Tag Archive | johncvanduzer

Cannot They Be Exchanged



Nashville Tenn Jany 13
Col. Anson Stager
Two or three rebel telegraphers
one named Butler who claims
to rank of Major have been captured
& sent north from here Cannot they
be exchanged for my men yet at
Cahawba & meriden three of my
Opers are still there James C. Pettett


John F. Ludwig and J.J. Painter the laborers
and repairers have been exchanged.
J.C. Van Duzer
Capt. & Asst. Supt


The Decoding the Civil War project provides the ultimate playground for grammar nerds, a community of which I am a proud member, the type that delights in comma jokes:


This is particularly true for Eckert’s own letterpress books. When he received his own messages, Eckert obviously did not bother with sticking with writing conventions. Everyone who ever took down one’s own voice mail message knows that you often end up with a scribble that makes perfect sense to you but could be mystifying for an outside observer, especially if said observer tries to read it some hundred and fifty years later.

Exhibit A: the telegram found by crmiller211 in the 1865 letterpress book. I must confess, it was a bit of a head-scratcher, because James C. Pettett’s name looks like a signature. This, however, made no sense. The man, whose name was actually James Edward Pettit (1842-1909) had no business sending telegraphs from Nashville. He and his assistant John F. Ludwig had been captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men in Athens, Ala. in early October 1864 and spent the next several months in Confederate prison camps Meridian, Mississippi and Cahaba, Alabama.

The message only makes sense with correct punctuation. It was a single telegram from John C. Van Duzer, the superintendent of the telegraph office in Nashville, an attachment to the this message from Stager to Eckert:  “Cleveland. Jany 13 [186]5. I forward Capt Van Duzer’s telegram concerning exchange of operators and recommend that request be placed in proper hands for action.”  The sign (2) that separates the two last lines of the message does not indicate a second telegram; rather it was most likely a page number or a mark indicating that the remainder of the attachment was received after a pause. Van Duzer informed Stager that Pettit, Ludwig and another operator named J.J. Painter were still prisoners, while the USMT laborers and repairers have already been exchanged.

In March 1865, Pettit and Ludwig turned up near Vicksburg, the site of Confederate and Union parole camps. The pair was engaged in maintaining what was known as the “Flag of Truce” Line, the only instance of a telegraphic communication between the Union and Confederate commands. Pettit operated the telegraph at the Confederate office of prisoner exchange near the Big Black River Bridge, and Ludwig was assigned to the Union headquarters four miles from the city.

The Eckert ledgers have been yielding a wealth of previously unknown data about the process of prisoner exchange. Complicated enough when it came to military personnel, it was particularly tortuous, (and much less documented), when it involved civilians. Under the terms of the cartel of exchange, a civilian employee could not be exchanged for a commissioned officer. It was also questionable whether civilian employees could legally be detained as prisoners of war, but few field commanders were bothered with legal niceties.

While most of the USMT operators were civilian employees of a firm contracted by the United States government, their Confederate counterparts were commissioned officers assigned to the staffs of field commanders.  The “one named Butler” was most likely Major Jack Butler who superintended the Shelbyville office of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and reported to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Confederate Army of Tennessee Kinloch Falconer. Apparently, at the end of the war, exchange military personnel for civilians became possible.

In Pettit’s case, it may have helped that he, unlike many of his colleagues, had come to USMT from the army, the 1st Regiment of Wisconsin Infantry. Ludwig, on the other hand, was a civilian: he operated the telegraph for the Lake Shore and Michigan Railway until he joined USMT in July 1864 only to end up in a Confederate prison camp two months later.

The two were certainly lucky. They were scheduled to leave Vicksburg on April 15, 1865, along with 14,000 of Union prisoners released from Cahaba and Andersonville. Pettit, however, was too ill to board the transport, the steamer Sultana. The severe diarrhea that Pettit had contracted while in the Confederate captivity spared him the fate of the 1196 Sultana passengers killed when the steamer’s four boilers exploded on April 27, one of the worst maritime disasters in American history.

Pettit was destined to die peacefully in his bed in March 1909, having worked for forty years for the Postal Telegraph Cable Company in Chicago and served as the secretary of the Society of the United States Military Corps. Ludwig ended his career managing the Western Union office in Prescott, Arizona.


Explostion of the steamer Sultana

Explosion of the Steamer Sultana, April 28, 1865. (Harper’s Weekly, (1865 May 20), p. 316)


The War’s Over. Now What?

mssEC_13_381 - turning usmt equipment over to companies - birdie2u.jpg

2 AM 5th Gen Eckert  Nashville Tenn Mch 5 1866
Orders dated Feb 27th just recd &  will be
promptly obeyed – please say by telegraph whether
supply of teleg stationary & battery material on
hand in ware house wire & tools not
in actual use & the Beardsly instruments and
tools are to be turned over to the
companies or to Qr Mr – the president of
the So Westn Teleg Co claims all teleg property of what
ever description in my possession and says that
was understanding sig
Capt J C Van Duzer

Supplying yourself for war is a tricky proposition. You certainly don’t want to be under-stocked (running out of ammunition in the middle of a battle is both embarrassing and dangerous), but if you order too much you’ll be eating K-rations for two decades after it’s over. It’s like a life-and-death version of preparing to go on vacation – you want to clean out your fridge, but you need enough to eat to last until you leave.

For the military telegraph, the need for new parts and repairs was constant, so there could be no let-up in supplying. In fact, near the end and after the war, responsibilities and the need for supplies expanded as the USMT took over operation of southern telegraph lines to ensure constant communication. However there was an issue that need to be resolved. The USMT was a civilian, quasi-commercial outfit affiliated with Western Union and headed by a corporate executive, staffed with civilian employees, and reporting directly to the Secretary of War and the Commander-in-Chief.

photCL_301_019 cropped

So, despite the enormous amount of labor and material that the USMT poured into updating and expanding the newly re-united nation’s telegraph system, the functioning and property of these lines was returned, or sold, to private companies. One such company was the Southwestern Telegraph Company, mentioned in this message.

In this message, Van Duzer was looking for clarity: supplies to the Quarter Master or to the company? The Southwestern Telegraph Company’s president’s claim to equipment and supplies may be confirmed or denied in a later message.  We are lucky to have ledgers in which much of the business of the military telegraph was recorded. The clarifying message had to come from Washington, from Eckert, and until then Van Duzer would have to wait.