Civil War

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


Vicksburg – Cutting off the South from Itself

Within two days of July in 1863, the Confederate States of America suffered two crushing defeats. The Army of Northern Virginia was repelled at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Any hopes of Robert E. Lee crushing the North via an invasion were dashed over three days in July. Any hopes of gaining recognition and aid from Great Britain or some other foreign power vanished. But for some historians, like me, the more crushing blow to the South’s hopes happened the next day, July 4, when the City of Vicksburg, Mississippi was taken over Union forces after a short but debilitating siege. Vicksburg was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. The fall of the city would cut the Confederacy in two – no longer could trade, supplies, or railroads flow freely through the South.

Grant liked to attack things head on. As Lincoln said of his talents, “I can’t spare this man, he fights!” Vicksburg was someplace he would not be able to do so. Geographically, Vicksburg sits high above the Mississippi River. Its rolling hills and cliff make it the perfect place to defend. A bend in the Mississippi River makes it almost impossible to travel down the river unnoticed. But in the spring of 1863, the weather and floods changed all that.

Grant, as the head of the Army of the Tennessee (River) had started off in Cairo, Illinois in 1862 and had worked his way down through Kentucky and Tennessee. Taking Forts Donelson and Henry, Shiloh, and Corinth, Grant and his army had almost cut the Confederacy in half per Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Admiral Farragut had taken New Orleans in early 1862. The only holdouts in the spring of 1863 were Vicksburg and the lowly Port Hudson. However, Grant’s success was not met with plaudits and parades. The northern press had chastised his tactics for the loss of life, while others intimated at his taste for the finer beverages of the day.

If Grant had his way, he would have taken Vicksburg by land. In fact, as early as December of 1862, Grant tried to take Vicksburg. The city held strong. Under the command of John Pemberton, a 30,000 strong force held the heights. A ball was held to celebrate the Confederate successes in holding off Grant. That same night, Grant used recent flooding to make a break and take his 40,000 strong force through bends. The Army of the Tennessee mad eland south of Vicksburg and then made its way up to Jackson (the capital) and then across over to Vicksburg. The defenses around Vicksburg, along with the Geography, made it impossible for Grant to take the city by force. Instead, Grant decided to take advantage of his supply lines being in tact along with control of nearby rail and river traffic. Beginning on May 19, 1863, the Siege of Vicksburg was under way.

Siege warfare is not a new tactic. Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Medieval armies used it to perfection. Grant knew it was only a matter of time. The city’s only hope was rescue from another Confederate Army. Pemberton could not break out for that would leave the city unguarded. In addition, the city had no way to get food in. In a 12 mile loop, Grant’s Army had the Confederates surrounded. Citizens ate whatever they could eat during the 46 day siege. In addition, the Union guns, on land and on the river, kept up a barrage to drive home the terror of this war. This diary entry by Dora Miller describes the terror she faced:

June 25th. – A horrible day. The most horrible yet to me, because I’ve lost my nerve. We were all in the cellar, when a shell came tearing through the roof, burst upstairs, tore up that room, and the pieces coming through both floors down into the cellar. One of them tore open the leg of H_’s pantaloons. This was tangible proof the cellar was no place of protection from them. On the heels of them came Mr. J_ , to tell us that the young Mrs. P_ had had her thigh-bone crushed. When Martha went for the milk she came back horror-stricken to tell us the black girl there had her arm taken off by a shell. For the first time I quailed. I do not think people who are physically brave deserve much credit for it; it is a matter of nerves. In this way I am constitutionally brave, and seldom think of danger till it is over; and death has not the terrors for me it has for some others. Every night I had lain down expecting death, and every morning rose to the same prospect, without being unnerved. It was for H_ I trembled. But now I first seemed to realize that something worse than death might come; I might be crippled, and not be killed. Life, without all one’s powers and limbs, was a thought that broke down my courage. I said to H_, “You must get me out of this horrible place; I cannot stay; I know I shall be crippled.” Now the regret comes that I lost control, because H_ is worried, and has lost his composure, because my coolness has broken down.

On July 3, Gettysburg ended. No one was going to come to the rescue. No Union troops were going to go east and leave Vicksburg by itself as Robert E. Lee once pined. No, this was it. On July 4, the Confederate forces under Pemberton surrendered. The Confederates were not taken prisoner. There were just too many of them! While casualties were low for the siege, there was no way for Grant to feed and house the vast numbers. Originally, Grant had wanted unconditional surrender but was talked out of it by logistical horror stories from his commanders. On July 4, 1863, Union forces took control of the city. It would be a long time before the city would celebrate the holiday. The Confederate soldiers agreed to not take up arms against the Union.

After the siege, Grant would head east into Chattanooga and eastern Tennessee. By the end of the year, his victories resulted in his promotion to being in charge of all Union forces. With Vicksburg in Union hands, river and rail traffic within the Confederacy stopped. It was the high water mark for the Confederacy. From here on out, the South would be running on fumes. It could not keep up with industry and the population of the north.

In 2005, my lovely wife and I toured the National Military Park in Vicksburg. It was the first week in June and the temperature was 90 degrees and humid. I can only imagine the conditions the soldiers and citizens endured that summer.

The Union Battery Lines

The Big Muddy

The view from Union Lines

One of hundreds of monuments to those who served

The Cemetery overlooking the river

The Battle of Shiloh: Johnston’s Gambit

When people think of the Civil War, they think of different things from slavery to Abraham Lincoln to the battles to women serving in combat. I, as a history teacher, tend to think of the massive loss of life. Some 600,000 men and women perished, more than any American conflict. In 1861, the Battle of Bull Run (1st Manassas) showed that the war would not won in a single battle. Rather, it was going to be a long drawn out affair. The Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) showed just how bloody this war was going to be.

The fact that battle took place in south east Tennessee was not where Grant wanted his next battle to take place. Grant’s objective was 20 miles away at a railroad junction in Corinth, Mississippi. As part of the Anaconda Plan, Grant was trying to cut the Confederacy in half by capturing railroads and the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers that connected the Confederacy. Corinth contained a railroad junction. Capturing the junction would be a coup for Grant. Grant and the Army of the Tennessee made their way down the Tennessee River and began disembarking near Pittsburg Landing, about 2 miles from the Shiloh church. AT Pittsburg Landing, Grant was to hook up with Buell’s Army of the Ohio and then reek havoc on the South. Upon receiving word of Grant’s arrival in SE Tennessee, General Albert Sidney Johnston began organizing a complex plan to drive Grant from his positions and all the way back to the Snake Creek, and thus destroying the Army of the Tennessee before Grant and Buell could combine forces. Things did not go as planned, for either side.

April 6, 1862
The Confederates, stationed at Corinth, surprised the Army of the Tennessee at 6 a.m. Grant did not think the Confederates would dare leave Corinth. As a result, the Union had no defensive positions established. On the other hand, the Confederate attack, although 44,000 strong did not dispel the Army of the Tennessee from the grounds near the Shiloh Church. Ironically, Shiloh is a Hebrew word meaning Peace. The battle this day, and the next, would be anything but peaceful.

Throughout the 6th, Johnston attempted to push Grant’s forces back into the river and nearby Snake Creek. The Union took up a defensive position in what has become known as the legendary “Hornet’s Nest” for which the battle is also known. Throughout the day, the Confederates sent wave after wave of soldiers at the Union entrenchment. They all failed. Johnston was mortally wounded that afternoon. PGT Beauregard took command. Rather than bypassing the “Hornet’s Nest” and focusing on the Union forces at Pittsburg Landing, Beauregard kept hammering away at  a futile position, much to the chagrin and detriment of his troops. Eventually, the Hornet’s Nest fell. The Union fell back to even more defensible positions around Pittsburg Landing.

Even southern newspapers of the day had all but declared victory after April 6

Both sides had suffered heavy casualties on the first day, an estimated 8,000 plus . As night began to fall, the Confederates believed they would be victorious come morning. The night proved to be decisive. A thunderstorm battered the Confederate positions. Along with constant shelling by Union gunboats along the Tennessee and nearby creeks, the Confederates were left in tatters by the morning. What had been a force of 44,000, some estimate that only 20,000-28,000 were left come the morning of the 7th. Grant, meanwhile, had been reinforced by the Army of the Ohio. The second day of fighting would bring a greater number of killed and wounded.

April 7
The day began with what the Confederates saw as a surprising Union advance. The whole day became surprising for Beauregard as Grant, Buell, and Sherman attacked the Confederates at every opportunity. By the afternoon, Beauregard had left the territory he had only gained the day before. His men, tired, hungry, and disheveled, gave up the battlefield that night and straggled back into Mississippi. Over 23,000 casualties showed that this war, this Civil War, would be anything but Civil. The aftermath of the battle saw Grant chastised in the Press for his command and inability to command the battlefield the first day despite being four miles away on crutches when the battle began. Grant was also criticized for his failure to properly set up a defensive position upon his arrival in south east Tennessee. Grant had instead chose to drill his young army. Despite calls to sack Grant, Lincoln paid no heed. “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” The victory to Lincoln was still a victory. In the east, the Army of the Potomac had yet to taste it. Lincoln knew Grant would taste it yet again. It would be at Corinth after a long siege.

A cartoon of the day lampoons the Confederate retreat


Although Grant was attacked by surprise, Shiloh was only the beginning of a year of hell for Confederate forces opposing him. Grant, rather than attack head on in the next year, did so sparingly. He used the tactics of siege warfare not only at Corinth but again at Vicksburg, both times to success.

In 2005, my wife and I traveled to Shiloh. Here are some pictures of the hallowed scene.

Pittsburg Landing along the Tennessee River where Grant made his camp on the night of the 6th

The Shiloh Church for which the battle is named. It is a replica.

The Bloody Pond where dehydrated soldiers attempted to drink and clean wounds

The Hornet's Nest where most of the fighting took place on April 6

Baseball and the Civil War

As I watched the Yankees C.C. Sabathia dominate the Los Angeles Angels last night, it got me thinking how the great game of baseball spread itself coast to coast and beyond. One war that caused the deaths of over 600,00 Americans also changed the fortunes of our modern world. Amidst the carnage, devastation and doldrums of the marches, one little game emerged that would spread across the country as soldiers took it back home and it became America’s past time. What you had in the Civil War was people from all different parts of America coming into contact with each other. Things were passed along and taken back home. What TV, movies, and radio would do for American Culture in the 20th century, the Civil War did the same in the 19th century.

Baseball has always been, and will always be, the great American game.Walt Whitman stated long before the Civil War:

“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses and be a blessing to us.”

Just as WP Kinsella so eloquently stated in Shoeless Joe, baseball has been, and always will be, an important part of America. It is a barometer of our times; past, present and future. But it was the Civil War which brought baseball across the continent. Expansion of the US started when Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Jefferson envisioned an America stretching from coast to coast. Over the next fifty years, Americans slowly moved westward leaving behind their loved ones and the game that would soon be born in the East. Baseball too, moved slowly with Manifest Destiny in the years before the war. As Americans moved towards war in the 1850s, baseball moved with it.

Author Michael Aubrecht states:

Although early forms of baseball had already become High Society’s pastime years before the first shots of the Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter, it was the mass participation of everyday soldiers that helped spread the game’s popularity across the nation. During the War Between the States, countless baseball games, originally known as “townball”, were organized in Army Camps and prisons on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. Very little documentation exists on these games and most information has been derived from letters written by both officers and enlisted men to their families on the home front.

Baseball played during the war was very different than the game we know today. Some rules included: The Striker (batter) gets to choose where he wants the pitch. The Pitcher must throw underhand. No leading off the bag. No base stealing. No foul lines. All balls are fair.
Other key facts:

  • The name of the game itself varied from community to community – some teams played “round ball,” while others played “town ball,” “goal ball,” “baste ball,” “old cat,” and “barn ball.” Early versions of the sport required the pitcher to throw underhanded.
  • Outfielders or “scouts” did not use gloves and the baseball itself was softer.
  • Batters were called “strikers” who eagerly wished to hit “aces” or home runs.
  • Outs were called “hands out.”
  • A pitcher stood on the “pitcher’s point” and threw toward the “striker’s point” where the striker (or batter) stood poised above the “plate” or what is now referred to as home plate.
  • The plate itself was a white iron disk, tin plate turned upside down, or whatever could be found as a substitute.
  • Fielders could retire batters by either catching the ball in the air or on one bounce.
  • The more controversial practice of actually aiming the ball at runners to get them out was eventually banned.

Although the rules have changed, the things that make baseball great have not – a sweet single, a great catch, a well thrown ball, a ball hit in the gaps. These elements have been there since the beginning. It was the war that spread it across the nation which now spread from coast to coast. Just as America sped up after the Civil War, so too did baseball. The National League was formed in 1876 with 8 teams. The coming industrialization of America created more leisure time for a growing nation and baseball seamlessly fit into the new day. But it all got going near a battlefield far, far away…

For Further Reading: