Thomas T. Eckert – Master of the Military Telegraph

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

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Eckert, ca. 1863

The telegraph was a key communication device for military strategy during the Civil War, and under the auspices of the War Department, the U.S. Military Telegraph Office was the key mechanism for long-distance communications. The man who would head up the Telegraph Office during most of the war, beginning in 1862, was Thomas T. Eckert. Born in Ohio in 1825, Eckert was fascinated at an early age by the telegraph, which had been patented in 1844, just three years before he left home to seek his fortune in New York.  Eckert returned to Ohio several years later, and got work with the Cleveland and Cincinnati Telegraph Company.

When North Carolina seceded from the Union in May 1861, Eckert wrote Thomas Alexander Scott, an old friend and the Assistant Secretary of War in charge of railways and telegraph, applying for a job. Scott came through, and in the fall of 1861 Eckert received an appointment to the newly organized United States Military Telegraph office.

Eckert started off as an aide-de-camp in charge of telegraphic communications, with the rank of captain. He remained on McClellan’s staff throughout the Peninsula Campaign, supervising construction and maintenance of telegraph lines to all headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, including Fort Monroe. He also oversaw some thirty operators and A. Harper Caldwell, the chief cipher clerk. Eckert proved organized and efficient, and the general report of the U.S. Quartermaster praised him for the “admirable arrangements” that allowed his men to construct and operate some 1,200 miles of telegraph lines.

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Repairing the telegraph, 1863

Eckert was ordered to Washington in September 1862 where he was promoted to Major and assigned to the United States Military Telegraph office located in the War Department building.  In the spring of 1863, he was appointed the head of the Washington office, as Assistant Quartermaster of U.S. Army and Assistant Superintendent of the U.S. Military Telegraph.

Although Eckert’s immediate area of responsibility covered the Army of the Potomac, and Departments of the South and Virginia, and North Carolina, he was also involved in the operations of the Western units of the Union Army, including the Army of the Tennessee. His duties included supervising of the operators in the War Department, serving as the ultimate authority for all cipher clerks, operators, and superintendents in the field, and overseeing the War Department’s relations with the national and international media, including Reuters, the New York Associated Press, and the Western Associated Press.

Lincoln frequently visited the Telegraph Office to send messages – it was not a far walk from the White House – and Eckert became a close associate of the President.  He became involved in intelligence gathering, including monitoring the Confederate wires and newspapers. His role was far more involved than simply managing the telegraphic staff and office operations — in August 1864, he was part of a complex covert operation that thwarted a Confederate plot to set fire to more than a dozen sites in New York, and later was involved in monitoring Confederate activities in Canada.

Eckert’s services did not go unrewarded. In 1864, he was brevetted Lieutenant Colonel, and on Mar. 31, 1865, Brigadier General of Volunteers.  In the fall of 1865, Eckert was appointed Acting Assistant Secretary of War. In that capacity, Eckert oversaw the arrest and imprisonment of Jefferson Davis. He remained popular after the war as well; in July 1866, President Andrew Johnson appointed Eckert Assistant Secretary of War under the new administration – a position he held until February 1867.

Resigning from government service to return to the private sector that year, Eckert shrewdly picked Western Union, the telegraph company which had reaped the most benefit from its close association with the federal government during the war. Eckert became the general superintendent of the Eastern division.

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Image of Thomas T. Eckert, later in life, from the Library of Congress

Eckert left Western Union in January 1875, to become president of Jay Gould’s Atlantic & Pacific Company. Gould lured Eckert away from Western Union in the effort to bring A&P into competition with Western Union. In 1881, Gould obtained the controlling interest in Western Union, and Eckert became the company’s general manager and vice-president. In 1893, he succeeded Norvin Green to as the company’s president. He retired in 1900, but became chairman of the board of directors, a position he held until his death.

In 1902, the New York Sun described Eckert as “a physical giant “and “an athlete in his prime,” for whom “obstacles were stepping stones to higher things.”  Those who worked with him were not ambivalent about him, either praising him as a strong and self-reliant man or berating him for being stubborn and domineering. He died on October 20, 1910, at his home in Long Branch, N.J.

The 1865 diary of Thomas T. Eckert is available online at the Auburn University Digital Library.

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  1. Pictures Please! Telegraph Operators | Decoding the Civil War - March 2, 2017

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