Tag Archive | militarytelegraph

Boyd is About to Get a Big Raise

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11 A June 10
Wilmington June 10
Maj Eckert
When Boyd reports
what pay shall I tell him
he will receive from
Teleg Dept He gets
thirteen per mo from his
Company Think forty seven
per mo about right for
MVB Buell

The USMT was always in need of qualified telegraph operators for a job that could be far more hazardous than working for a private company. One way they lured in these skilled individuals was with raised wages – Boyd here is about to make almost 3.5 times as much as he was before.

Secrets on the Wire: Anson Stager, Ciphers, and the U.S. Telegraph Office

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

Anson Stager was born on April 20, 1825, in Ontario County, N.Y.; as a teenager he joined the telegraph business which was growing rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century. He became one of the most important people in telegraphy, and he created the most widely used, and the most successful, secret code employed during the Civil War.

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Anson Stager (photo from Library of Congress)

As a teenager, Stager was apprenticed to Henry O’Reilly, the publisher of the Rochester Daily Advertiser and the local postmaster. O’Reilly became involved in telegraph construction, and in the course of doing so he hired Stager, a self-taught telegrapher, to operate the lines for one of his companies. Stager was appointed to the stations in Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. In 1848, he was promoted to chief operator of the Cincinnati office of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & Louisville Telegraph Company. Stager proved to have a fortuitous combination of skills and interests, and combined his telegraph operating abilities with an interest in electrical engineering. He was known for his technical improvements, most notably a method of operating multiple telegraph lines from a single battery.

In 1852, Stager was appointed general superintendent of a company that would be reorganized as the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1854. In this position, Stager developed a system coordinating the building of the telegraphic lines with railroads. As railroads adopted his system, Stager acquired the exclusive rights-of-way for his company. It was largely due to his efforts that Western Union had grown into one of the largest American companies on the eve of the Civil War.

In the first days of the Civil War, Governor of Ohio William Dennison, wishing to secure Ohio’s border with Virginia, invited Stager to devise a cipher system for telegraphic communication between regional managers.  George B. McClellan – whose organizational abilities and popularity brought a much-needed morale boost to the Union cause – was  appointed to command the Department of the Ohio, which was responsible for the defense of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Western Virginia, and later the western part of Pennsylvania. McClellan invited Stager to become his superintendent of the military telegraph operations for the entire War Department; he also adopted Stager’s code for all telegraphic communications. Suddenly, Stager found himself with full authority over all telegraph lines in the region, including those belonging to his competitors.

By late 1861, Stager had reorganized the military telegraph office, and his plan was recommended by Thomas Alexander Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War, to President Lincoln, who agreed. Stager’s plan envisioned an expressly civilian company operated by business managers and reporting directly to the Secretary of War.  However, the Office of the Quartermaster would release supplies only to commissioned officers. If the company remained a civilian enterprise, its managers would be personally responsible for all government funds advanced to it, a potential liability. Stager and his managers received officers’ commissions; their subordinates were civilian employees.

On November 11, 1861, Stager was commissioned as a Captain and appointed Assistant Quartermaster. On November 25, special orders assigned him “to duty as general manager of the Government telegraph lines,” with Thomas T. Eckert as his assistant. Under Simon Cameron’ tenure as Secretary of War, Stager’s outfit was known as the Telegraphic Bureau. In February 1862, Congress authorized President Lincoln to take possession of any or all telegraph lines in the country and place them under military control. The administration did no such thing, instead expanding the power of the civilian managers.

On February 26, 1862, the new Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, reorganized the agency as the United States Military Telegraph; Stager became the Superintendent in charge of lines and offices. He was given full authority over the construction of military lines,


Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War  (v.2), Plate 62, U.S. Military Telegraph Construction Corps.

purchase of material, and appointment and removal of officers and operators.  No Army officer, even a general in the field, could interfere in any way with operation of a telegraph post without Stager’s approval.

The United States Military Telegraph was dissolved in February 1866, and Stager returned to Western Union, which had grown into a virtual monopolist in telegraphic communications. With his wartime credentials, Stager promptly moved up the ranks, becoming the company’s vice-president in 1878, but after Jay Gould took over Western Union in 1881, tendered his resignation. Stager was one of the founders of Western Electric Company and served as its president until 1884. In 1882, he became president of Western Edison Electric Company, a position that he held until his death on March 26, 1885.

Add Hooker

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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
A Stager

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.

Hunger on the Line

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9 P July 9
St Louis  “ 9
Maj Eckert
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
Capt &c

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.

Garden Disfiguring Telegraph Poles

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6.00P July 25
Fort Corcoran July 25
Maj Eckert
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
that account
Very Respy
WC Barron

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.

Abraham Lincoln and the Telegraph

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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.

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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.

Family Drama

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11 10 July 10
Pt Lookout
Maj. T.T. Eckert
Strictly private. Family matters
require my immediate attention at home
for a few days if not attended to at
once I am utterly destroyed. I
beg of you to relieve me a day or
so that I may go and save my
children. I am about being crushed
by one that has always professed to
be my friend but now is about to
accomplish his long cherished
design Respy
J.W. Carver

You know that one friend you have who is really melodramatic? Well, they have nothing on J.W. Carver. Of course, it is entirely possible that some heartless cad had been insinuating himself into Carver’s life so that he could ruin his family, but who knows? One of the problems with this project is that we only get glimpses into peoples’ lives, and sometimes we want to know more. What do you think happened to the Carver family?