Anatomy of a Telegram

The heart of Decoding the Civil War is the 15,971 telegrams in the Thomas T. Eckert Papers at the Huntington Library. These telegrams were written in 35 large ledgers, and range from short-a single sentence-to very long-5 or more pages. Typically a message is six or eight lines long, written in five to eight columns. The columns were necessary for the encoding and decoding of the message which required scrambling the message by routing up and down columns. In addition there needed to be an equal number of words per line.

Below is a typical example:


Most telegrams contain the time received, date, and origin of the telegram at the top of the message. In the yellow box is a message that was actually transmitted via the telegraph. The recipient, in this case General Meade, is usually named at the beginning of the message in the first line, and the sender, D.N. Couch, at the end. The time the message was sent is also in the first line, following the recipient; 9:30 am in this case. Note that if a telegram is in code the time comes before the recipient, as well as the location where the message was written.  There are “null” words after the sender’s signature, “the End”, in this instance, as each line needed to have the same number of words. This example also includes two addenda, “give a Copy of this to SecWar” and “Sent to Fredk & Balto 1:30 PM”. An addendum is less common, and usually contains instructions to send the telegram on to some other party or to make a copy–in this case both.

Some of the messages are in code. If we are lucky, the code number is written above the message, but in most cases we are not so fortunate. In some cases the name of the operator is attached at the bottom of the telegram; many have “Sheldon” some “Eckert”. In other cases there will be “Maj. Eckert” or “Col. Stager” at the top of the messages. This may have meant that a copy was to be kept by these men, or that the message was to be routed to them. The message below is an example of a coded text:

mssEC_04_206 - cropped.jpg

The message translates, using Cipher Book 9, into the following plain text, with the arbitraries replaced in green:

Ft. Monroe July 1st [1863]

Maj. Eckert

W H July first 8 A.M. to H.W. Halleck I have sent General Getty today with a cavalry artillery and infantry force to Hanover County with the hope of destroying the railroad bridge of the Salisbury and Fredericksburg Railroad over the South Anna and of capture the troops by which it is guarded Major Major General E. D. Keyes makes a demonstration at Bottoms bridge also today Jno. A. Dix not much use


19 Chg WD

At first glance the recipient appears to be Maj. Eckert and the sender Sheldon. The message, however, is actually to General Halleck from General Dix. The telegrapher was Sheldon, who was stationed at Fort Monroe; Maj Eckert was on the receiving end in Washington, D.C. There is one more thing to note with this telegram. The place the message was telegraphed from is Ft. Monroe. The place the message originated from is in the first line, “W H”. This is White House, Virginia north of Ft. Monroe up the Pamunkey River.

Telegrams in the Eckert collection will vary in length, number of columns used, whether they are in plain text or in code, and whether they have addenda or not. In this project we want all the text transcribed, and the all the correct parts, sender, recipient, location, etc., identified (that’s coming in the second phase of DCW!). The key is to recognize the different parts that are present.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: