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.
Wash’n Jan’y 27th /63
Enter the name of Joseph
Hooker cipher the bottom word
on page ten of no
nine to Borgia and berry
are the arbitrary words given
Sometimes changes to codebooks required entirely new printings, but occasionally the cipher clerks would only need to add a single entry. In the case of General Joseph Hooker, this late addition may have occurred because he was not commissioned immediately at the start of the war, and only rose to prominence during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
9 P July 9
St Louis “ 9
Our Operator and repairer at
Bloomfield are refused rations this
month on my requisition on the
ground that an order been rec’d
from the Comdg Genl prohibiting issue
to the Signal Corps or telegraph operator
it is the only case in the Dept &
must be a misunderstanding but
the Chief Commissary declines to
G H Smith
Although the telegraph system was vital to the Union war effort, the Signal Corps operated in a strange in-between world that was neither military nor civilian. This message from 1864 is just one illustration of the kind of bureaucratic issues that the operators ran into. Unfortunately we don’t have a record of Eckert’s response, but the issue seems to have been resolved, as there were no further messages from G.H. Smith in this ledger in the following weeks.
6.00P July 25
Fort Corcoran July 25
The Adjt Genl at these
Hd Qrs requested me to say to
you would you please send a man
to make some slight alterations in
the wires. A clamorous Lt Col
says one of the poles disfigures the
garden- I have received from
him very unpleasant words on
In spite of the important role that the telegraph played in the Civil War, there were still people who didn’t care for the aesthetics of the poles and wires. One has to wonder what Eckert’s response was – he was responsible for thousands of miles of telegraph wires, and here’s an officer in Northern Virginia complaining about the unsightliness of a single pole.
Fort Monroe Apl 27th 1862 4 P.M. Recd Apl 27
Hon Stanton Col Havelock called on me
this morning with Col Hicks of
the English army the former represented
that you are anxious to have
Col Hicks appointed on my staff
I would be greatly gratified to
do any thing to oblige you
It is however due to myself
to you and the country to
say that I have now several
aids more than I require J.E. Wool
Apparently there is such a thing as too much help. Perhaps the Union government thought that General Wool, as the oldest general serving on either side of the war, born in 1784, required more help than most. Clearly they were mistaken, as this message rejecting the appointment of yet another aide (this one from the English army!) indicates.
W. B. Dinsmore N.Y. March 14th
Send this to C Vanderbilt
market strictly Confidential. The Secretary
of War directs me to
ask you for what sum
you will contract to destroy
the Merrimac or prevent her
from coming out from Norfolk
you to sink or destroy
her is she gets out
answer by telegh as there
is no time to be
lost John Tucker Asst Secy
The CSS Virginia (again referred to as the Merrimac) is perhaps one of the most famous ships of the Civil War, and the panic that it caused the Union is evident in this telegram sent to Cornelius Vanderbilt, asking how much it would cost to sink or disable it. This came barely a week after the Battle of Hampton Roads (see yesterday’s post), when the Merrimac fought the USS Monitor to a stalemate. Vanderbilt responded the same day that he could not estimate the cost, but that he would come to Washington to confer. As it turned out, he donated his steamer, the Vanderbilt, to the Union Navy, who used it to bolster the blockade at Hampton Roads.
Fortress Monroe 8th Recd March 9th 62-
Hon E M Stanton
The Merrimac came down from
Norfolk today & about two
oclock attached the Cumberland &
Congress. she sunk the Cumberland
& the Congress surrendered. the
Minnesota is aground & attacked
by the Jamestown Yorktown &
Merrimac. the Saint Lawrence just
arrived and going to assist.
the Minnesota is aground probably
both will be taken. that
is the opinion of Capt
Marston & his officers.
the Roanoke is under our
guns. It is thought the
Merrimac Jamestown & Yorktown will
pass the fort tonight finis
John E Wool
There was very little good news to report from Fort Monroe on March 8th, 1862. The CSS Virginia (referred to here as the Merrimac) made its dramatic debut at the Battle of Hampton Roads, wreaking havoc among the wooden ships of the Union Navy. The next day, however, would see the arrival of the USS Monitor, leading to the first engagement between ironclad ships.
By Daniel Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Abraham Lincoln was fascinated with technology, with how things work. He is the only American president to have held a patent—for an inflatable device attached to steamboats to lift them over shoals in the western rivers. It was natural, then, that he would take an interest in the revolution in communication technology introduced by the telegraph.
Lincoln’s first recorded use of the telegraph dates to the summer of 1848, when he attended the Whig National Convention in Philadelphia. After the convention bypassed its favorite son Henry Clay for Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, Lincoln telegraphed the editor of the Whig newspaper in Springfield, the Illinois Journal on June 9, 1848: “General Taylor has received the nomination of the Convention for President of the U. States. A. Lincoln.” While a letter would have taken days to reach its destination, Lincoln’s telegram arrived in Springfield forty-five minutes after he sent it from Philadelphia. It would have been transmitted and retransmitted along a likely circuitous route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Alton, and Jacksonville. The telegraph line to Springfield had been completed only weeks before Lincoln sent the telegram.
Over the next dozen years, the reach of telegraph lines extended throughout the nation. By the time of the presidential election in November 1860, Lincoln could sit in the telegraph office in Springfield and receive telegrams from states across the North, relaying the results of the election. When in the early hours of November 7, telegrams from New York indicated he would receive that state’s electoral votes, he told his supporters, “I guess there’s a little lady at home who would like to hear this news,” and walked the few blocks to his home.
As President, Lincoln made extensive use of the telegraph to confer quickly with governors of the loyal states in the critical process of raising and equipping soldiers to defend the Union. His ability to confer with governors in distant states such as Ohio and Illinois quickly allowed him to maintain the firm support of Republican and even most Democratic governors.
His most important use of the telegraph during his administration was to confer with generals, especially in the western armies, but increasingly even with the Army of the Potomac. By 1863, Lincoln could communicate with his commanders in the field almost in real time. Such access allowed him to become a much more active commander-in-chief. During the first year of his presidency, he used the telegraph sparingly, but when a telegraph office was established in the War Department, the building just west of the Executive Mansion, Lincoln spent many hours there. It became a secondary cabinet room and command post. During major battles, Lincoln spent anguished hours reading the latest dispatches, agonizing over Union setbacks, and rejoicing in triumphs.
Telegraph lines began following advancing Union armies, so that by the summer of 1862, Lincoln could communicate with the Army of the Potomac in the peninsular campaign and with occupying Union forces in Nashville, Tennessee. During the peninsular campaign, telegraph lines ran down the eastern shore of Maryland and across the Chesapeake Bay via a submarine cable to Fortress Monroe. From there, the army strung telegraph lines to the advancing headquarters of the Army of the Potomac as it moved up the peninsula toward Richmond.
Telegraphic communications allowed the President to encourage and cajole reluctant commanders to follow up victories to crush opposing forces, most famously with General George B. McClellan after Antietam and General George G. Meade after Gettysburg. The telegraph also allowed him to respond more quickly to appeals for clemency, to prevent soldiers from being shot for desertion or other offenses.
By the winter of 1865, telegraph communications had expanded even within Washington. When the House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on January 31, 1865, presidential secretary John G. Nicolay sent a telegram from the Capitol less than two miles down Pennsylvania Avenue to President Lincoln at the War Department.
When General Philip Sheridan reported by telegram on April 7, 1865, “If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender,” Lincoln immediately sent a telegram to General Ulysses S. Grant, “Let the thing be pressed.” Two days before the end of his life, Lincoln communicated by telegram with the Union commander in Richmond, Virginia, over newly established telegraph lines to the former Confederate capital.
And, when an assassin killed President Abraham Lincoln, the terrible news spread over “lightning lines” across the reuniting nation in a matter of hours.
Fort Monroe, Apl 25th 10. PM Recd Apl 26th
Hon Stanton We have receive the Richmond
dispatch of this morning which states
that a Federal gunboat had succeeded
in passing Ft Jackson below New Orleans but
they rebels state they regard it
of little importance as they had
other defenses to be depended on
No other news of interest from
any quarter J G Tucker – – –
The Confederate Government put on a brave face when the Union Navy made it past Fort Jackson in Louisiana, but it was only a matter of time until they reached New Orleans. News of military advances came not only from officers in the field, but from local newspapers as well. As is the case today, sometimes the real story is lurking between the lines on the page.