What Lies Beneath
Sometimes you cannot just help but marvel at what may lie beneath a page filled with seemingly unrelated messages. The only thing these three telegrams have in common is the fact that they were transmitted on the same day, October 15, 1864, and by the same USMT operator.
In the first telegram, Henry W. Halleck (Borgia) instructs Samuel B. Lawrence, the assistant adjutant general to Lew Wallace, (he of the Ben Hur fame), to send the “dismounted cavalry to cavalry Depot.” This would be the Giesboro Point Cavalry Depot, one of the six such facilities maintained by the Cavalry Bureau of the United States Army. It was, in fact, the largest facility of this kind in the world.
The depot occupied the site of a tobacco plantation that belonged to George Washington Young, one of the District’s largest slaveholders. In July 1863, he offered to sell his plantation to the government for $100,000, but the United States army ended up renting the property for $6000 a year. This was not the first time Young received money from the United States government: under the terms of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act passed by Congress on April 16, 1862, Young had received $17,771.85 for his slaves.
If Young’s property had been located in Maryland, just outside the District, he could have carried on with his plantation. Congress had no authority to abolish slavery in the states. Lincoln tried to get the slaveholding states of the Union to abolish slavery on their own since the fall of 1861. It went nowhere. Maryland was a particularly tough case, as the state constitution explicitly banned “any law abolishing the relation of master or slave.”
In 1864, a predominantly Republican legislature succeeded in calling for a convention that would amend the state constitution. On September 6, the constitutional convention published the new charter which explicitly abolished slavery, and the governor called for a special ratification vote scheduled on October 12 and 13.
The supporters of the new constitution faced an uphill battle. The new constitution drew a firestorm of criticism from Democrats and even moderate Republicans. The critics blasted the document as a flagrant abuse of power that unlawfully deprived Maryland citizens of their “property” in slaves. The critics also singled out the provisions that mandated loyalty oath as a condition of casting the ballot and allowed soldiers in the field to vote.
On October 15, the returns were still being tallied and things did not look good. On 11:20 a.m., the USMT operators received a message from Henry W. Hoffman (1825-1895), a staunch Lincoln supporter who had canvassed the state in support of the constitution. according to Hoffman, “on the home vote” the constitution was likely to be defeated by a “probable maj[ority]” of “about one thousand.” There might be some good news, as it “is believed that the soldiers vote may overcome this & give a small majority for the Constitution.”
Lincoln replied with the second telegram on this page: “Come over to-night and c (see) me.” Lincoln must have realized that Hoffman was indeed correct. The constitution was in fact defeated by 1995 votes. Only after the soldiers’ ballots were counted, Maryland abolished slavery by a whopping 375 votes.
Three hours later, the operator tapped out the third message. Deciphered, it reads: “8 p.m. for C.A. Seward 29 Nassau St. William T. Minor Consul General and Thomas Savage Vice-Consul General Havana. William Hunter Chief Clerk State Department and G.G Tassara Spanish minister Washington. See Mr. Evarts ask to cooper rate [cooperate] with you. Signed F.W. Seward.”
The sender was Frederick W. Seward, the son of the Secretary of State and an assistant secretary of state in charge of consular service. The addressee was his cousin, Clarence. A. Seward, partner in the prominent law firm Blatchford, Seward & Griswold. “Mr. Evarts” was William Maxwell Evarts (1818-1901), partner in the renowned New York law firm Butler, Evarts, & Choate.
Why would an assistant secretary of state use the military telegraph to get his cousin in touch with the Spanish ambassador, the U.S. consular service in Havana, and another lawyer?
Both Clarence A. Seward and Evarts had been involved in high-profile of José Agustín Arguelles, lieutenant governor of the district of Colón, Matanzas, who was arrested in New York on charges of engaging in slave trade. The arrest was made upon a request of Cuban officials and the Spanish ambassador Gabriel Garcia y Tassara, and Arguelles was extradited to Cuba, despite the fact that the United States did not have an extradition treaty with Spain.
The arrest and rendition had caused a loud scandal. Arguelles’ wife filed a writ of habeas corpus with a New York court. Seward was accused of authorizing an unlawful arrest and violating Arguelles’ right of the asylum. The Secretary of State refused to back down: when called to testify before Congress, he declared that the United States, “the refuge of the innocent and oppressed,” could not, in good conscience, offer asylum to a slave trader, “the guilty betrayer of human freedom.”
In the meantime, a warrant was put out for the arrest of Robert Murray, the U.S. Marshal who had arrested Arguelles. It was Clarence A. Seward and William M. Evarts who represented the hapless marshal against the charges of kidnapping. The case was dropped in June 1864, do doubt due to their expert ministrations.
This telegram seems to indicate four months later both lawyers were still working with the State Department. It is likely that this cooperation had something to do with the fact that in 1865 a Cuban court found Arguelles guilty of slave trading and sentenced him to nineteen years of hard labor.
That a pedestrian looking page turns out to be teeming with soldiers, diplomats, lawyers, politicians, and even horses attests to the allure of archival work. We are, after all, dealing with a special kind of magic that somehow condenses entire lives, stories, and dilemmas into a single page jotted down some hundred and fifty years ago. And is it a mere a coincidence that all telegrams found on this randomly (I swear!) selected page should somehow have something to do with slavery?
“Honest Old Abraham”
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library.
From Washington May 11th 5 P.M.
4 PM. Butterfield About what
distance is it from
from the Observatory, we stopped
at last Thursday to
to the line of Enemys
you ranged the glass upon for me
Lincoln Honest Old Abraham
Quite a few telegrams in the Eckert ledgers have little messages from operators that filled up empty spaces at the end of the last line. Most of these notes are greetings of various degrees of jocularity (“wake up Charles!”), brief remarks about the ever so popular subject of the weather (“hot here” in the telegram on this page), reports of incidents (“Lawrence lost his cap”), observations the fighting, which often read like weather reports, or market tips. This telegram ends with a breathless tribute to Lincoln.
The telegram is part of the ledger EC 23 which comprises messages, mostly in cipher, sent from the War Department to the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and Fortress Monroe during the disastrous battle of Chancellorsville (1863, Apr. 30 – May 6), and its immediate aftermath.
The disaster was in large part caused by a breakdown in communications. Hooker’s battle plan hinged on complex system on the telegraph and flag signaling, which, ideally, would provide him with an unprecedented mode of instant communication. The USMT operators were to handle strategic communications between the army and Washington. The Signal Corps was charged with tactical communications between the army’s wings and units provided by the traditional flag signaling system and new Beardslee Patent Magneto-Electric Field Telegraph machines. Hooker’s chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield, was charged with overseeing all the communications.
The plan fell apart almost immediately. Beardslee machines were easily “disarranged,” which resulted in hours-long delays and messages garbled beyond recognition.
For some eighteen hours, the right wing of Hooker’s army was plunged into a communications blackout. On May 1, Butterfield dispatched USMT operators to take over. By then it was too late.
All the while the president and the War Department were kept in the dark. Hooker had instructed Butterfield not to wire anything to Washington. It was only at 8:50 a.m. on May 3 when Butterfield informed Lincoln that “a battle is in progress.” By then Washington was already awash in increasingly panicky rumors. At 1 p.m. on May 4, Butterfield wired that the army re-crossed the Rappahanock. Two hours later, Lincoln telegraphed “We have news that that the enemy has reoccupied heights above Fredericksburg is that so?” Hooker conceded: “I am informed that is so, but attach no importance to it.” On May 6, 1863, Hooker ordered the remaining troops to re-cross the north side of the Rappahanock. It was over. Lincoln received the word at 3 p.m. An hour later, Lincoln and Halleck boarded a steamer for the Army of the Potomac.
The president spent Thursday, May 7, at Hooker’s headquarters. At the end of the day, Lincoln refused to blame anyone and expressed his full confidence in the general. The War Department decided to put a positive spin on the defeat: not only “there “has been no serious disaster to the organization or the efficiency of the army,” but thanks to the “brilliant success” of Stoneman’s raid on Richmond, the enemy’s communications “have been cut in all directions.” This was an exaggeration, to say the least. The railroads that Stoneman claimed to have destroyed were fully operational by May 8. Hooker later grumbled: “I might as well have had a wet shirt command my cavalry,” adding: “ Had Gen. Lee’s communications with Richmond been severed, not many of his Army would ever have returned to that city.”
A disruption in the enemy of communications did occur, however. During the battle, the wig-wag signaling played an important role, although not the one intended. When it became apparent that the Confederate signal officers could easily read the Union signals, Butterfield ordered not to use them only to transmit false information.
As seen from this telegram, Butterfield took Lincoln on a tour of the lines of signal-flag stations. The” Observatory” is most likely the central station, known as Station F., located halfway between Falmouth and the Army of the Potomac headquarters. A notorious self-promoter and a loyal ally of Hooker’s, Butterfield, no doubt, worked hard to impress the president with the importance of flag-signals. Four days later, Lincoln was still thinking about how close the enemy lines were. Butterfield helpfully supplied that the distance between the lines was just “about two miles in a direct line.” As we have already seen, in the coming months, Butterfield regularly forwarded intercepted signals to the president. (See The Dust of War https://blog.decodingthecivilwar.org/2017/06/19/the-dust-of-war/)
But why would an USMT operator feel so overwhelmed by this seemingly routine message? Lincoln certainly was no stranger to the USMT office. The president spent hours at the cipher room, (he usually commandeered Eckert’s desk), drafting numerous telegrams and handing them over to the operators.
Curiously, there is no handwritten draft of this message. The draft of the telegram to John A. Dix, sent just before the message to Butterfield, has been preserved and now forms part of the Charles W. McClellan Lincolniana collection at the Brown University. Neither does it appear in the Official Records of the Rebellion, unlike the telegram to Hooker on the bottom of this page.
The editors of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln published it after the text in the 1865 Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The Committee was then investigating the Army of the Potomac; the heavily politicized inquiry aimed at replacing George G. Meade with Joseph Hooker and necessarily sought to rewrite the history of the battle of Chancellorsville. The telegram was among a batch of records covering Hooker’s command of the Army of the Potomac assembled by Edwin M. Stanton.
It is possible that Lincoln’s draft was lost, misplaced, misfiled or even destroyed by the clerks who prepared the Joint Committee’s final report. It is also, however, possible, that no draft ever existed and that the telegram was dictated rather than written. This would explain the operators’ gushing note: he was obviously thrilled to transmit “Honest Old Abraham’s” own words as the great man loomed over his desk.
“The most memorable Independence Day in American history.”
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts.
On 10 a.m. July 4, 1863, the United States Military Telegraph transmitted this notice:
“The President announces to the country that news from the Army of the Potomac, up to 10 p.m. of the 3rd. is such as to cover that Army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen. And that for this, he especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude. ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”
This was the President’s press-release of the victory at Gettysburg. Two hours later, Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Confederate army at Vicksburg, Miss. The double victory of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, made July 4, 1863, in the words of historian James McPherson, “the most memorable Independence Day in American history since the first one four score and seven years earlier.”
Yet, apart from the traditional celebrations on the White House grounds, there were few signs of jubilation elsewhere in the Capital. The immediate reaction to the battle of Gettysburg was a mixture of relief and frustration at the failure to capture Lee’s army. It would take three days for the news of the fall of Vicksburg to reach Washington.
The work of the United States Military Telegraph proceeded at a frantic pace, as a team of operators were busy receiving, sending, and routing messages. On 6 p.m., for example, one operator entered a message in his ledger (EC 6), reporting the progress (or rather lack of thereof), General William F. Smith’s unsuccessful pursuit of Lee’s army.
6 P.M. Harrisburg Pa. July 4, 1863
For SecWar Genl Smith on his
march met a flag of truce
two miles from Mt. Holly on
the Bendersville road with two thousand
prisoners which he recd & sent
the escort back trusting that the
exaggerated idea which they had of
his numbers would have a good
effect he delayed his march for
for two hours as his route was
thus discovered he says with
references to news “nothing unfavorable”
Signed L. Thomas Adjut Genl
Sent to Fredk & Baltimore 7 P.M.
At the same time, another operator, his own ledger (EC 8) on his desk, was receiving this message from Dana Couch to General Meade:
6 PM Harrisburg Penna July 4,1863
for Genl Meade Genl Smith’s
advance in the mountain
passes beyond Mount Holly
met two thousand paroled
prisoners from your army
under Escort period Smith
being discovered recd the
prisoners I will send
them to Camp at
West Chester Signed D. N. Couch
Not sent to Meade. One from Thomas gives same information.
Thirty minutes later, Thomas T. Eckert transmitted this cipher from the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Arabia) to William H. Ludlow, the Union commissioner for exchange.
Sheldon Ft Mon. Wash DC July 4, 1863
Rosetta Venus Lud-low you will
if it has not already been
done forward to Adorn by Express
the copy of Jeff Davis’ dispatch
sent him today also my telegram
of this Evening and until you
receive the Adam’s instruction hold no
communication with Mr Stephens or Mr
Ould nor permit either of them
to come within our lines period
Our Victory is complete Lee in
full retreat Arabia Bully
The blotted out “Bully,” (meaning “Well done!”), at the end of the message is one of the few signs of celebration at the War Department.
Yet the telegram showed that the victory at Gettysburg had already born results. Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America and Robert Ould, chief agent for prisoner exchange of the Confederate Army, were envoys of the President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis dispatched the two on July 2, in anticipation of Lee’s successful invasion of Pennsylvania. Lee’s victory was expected to force Lincoln’s hand not only in the negotiations over cartel of the prisoner exchange — suspended in retaliation for the harsh treatment of African American prisoners of war — but in recognizing the independence of the Confederate States of America.
Stephens acted as the bearer of the official communication addressed to Lincoln and intended to start international diplomatic negotiations “which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between hostile forces.” The communication was filled with complaints about “numerous difficulties” in “the execution of the cartel of exchange,” for which Davis, unsurprisingly, squarely blamed the Union side. More ominously, Davis accused Lincoln of war crimes: some of “your officers” asserted “a right to treat as spies” and execute prisoners of war, i.e., “the military officers and enlisted men under my command who may penetrate into States recognized by us as our allies.” Davis referred to the execution of William Orton Williams, a staff officer in Braxton Bragg’s command, and a cousin-in-law of Robert E. Lee, and his adjutant, Walter G. Peters. Captured by in Tennessee, while impersonating Union officers, Williams and Peters were hanged on June 9 on the order of William S. Rosecrans.
Rosecrans had acted in accordance with the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, a.k.a. Lieber Code, the first United States Army field manual, (and a foundation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions). The Code distinguished between a prisoner of war, “a public enemy armed or attached to the hostile army for active aid, who has fallen into the hands of the captor, either fighting or wounded, on the field or in the hospital, by individual surrender or by capitulation” (Section III, Article 49), and a spy defined as “a person who secretly, in disguise or under false pretense, seeks information with the intention of communicating it to the enemy.” (Section IV, Article 88). While a prisoner of war was “subject to no punishment,” nor any acts of “the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity,” a spy was “punishable with death by hanging by the neck, whether or not he succeed in obtaining the information or in conveying it to the enemy.” The execution of Williams and Peters was, in fact, the lead item in the July 4, 1863 issue of the Harpers’ Weekly:
Stephens’ mission hinged on the success of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. But when Stephens and Ould arrived to Fort Monroe in the afternoon of July 4, they were greeted by the news of the Union victory at Gettysburg. When Stanton found out about their arrival, the Secretary of War “swore and growled indignantly.” He then fired off the above telegram, instructing Ludlow to forward Davis’ message to John A. Dix (Adorn) and refrain from any communication with the envoys until he received Lincoln’s instructions.
Lincoln’s instructions were telegraphed a couple of hours later. The President of the United States refused to meet with Stephens. Stating that all questions having to do with prisoner exchange were to be resolved through “Military channels,” he added that “nothing else, will be received by the President, when offered, as in this case, in terms assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States.” (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 6, p. 315)
On July 7, after the news of the fall of Vicksburg reached Washington, a procession with bands of music marched to the Executive Mansion. The crowd cheered as the President marveled at the double victory in Pennsylvania and Mississippi marking the “birthday of the United States of America. It was no accident that “the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal” should “turn tail and run” on the very same day when, “eighty odd years” ago “for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.'” Lincoln then added as an afterthought: “Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.” He finally delivered that speech on the Gettysburg battlefield on November 19, 1863.
With a Brave Army and a Just Cause
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Washington, April 30, 1864
Lieutenant General Grant.
Not expecting to see you again
before the Spring Campaign opens, I wish to express,
in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have
done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The
particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to
know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleas=
ed with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints
or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that
any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great
numbers, shall be avoided, I know these points
are less likely to escape your attention than they would
be mine. If there is anything wanting which is with=
in my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may
God sustain you.
Yours very truly
The Civil War, born of a grave constitutional crisis over slavery, tested many provisions of the Constitution that hitherto had remained mere abstractions. One of these was Article II Section 2 which proclaimed the President “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”
The extent of these powers was unclear and was subject of fierce debates, most famously those over the constitutionality of suspension of the writ of habeas corpus or emancipate the enemy slaves by means of a presidential proclamation. It was also unclear to what extent commander-in-chief should be involved in the actual business of commanding the army and navy.
On April 30, 1864, as Ulysses S. Grant was preparing to embark on what would become the bloodiest campaign of the war, the President wrote the above letter to the newly appointed Lieutenant General–a title that only George Washington had borne before.
Lincoln, acutely aware of his lack of military experience, generally refrained from giving orders. He left the planning, and the follow through, of the campaign in Grant’s hands, much as he had done with other generals. And many times had Lincoln been disappointed and frustrated by their performance. This time, however, he had found the correct general. Grant devised a campaign in the Spring of 1864 that would lead to the final collapse of the Confederacy a year later.
A Seance in the White House
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
On April 25, 1863, the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette published a piece titled “Lincoln and Spirits” dated April 23 and bylined to one Mr. Melton. The report described a “spiritual soiree” in the Red Room of the White House hosted by the President of the United States and attended by the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The President’s guest of honor was Melton’s friend, one Mr. Charles E. Shockle, and the purpose of the meeting was to test his “wonderful alleged superpowers.”
The mere fact of the President attending a spiritual séance seemed quite unremarkable. By the beginning of the Civil War, spiritualism, born in the “burned over district” of upstate New York in the 1840s, had become a popular obsession, subject to fervent belief, amused skepticism, and harsh criticism.
The bereaved and disconsolate anxiously seized on the chance to talk to the departed loved ones. More fortunate delighted in tipping tables, pieces of furniture moving on their own volition, and messages from beyond the grave. It also helped that “spirits” who popped up in parlors and living rooms tended to endorse the causes of their earthly hosts or share their political preferences.
Lending additional credence to the mediums was the fact that “spirits” made their presence known by repeated knocking or rapping, which was followed by “automatic” messages appearing on blank sheets of paper, which evoked telegraphic communications.
As the war raged on, thousands of grief-stricken men and women invited mediums to their homes. One such homes was the White House. It was a matter of common knowledge that Mrs. Lincoln, buckling under the pressures of life in war-time Washington and pining for her dead sons Eddie and Willy, resorted to various mediums and spirit guides.
The séance was off to a brisk start, when the President was briefly called away. The annoyed spirits, who had assembled with the sole purpose of convincing the Chief Executive of their power, took it up with the Cabinet members, pinching Secretary Stanton’s ears and tweaking Secretary Welles’ generous beard.
After Lincoln returned, the spirits calmed down and duly moved the tables, swayed the portrait of Henry Clay that adorned the wall “more than a foot,” and hoisted “two candelabras, presented by the Dey of Algiers to President Adams” to the ceiling, before placing the Mr. Shockle under “spiritual influence” that was so “powerful that twice during the evening restoratives were applied.”
In short order, knocks were heard “directly beneath the President’s feet” and a blank sheet of paper covered by a handkerchief requisitioned from Stanton revealed a message from none other than Henry Knox, the Secretary of War under George Washington. For an otherworldly presence, Knox was rather explicit: “Haste makes waste, but delays cause vexations. Give vitality by energy. Use every means to subdue. Proclamations are useless; make a bold front and fight the enemy; leave traitors at home to the care of loyal men. Less note of preparation, less parade and policy talk, more action.”
When the President politely inquired if it was within “within the scope of his ability” to predict the “when the rebellion will be put down,” Knox’s spirit assured Lincoln that “Washington, Lafayette, Franklin, Wilberforce, Napoleon, and myself have held frequent consultations upon this point.” The advice of the illustrious panel, as Lincoln sarcastically quipped, “sounded very much like the talk of my cabinet: Napoleon “says concentrate your forces upon one point; Lafayette thinks that the rebellion will die of exhaustion; Franklin sees the end approaching, as the South must give up for want of mechanical ability to compete against Norther mechanics.” Wilberforce, the message concluded, “sees hope only a negro army.”
The spirits then prophesized that “English people” would demand that “England’s aristocracy” stop propping up their Southern brethren. As the piece-de-résistance, the spirit of Stephen A. Douglass delivered a full-blown oration, imploring his old rival to “throw aside all advisers who hesitate about the policy to be pursued” and prophesying a surge in “the popular approval which would follow one or two victories” that were sure to follow “ere long.”
This was quite a story. It was immediately reprinted in Northern and Southern newspapers before the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette published a retraction on June 6, 1863, calling it a “humbug.” Two weeks later the spiritualist publication Banner of Light followed suit. Yet the story grew legs. Lincoln’s numerous detractors seized on the story to paint him at best as a deluded individual and at worst, a demon-worshipper. In the fall of 1863, Ohio Democrats painted a picture “the Nation demonized, and its president a spirit-rapper.” Spiritualism’s advocates cited the incident as the ultimate endorsement.
Repeated ever since, the episode has fed various strains of Lincoln scholarship, from the exploration of his spirituality to speculations of his interest in the occult and paranormal, even though Gideon Welles made no mention of the séance in his diary, and there are no records of either Charles E. Shockle or a Boston reporter named Melton. (The latter is frequently conflated with Melton Prior, the famous journalist and artist for the London Illustrated News.)
To be clear, the story is in fact a piece of fiction. It is a combination of a fictional personal letter, opinion piece, and a Lincoln joke, complete with samples of the president’s unique blend of sarcasm and amused observation of human folly and digs at the members of his cabinet. It is somewhat reminiscent of the missives of Orpheus C. Kerr, the ingenious creation of R.H. Newell, which were too full of rather fanciful (and hilarious) accounts of the president.
It is no surprise that a piece featuring various departed historical celebrities urging the president to press on with the war effort, cautioning him against “traitors” and the “spirit of party,” and promoting a “negro army” would appear in a Boston Republican newspaper. Nor was the image of Lincoln as a conscientious and level-headed war-time leader who, despite his sound skepticism, was willing to listen to good advice even if it came from beyond the grave.
As we proceed with the challenge, let us follow Lincoln’s example and heed the spirits’ advice to “give vitality by energy.”
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: The soldier’s grave, 1862, Jay T. Last Collection (UDID 383505)
Reverse Engineering Lost Codebooks
Apl 21 1862
Andes Your dispatch of the nineteenth
was received that day Fredericksburg is
evacuated and the palate destroyed by
the rampant & a small part
of Anthons command occupies this side
of the Sabel opposite the town
He proposes moving his whole force
to that point signed Berlin good
Let it never be said that no good comes from spending time on Twitter! As I was scrolling through Decoding the Civil War’s feed I came across a handwritten copy of a telegram from Lincoln to McClellan, and I asked myself whether we might have a copy in the Eckert Collection as well. It turns out that we do, it’s a lightly coded version, and Project Leader Mario had already done some initial work on it for the folks developing education modules based on the Eckert materials. He had determined, in fact, that the message was sent in a code that has not survived (as far as we know).
By using the original message we can start to reconstruct this missing codebook, which may help us decipher other messages in the future. So far we have learned:
Andes = McClellan
Palate = bridge
Rampant = enemy
Anthon = McDowell
Label = Rappahannock River
Berlin = Lincoln
It may not seem like much, but it’s a start! Thanks to @juliegallowybng for inspiring this blog post!
On Illegal Leaks and Fake News
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
By the time the Civil War broke out, news had become a saleable commodity, with the New York Associated Press (AP) acting as the leading broker that enjoyed a close relationship with the Lincoln administration. President Lincoln dispensed with the practice of relying on newspaper editors and instead used AP as the news conduit. The flow of news, however, was tightly controlled by the War Department: AP received only information that had been cleared by military censors.
Although the system overall worked reasonably well, there were glitches which resulted in loud scandals. In June 1862, Charles C. Fulton, the head AP agent in Baltimore and the editor of the Baltimore American, was arrested for publishing an unauthorized account of the Seven Days’ Battles which the War Department considered a serious leak of military intelligence. Following public outcry, Fulton was released after forty eight hours and immediately published an account of his ordeal, much to the delight of Confederate and the Union opposition press.
On the morning of May 18, 1864, two morning New York newspapers published an AP wire asserting that President Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering the draft of 400,000 into the Union Army. The news, which indicated that the Union side was losing the war, crashed the New York stock exchange sending stock prices tumbling down and raising the gold. The news, however, was fake, planted by two gold speculators well familiar with AP’s delivery system. This “bogus proclamation” incident became the only known instance when Lincoln actually issued an order to suppress the newspapers.
As seen in Eckert’s letterpress books, on August 1, 1864, AP again found itself in a predicament. On July 31, Fulton transmitted to New York a report which he had received from a source in Fortress Monroe. The first part of the report, which contained the news of the loss of the Battle of the Crater of July 30, had been cleared by William Bender Wilson, the head of the Baltimore office of USMT. However, Fulton tacked on an additional bit of news: his Fortress Monroe source also “says Gen. Grant has arrived from City Point at 9 a.m. & was met at Ft. Monroe by President Lincoln who arrived from Washington at 10 o’clock both embarked on the Baltimore & after going in direction of Cape Henry steamer returned towards Norfolk there avoiding all interruption during interview at 3 p.m. President returned to Washington. General Grant returned to army.”
This meeting was not supposed to be publicized. A private meeting with the commander of the Union army coming on the heels of the shocking loss of the battle of the Crater could be seen as a sign of panic. As soon as Eckert got wind of the report, he ordered Daniel H. Craig, AP general agent, to suppress the news.
According to Craig, it was too late, as he had already sent out Fulton’s report “all over the country fifteen minutes before the order to suppress it came to hand. We are now trying to suppress it but I have no idea we shall necessarily.” He also tried to minimize his role in the leak: “There is intense excitement & anxiety here & all over the country & the substance of the news was undoubtedly known to Wall St. an hour before we got our own report and that is always the case when there is important news.”
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 91: Center right (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49338)
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 92: Top (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49339)
Gettysburg, November 19, 1863
12:40 P.M. Harrisburg July 4, 1863
For G. G. Meade The glorious success of
the army of the Potomac has
electrified all I did not believe
the army of the Potomac could
be whipped when fought in a
body Unquestionably the rebels have fortified
the passes in south mountains such
information was given me a week
ago from Gettysburg signed D.N. Couch hot
Such was the telegram sent by General Couch on the victory by the Union Army of the Potomac when it was clear that the battle at Gettysburg was won. It did indeed electrify all, and Gettysburg became one of the defining battles of the United States Civil War. It also became the site of commemoration, beginning with the dedication and consecration of the Nation Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. It was on this date that Lincoln delivered these famous lines:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has become a touchstone in American Memory. It still has the power to evoke strong emotions of loss and hope. But Lincoln’s words, and those spoken by others on that November day in 1863, were not to be the only monument to the soldiers who fell on the fields and hills of Gettysburg.
After the Civil War, monuments began to be erected at Gettysburg in honor of the various units who had fought there. Among the images available online at the Huntington Digital Library are a set of photographs that depict monuments at Gettysburg taken by photographer William H. Tipton. Some were elaborate, such as the one honoring the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry, is in the form of a shattered tree trunk, with a cannon ball lodged in the heart of the tree at the top, the bark peeled away. Others were very simple like that of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry which is a large puddingstone boulder on top of a carved base. These photographs were collected as keepsakes by a veteran, Lindsey M. Gould. They provided him a touchstone, no doubt, to those he fought with and those who died.
Let us take a moment, then, to reflect on this anniversary of the consecration of hallowed ground at Gettysburg. Let us reflect on Lincoln’s words. Gettysburg did electrify the Nation in 1863. Let that spark electrify you today.
Mechanics of Telegram Traffic, Getting from A to B
By Daniel Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
In response to a query from one of our fantastic volunteers, crmiller211, and prodded by my colleagues Mario Einaudi and Kate Peck, I am going to explain the process of telegram traffic. I am focusing on how message X went from A to B the best I understand it, based on the research I did for the article (see p. 4-8) that walks through the process of decoding a telegram. In terms of actual mechanics, I fear I am no expert on the operation of the telegraph keys themselves. There are active historical reenactors of the United States Military Telegraph that might be able to address some of those issues.
Message going from A to B. Let’s start with Lincoln, as that’s my guy.
Lincoln writes out a telegram, sometimes on Executive Mansion stationery (1). If he wants it sent secretly, he writes “Cypher” at the top. Notoriously bad speller, that Lincoln. He gives it to Eckert or someone in the telegraph office or has it sent by trusted secretary to the War Department a block from the Executive Mansion.
A cipher telegrapher at the War Department takes Lincoln’s telegram and rewrites it in a grid form (2), perhaps substituting arbitraries as he (almost always men, although I know there were exceptions, but I don’t think at the War Department) does so. He also likely writes out a separate copy on a slip of paper in transmission order based on the route cipher used (3).
If you’re keeping count, that means that there are already three copies of the telegram in Washington.
A telegrapher sends the message, let’s say to General Weitzel in Richmond, Virginia. As I understand the process, the telegram may have to be intercepted and re-transmitted along the way, depending on the distance, but I’ll skip over that issue for now. My understanding is also that at least on some messages, the receiving telegrapher repeated back the message to the sender, either in sections or in its entirety to insure correct transmission.
In Richmond, a telegrapher writes down the letters/words as received (4). A cipher telegrapher then takes that sheet and arranges the words in a grid form according to the route cipher, perhaps substituting clear words for arbitraries as he does so (5). Then, the telegrapher writes out the message in a clear form for General Weitzel (6).
By my count, that’s at least six copies of the telegram between Lincoln and Weitzel at a minimum, three in Washington and three in Richmond. This total does not include the possibility of correspondence logs that at least some governors, generals, and others kept of all incoming and outgoing correspondence, which would add additional copies.
Finally, a few observations:
- An “ordinary” telegrapher could send or receive an encoded message, so long as he did not have access to the code books, but only a cipher telegrapher could encode and decode the messages. The number of such telegraphers was kept to a minimum by design.
- Neither Lincoln nor Weitzel would have known the exact nature of the cipher, though Lincoln certainly knew and requested that messages be sent in cipher, as did generals, governors, etc.
- My guess is that intermediate forms of telegrams were destroyed to cut down on clutter and prevent any “leaks” of information that Confederate agents could use to try to decode the cipher. In a camp setting, they were likely burned, and perhaps even in cities like Washington and Richmond they were burned as well. Severely restricting access to the code books was essential to the cipher’s success.
- If I am right about the above, it would explain the absence of many intermediate forms in the historical record. The transmission order telegram copy we have for the Lincoln-to-Weitzel telegram about which I wrote is quite rare, perhaps not destroyed because it came at the end of the war.
- My guess is that the Eckert telegram books are either:
- Texts 2 (sent) and 5 (received) in the scenario above; or
- Correspondence log copies of all telegrams that were sent and received that were entered in books, perhaps at the end of each day.
October Surprise: 1864 Edition
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
In an era of increasingly high-stakes elections, when, as we are told, the greatness and even very survival of the United States of America and the future of the Republic are at stake, many of us turn to opinion polls, stats, and election betting odds. We also anxiously look at the historical precedent, partly for guidance, and partly to reassure ourselves that things had in fact been worse and the nation was able to overcome even greater adversity.
However unusual, fateful, or unprecedented this election season may be, it has nothing on the campaign to re-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Even under ordinary circumstances, re-election of a sitting president was in the mid-19th Century a near impossibility. After all, no President had won a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832.
And the circumstances were anything but ordinary. There was no precedent for a presidential contest conducted in times of “actual armed rebellion,” amid the mounting toll of death and destruction and in a nation fractured and mired in despair.The unprecedented war-time emancipation provoked a bitter backlash; even the President’s supporters accused him of waging an abolitionist crusade and labored to convince him “cancel his abolition Proclamation.”
In addition, the new federal income tax and military drafts caused wide-spread protests and even riots. And a growing anti-war sentiment split the major parties, bringing the already bitter partisanship to fever pitch. Finally, tens of thousands of eligible voters, the enlisted men fighting on many a bloody battlefield, were away from their districts. None of this bode well for an increasingly unpopular incumbent.
Yet the stakes could not be higher. The Democratic candidate, General George B. McClellan vowed to restore the Union under “the old Constitution,” with the states free to allow property in men, while Abraham Lincoln pledged to continue to fight for a nation without slavery. Although Lincoln’s party dropped the name word “Republican,” which many despised as synonymous with abolitionism, and adopted the name of the Union Party, it made the national abolition of slavery the centerpiece of its platform.
The conventional wisdom points towards the fall of Atlanta on September 25 as the turning point in the election. However, the outcome of the campaign was unclear until days before the nation went to the polls on November 8, 1864.
In the absence of public opinion polls, the anxious American public watched the betting odds (most of which favored McClellan). State elections offered another closely watched indicator. Due to the rolling electoral timetable, there were a number of state elections scheduled to take place prior to the Election Day.
In August, the Democratic candidates for minor county offices and the judge of the court of appeals won in Kentucky, in spite of the martial law established in the state. On September 6, Vermont voted in the Union Party candidate for governor and all of its candidates for Congress. Maine followed suit, scoring “a great victory for the Union cause.”
The most important were Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where the state elections were in October. The results of the elections in the “October states” had correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential elections in 1856 and 1860.
On October 11, Thomas T. Eckert, charged with monitoring telegraphic communications from the wards and districts, took his place at the telegraph in his office. He entered the dispatches in his own letterpress books rather than the ledgers of the United States Military Telegraph. Those same letterpress books now constitute part of the Huntington’s Thomas T. Eckert papers.
Although the elections in Indiana and Ohio brought clear victory to the Union candidates, the dispatches from Pennsylvania were troubling. The telegraph in Eckert’s office tapped out the results: “Dist. Dauphin Co. Harrisburg 233 Dean Maj. Dem gain 140”; “Returns from two thirds 2/3 of Allegheny Co. indicate a Union Majority on the house vote of Seven Thousand two Thousand additional as confidently expect from the army vote; Nothing yet from Lawrence or Fulton.”
In the end, the Union Party did carry the election in Pennsylvania, but by far fewer votes than expected. If it hadn’t been for western Pennsylvania, which gave the Union ticket a 15,000 vote majority, Lincoln’s party would have been defeated.
Two days later, Lincoln walked over to Eckert’s office. As the two men pored over the data, Lincoln grabbed a telegram blank and began tallying up numbers. Indiana and Ohio were placed in the “Union Vote” column. Pennsylvania, however, went to the “Copperhead,” or McClellan’s column. Lincoln also expected to lose his home state of Illinois as well as New Jersey, New York, and all the border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware. This would bring Lincoln’s tally to 117 electoral votes to McClellan’s 114.
Then Eckert reminded him that he could also count on Nevada and its 3 electoral votes. On September 7 the constitution of Nevada, which outlawed slavery, was overwhelmingly approved by the state voters. Nevada brought Lincoln’s total to 120. The margin was less than reassuring.
On the main Election Day, Lincoln won with 55% of the popular vote, re-elected with 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. In the end “Little Mac” carried only Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware.
A little more than three months later, on January 31, 1865, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States and to ban slavery “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”