Lincoln and the Telegraph: Messages of Lightning

The Civil War is often considered the first modern war. By the end of the war, the only things missing that would be used in World War I were the tank and the airplane. In a short span of four years, recent inventions reshaped the battlefield. Bored rifles created more accurate and deadly weapons. The submarine had seen its debut. The train as a device for moving men and supplies to the front saw the outcome Battle of Bull Run swing to the Confederates as a result. However, the invention that changed the war for the Union was the Telegraph. Lincoln eventually came to embrace the Telegraph and saw the messages as “lightning.” The resulting use of the technology changed not the course of the war but how Lincoln lead the Union war effort.

At the time of the US Civil War, the telegraph was only 20 years old. The invention had spread slowly across the US. Originally, Congress was the main investor. For most of its first twenty years, the main use of the telegraph was for its operators to talk about the weather when they cleared the lines in the morning. Out of this activity came weather reporting and NOAA – the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As the war approached, the telegraph was seen as a fancy tool for businesses and the rich. It was not something even the military had embraced. The Army used the telegraph to send orders for supplies. The invention was not embraced by the populace and was thought to never be able to replace the common letter.

The location of telegraph offices during the Civil War

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, saw the invention as something magical. He called a telegram a “lightning message.” The telegraph played a large role in Lincoln’s life the last three years before he assumed the presidency. In 1858, newspaper reporters covering the Lincoln-Douglas Debates sent the messages to their newspapers back east via the telegraph. As a result, the new Republican Party had its first star for its anti-slavery platform. In 1859, Lincoln became quite the speaker on the east coast because of the debates. His speeches were telegraphed to the far western parts of the country. It was through the telegraph that the entire nation became aware of Lincoln and his views. From a backwoods railsplitter and postmaster, Lincoln’s image was taken to the nation through the telegraph. In 1860, Lincoln did not attend the Republican Convention in Chicago. Rather, he used the telegraph to keep abreast of the situation. It was through telegrams that Lincoln was informed of his nomination and following election that fall. In the weeks that followed his election, Lincoln used the telegraph to begin to assemble his administration. It was also through the telegraph that the South was informed of Lincoln and it was through the telegraph that news of secession spread. And thus, the Civil War was nearing.

During the war, the telegraph became Lincoln’s eyes and ears and virtually placed the commander-in-chief at the battle. However, it took two years for Lincoln to use the invention in a productive way. At the First Battle of Bull Run. Lincoln was informed via telegraph the Union had won the battle. He preceded to go for a carriage ride. Upon his return, Lincoln was informed of the Union defeat ass the Confederates reinforced the field with troops coming from the nearby railroad.

In 1862, Lincoln began to see the possible uses for the telegraph. Lincoln first had to wrestle control of the telegraph away from McClellan. For it was McClellan who controlled the telegraph and what messages were read. When Lincoln went to read dispatches one day, the operator was under strict orders to only let McClellan read the messages. The operator said “There was nothing new in the file” while he stuck messages under his desk. While not technically lying to Lincoln, Lincoln went into McClellan’s office and found the dispatches he was looking for on McClellan’s desk (hence not in the file). As a result of this incident, Lincoln wrestled control of the messages from McClellan and shifted the flow of information to the War Department.

Conveniently located across the street from the White House, the War Department and its telegraph office became the second home of the President during the Civil War. Lincoln developed a report and somewhat of a camaraderie with the office. Homer Bates, a telegraph operator, recorded Mr. Lincoln’s daily routine:

He often talked with the cipher-operators, asking questions regarding the despatches which we were translating from or into cipher, or which were filed in the order of receipt in the little drawer in our cipher-desk.

Lincoln’s habit was to go immediately to the drawer each time he came into our room, and read over the telegrams, beginning at the top, until he came to the one he had seen at his last previous visit. When this point was reached he almost always said, “Well, boys, I am down to raisins.” After we had heard this curious remark a number of times, one of us ventured to ask him what it meant. He thereupon told us the story of the little girl who celebrated her birthday by eating very freely of many good things, topping off with raisins for desert. During the night she was taken violently ill, and when the doctor arrived she was busy casting up her accounts. The genial doctor, scrutinizing the contents of the vessel, noticed some small black objects that had just appeared, and remarked to the anxious parent that all danger was past, as the child was ‘down to raisins.’ ‘So,’ Lincoln said, ‘when I reach the message in this pile which I saw on my last visit, I know that I need go no further.”

When it came to the war, Lincoln had used the telegraph very sparingly in 1861. In 1862, things had changed. McClellan and other generals were unwilling to engage the enemy despite superior numbers. In May of 1862, Lincoln hand wrote the following telegram to be sent to McClellan. Author Tom Wheeler wrote of the exchange of telegrams:

Lincoln’s redirection of General McDowell’s troops away from General George McClellan on the Peninsula below Richmond greatly upset McClellan, who wired the President, “It is the policy and duty of the Government to send me by water all the well-drilled troops available.” Lincoln’s reply illustrates his increasing frustration with McClellan, as well as his appreciation of the limitations of what could be said in an impersonal electronic message. After telling McClellan he was “painfully impressed” by the General’s position, he added, “I shall aid you all I can consistently with my view of due regard to all points.” The president’s frustration then boiled over and he added, ” and last I must be the Judge as to the duty of the government in this respect.” Upon reflection Lincoln crossed out the last line.

It was through the “T-Mails” with McClellan that we see Lincoln’s growing frustration with his Generals in 1862 to either fight or pursue Lee and Stonewall Jackson. By the fall of the 1862, Lincoln’s patience was at an end. After the Battle of Antietam, the Union was in a position to possibly to destroy Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had McClellan pursued Lee after the battle. However, McClellan, true to form, failed to take the offensive. McClellan always thought he was outnumbered. Lincoln’s reply via telegram was very terse and made fun of McClellan’s inability to attack and McClellan’s ability to make excuses even about horses. Lincoln wrote, “about sore-tongued and fatigued [sic] horses,” demanding to know “what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”

Over the next year, the telegraph became Lincoln’s eyes and ears to keep track of the incompetence in the field and to minimize it. By the end of 1863, the fortunes of the war had shifted when Ulysses S. Grant was placed in charge of Union forces. The change in leadership in the military also reflected a change in how Lincoln used the telegraph. Now, instead of keeping track of the war, Lincoln used the telegrams to support Grant. In the year of 1864, an election year, Lincoln kept abreast of Grant’s pursuit of Lee through Virginia and bolstered Grant’s confidence through a series of exchanges in which Grant had lost some confidence and taken a lot of criticism after Cold Harbor. Lincoln would build Grant up, remind Grant of how the two were tied together in the cause.

Along with Sherman, Grant’s Virginia campaign and siege of Petersburg that fall brought Lincoln another term in the White House and would help to end the war the coming year.

Lincoln’s use of the telegram is important for several reasons.

1. The ability to receive information from the battlefield kept Lincoln abreast of not only the actions of the battle, but also of the ability and decision-making processes of his Generals. It became apparent early on that McClellan was incompetent and unwilling to engage Lee despite superior numbers. McClellan always believed in the telegrams that it was he who was outnumbered and not Lee. When ordered to attack, McClellan did so but not without making excuses as to why he was going to lose and it would not be his fault. Lincoln tired of McClellan’s attitude very quickly and would replace him at the first opportunity and that was after Antietam.

2. Lincoln was the commander-in-chief of the military and thus was able to assert his authority in record time. The telegraph allowed him to project his authority into the battle and move troops to and fro. While not micro-managing, Lincoln always was careful of his words. He often would write and edit his telegrams just before they were sent. At times, the information was disheartening, but in the end, the messages allowed for Lincoln to be a battlefield presence.

3. It’s always about people. If there is one thing Lincoln had in spades it was people skills. He could tell a yarn and was known for his story telling and jokes going all the way back to his days in New Salem. The telegraph made and supported his leadership skills in 1864 and 1865. Lincoln liked Grant because Grant attacked Lee at every opportunity. While McClellan retreated whenever possible, even after winning, Grant pressed on even when losing or coming to a draw. For Grant, there was no such word as retreat. In the telegrams between Lincoln and Grant, Lincoln consistently reminds Grant of his duty and to be vigilant in his duty. Tom Wheeler described one important exchange in 1864.

Lincoln read a telegram from General Grant to the army chief-of-staff that worried about the effect these events might have on the depletion of his force attacking Richmond. Lincoln responded, telling Grant, “Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke.” When Grant received the message, he observed, “The President has more nerve than any of his advisors.”

The letter not only shows the single-minded tenacity of Lincoln but also how Lincoln instilled the tenacity to press on in Grant.

4. There is a lot to learn from these telegrams and how Lincoln conducted the war. But more so, there is what we can learn about Lincoln and his communication skills. Tom Wheeler praised Lincoln for telegrams and how it can applied to today’s electronic mail. Wheeler states Lincoln’s strengths were that less was more. Be brief and frank. Use candor and sometimes it is best to not return a message. And when possible, sometimes use a handwritten note. While email is nice and fast, sometimes it does not have the emotional impact of taking the time to write it by hand. Lincoln was known for such notes in addition to his telegrams.

The telegram was not the end-all and be-all of Lincoln’s communicative skills. It was just another extension. For Lincoln’s words, whether they are delivered in person, by letter, speech, or telegram, still echo through the ages.

For further reading

David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office

Tom Wheeler, Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails

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