare took on a new look during the Civil War. In December, 1862, the U.S.S. Cairo (one of the Union’s first ironclad ships) was assigned to unblock the rivers of obstructions near Vicksburg and disable the batteries as well. But the Confederate forces weren’t just blocking the rivers with debris. They placed mines in strategic locations. The Cairo came to a quick end, sunk by two mines that ripped holes in the hull. (Remarkably preserved under sand and mud, it was recovered in 1956 and sits in an open-air museum in Vicksburg National Park.)

USS Cairo, one of the first ironclad ships

Unable to defeat the formidable Vicksburg defense system, Grant resorted to a siege of the town. Cut off from any incoming supplies and constantly bombarded by Grant’s artillery, the civilians moved underground to caves beneath the houses, living there for weeks. Food was rationed, but ran out, the water was unsafe to drink, and living conditions were intolerable. After 47 days, Pemberton knew that the military and civilians under his protection would not survive the siege and he surrendered to Grant.


The damage in the Vicksburg region went beyond the physical destruction to the buildings and farms. After Pemberton’s surrender, the Union soldiers stayed around for another ten years, enforcing order amid the chaos of Reconstruction. 

 

 

KN, p. 288 “Crime via the Post Office”

Read “Postal Inspectors: Law Enforcement Agents” here.


The United States Post Office has been around since the days of Benjamin Franklin, quietly doing a great job of delivering more mail to millions of U.S. residents than any other company, six days a week and sometimes Sundays. No other delivery company handles the volume of mail on a daily basis as the United States Postal Service. Sadly, we only hear about the USPS when something awful happens, and when nasty people take advantage of the efficient system already in place to carry out their nefarious plans.

 

Interestingly enough, the USPS can help work on postal treaties with other countries, so the rising cost of postage we have to put on packages to Canada or Europe etc., has been negotiated as part of certain economic trade packages.

 

But there is a branch of the USPS that works as a law enforcement arm: the United States Postal Inspection Service. They have special agents who are licensed to carry firearms, make arrests, and investigate suspected crime, as well as auditors who uncover fraud that targets Post Office services.

 

Benjamin Franklin was concerned about the rise in theft by the mail riders themselves, or others entrusted with safekeeping of the mail and its delivery, and in 1792, stealing the mail was considered so serious that the death penalty was imposed by Congress.

 

By the 1850s, more people headed west as the country rapidly expanded, and trains and stagecoaches were commonly used as a means to improve mail delivery throughout even the most remote territories. That move away from the one-rider-one-horse model to the speed that the train and the stagecoach provided, also created an explosion of train and stagecoach robberies. The Wild West had become a profitable place for bands of outlaws led by men like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid. In response, the USPIS (the United States Postal Inspection Service) grew in size and experience in order to investigate, arrest, and convict the culprits responsible for the theft of thousands of dollars in mail bags and gold.

 

As the railroad companies improved security and postal inspectors were issued Thompson submachine guns in the 1920s, train robberies dropped, but criminals like the “Black Hand” and Charles Ponzi found other ways to take advantage of and sabotage the mails.

 

The “Black Hand” threatened people with bodily harm via letters if they didn’t come up with cash. Charles Ponzi, the creator of the pyramid scheme, swindled would-be postal coupon investors by promising to double their money in three months time. Even some Boston investigators sent to check out the wild interest in Ponzi’s company fell for his savvy pitch and invested their hard-earned money. In reality, all he did was collect big bucks from people, then get new ‘investors’ to hand over their cash, which Ponzi gave to the old investors as return on their investments – which meant that he was always upside down financially. By the time he was convicted, he had $110 million on hand, but owed $200 million to the investors. The people that cashed out early were fortunate. The people last in line lost everything.

The USPIS has broken up art fraud rings, helped capture Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), and partnered with the FBI to investigate the mailing of the four deadly Anthrax letters sent in 2001.

 

Be reassured that after the spate of bomb deliveries to unsuspecting customers, dogs have been employed, along with other explosive detection devices, to sniff out the deadly packages before they ever leave the postal delivery hubs.

 

The USPIS website mentioned examples of fraud they have uncovered, including a trucking contractor defrauding the Postal Service of $1.5 million in fuel rebates; a highway route contractor defrauding the Postal Service of $120,468 for services not rendered; and a construction contractor charging the Postal Service $175,630 for work never done. Shaking my head at the stupidity of people thinking they could get way with not paying the taxes and fees.

 

The USPIS investigates and prosecutes cases of:

  • Consumer fraud (including sports memorabilia – game jerseys not worn by the star)
  • Counterfeit money orders and stamps
  • Misrepresentation of items sold through the mail
  • Money laundering
  • Cybercrimes (committed online, generally using computers or handheld devices, almost always involving the postal system. The criminal commits identity theft, gathers financial and other information, then uses that information to contact unsuspecting targets through emails to pitch large $$ scams.)


Drugs thru the mail
:
Pharmacies have delivered prescriptions to law-abiding citizens for decades, but they are not the only ones using the system. Drug cartels have discovered how well the USPS operates, so the USPIS works with US Customs and Border Protection, and other federal agencies to stop the almost epidemic cases of opioid mail delivery.

The Postal Inspectors have employed time honored methods to catch the bad guys:

  • Collect the evidence
  • Identify the suspects
  • Work with the National Forensic Lab to develop a fact pattern that they can take to a U.S. Attorney

  

There are hundreds of cases that have been investigated and solved with the involvement of the United States Postal Inspection Service. Please check out www.uspis.gov for some great information about how the Post Office helps you every day. If you’re interested in the training the Postal Inspectors undergo, or how to become one, check them out.

 

*Photos and logo courtesy of the USPIS.

 

 

 

KN, p. 287 “Postal Inspectors: Law Enforcement Agents”

 

 

Most of us think of the Post Office as the local place where we mail packages, pick up our mail from those handy P.O. Boxes, and buy stamps from the helpful window clerks. In fact there are many different types of employees within the country’s postal system, including Postal Inspectors and Postal Police Officers. The 1200 Postal Inspectors are federal law enforcement officers entitled to carry firearms and make arrests in order to protect the system from people that would commit fraud through its use.

 

The first Postmaster General of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, set up a system back in the 1770s whereby mail theft could be investigated by the newly formed U.S. Postal Inspection Service. 240+ years later, there are 200 laws that deal with specific crimes against the USPS. These days, much more than letters and money is stolen from the mail and the postal service is used by nefarious types for transporting all kinds of illegal items, including pornography.


The USPIS reports that it made 5,759 arrests in 2019, with an 80% conviction rate, largely for mail theft and mail fraud.

While mail and package thefts are thoroughly investigated, those thefts pale in comparison monetarily to the millions of dollars of illegal drugs that criminals attempt to pass through the system each year. The USPIS employs state-of-the-art methods at their National Forensic Laboratory in Virginia to detect and identify opioids and other drugs after seizure, process fingerprints and DNA to tie the drugs to the bad guys, and ferret out cyber criminals of all types that seek to misuse the mails.

Due to the growing global problems with opioid and fentanyl trafficking, the USPIS agents work cases together with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to enforce the laws of our country. One interesting method of detecting illicit drugs in the mail allows inspectors to check for 300+ substances without ever opening the packages.

The USPS takes the mission of guarding the mail quite seriously and has a few tips for private citizens to help avoid theft of packages and letters. Check them out:

  • Pick up your mail daily. If you’ll be away, contact the local post office and have them hold your mail until you return.
  • Don’t send cash in the mail.
  • If you need to send something important in the mail, take it to the physical post office or drop it in one of the big blue mail boxes right before pickup time.

If you expect to receive a particular piece of mail and don’t, call the local post office and/or call the sender as soon as you realize it hasn’t arrived on time.

 

If you suspect mail fraud, you can report it by writing to this address:

Criminal Investigations Service Center
Attn: Mail Fraud
433 W.Harrison Street, Room 3255
Chicago, Il 60699-3255

 

Just in case you think that the USPIS focuses on the bad guys alone, they also send out emergency response teams after natural disasters (like fires and hurricanes) in order to restart mail service.

 

The USPIS press kit (https://www.uspis.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/uspis-press-kit-fact-sheet-2021.pdf) points out some of the agency’s duties and history.


Stay tuned for the next article about the USPIS, where I share information about high profile cases in which they have been involved.

 

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