Tag Archive | telegraph

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.

Coded Nonsense

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The Bethune desires that you
will prepare to tablet Whack Tappan and
at all hazards make a Pigeon raid
to break the Saginaw at or near
Kiss and at such other places as
may be practicable period

Project member Daniel Stowell recently pointed out to me the amusing and nonsensical statements that often result from text being encoded. It makes sense, of course, since a word substitution code is supposed to confound readers who don’t have the codebook, but sometimes the messages end up sounding like 19th century Mad Libs. We’ll be posting some of these over on Twitter, so be sure to follow along. And if you come across any #19thcentmadlibs while you’re transcribing telegrams, please share them!

Daniel Stowell is Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

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.

Anatomy of a Telegram

The heart of Decoding the Civil War is the 15,971 telegrams in the Thomas T. Eckert Papers at the Huntington Library. These telegrams were written in 35 large ledgers, and range from short-a single sentence-to very long-5 or more pages. Typically a message is six or eight lines long, written in five to eight columns. The columns were necessary for the encoding and decoding of the message which required scrambling the message by routing up and down columns. In addition there needed to be an equal number of words per line.

Below is a typical example:


Most telegrams contain the time received, date, and origin of the telegram at the top of the message. In the yellow box is a message that was actually transmitted via the telegraph. The recipient, in this case General Meade, is usually named at the beginning of the message in the first line, and the sender, D.N. Couch, at the end. The time the message was sent is also in the first line, following the recipient; 9:30 am in this case. Note that if a telegram is in code the time comes before the recipient, as well as the location where the message was written.  There are “null” words after the sender’s signature, “the End”, in this instance, as each line needed to have the same number of words. This example also includes two addenda, “give a Copy of this to SecWar” and “Sent to Fredk & Balto 1:30 PM”. An addendum is less common, and usually contains instructions to send the telegram on to some other party or to make a copy–in this case both.

Some of the messages are in code. If we are lucky, the code number is written above the message, but in most cases we are not so fortunate. In some cases the name of the operator is attached at the bottom of the telegram; many have “Sheldon” some “Eckert”. In other cases there will be “Maj. Eckert” or “Col. Stager” at the top of the messages. This may have meant that a copy was to be kept by these men, or that the message was to be routed to them. The message below is an example of a coded text:

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The message translates, using Cipher Book 9, into the following plain text, with the arbitraries replaced in green:

Ft. Monroe July 1st [1863]

Maj. Eckert

W H July first 8 A.M. to H.W. Halleck I have sent General Getty today with a cavalry artillery and infantry force to Hanover County with the hope of destroying the railroad bridge of the Salisbury and Fredericksburg Railroad over the South Anna and of capture the troops by which it is guarded Major Major General E. D. Keyes makes a demonstration at Bottoms bridge also today Jno. A. Dix not much use


19 Chg WD

At first glance the recipient appears to be Maj. Eckert and the sender Sheldon. The message, however, is actually to General Halleck from General Dix. The telegrapher was Sheldon, who was stationed at Fort Monroe; Maj Eckert was on the receiving end in Washington, D.C. There is one more thing to note with this telegram. The place the message was telegraphed from is Ft. Monroe. The place the message originated from is in the first line, “W H”. This is White House, Virginia north of Ft. Monroe up the Pamunkey River.

Telegrams in the Eckert collection will vary in length, number of columns used, whether they are in plain text or in code, and whether they have addenda or not. In this project we want all the text transcribed, and the all the correct parts, sender, recipient, location, etc., identified (that’s coming in the second phase of DCW!). The key is to recognize the different parts that are present.

Clear and Present Danger

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May 4
Maj Eckert
The Guerillas
are now in sight.
There is not a
guard of any kind
left here, or near
here. Citizens have been
here, and seen how we
are situated, and have
doubtless given infor-
mation, and we will
not remain undis-
turbed tonight. Even
the Rail Road men
have been ordered to

Just because telegraph operators worked in offices doesn’t mean they were completely removed from the action. The operators were expected to remain at their posts even when, as in this instance, their guards had abandoned them and the enemy was approaching.

Telegram Tails

As Daniel Stowell discussed in his post on routing, it was sometimes necessary to add null words to the end of messages to ensure that every line was the same length. The person who composed the message didn’t care how long the telegram was, so it was up to the telegraph operators to fill in the blank space. When confronted with a message like this:

for Adam the ninth Walpole
corps are under orders to
join you the first Raleigh
are embarked ready to start
signed Borgia Lucy

the operator had to add two words to round out the line. In this situation the operator chose the mundane option:

for Adam the ninth Walpole
corps are under orders to
join you the first Raleigh
are embarked ready to start
signed Borgia Lucy good evening

There are plenty of examples of niceties being passed over the wires, but there are also some delightful insights into the personalities of the operators. I call these little discoveries Telegram Tails, and will be sharing them regularly on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #telegramtails. If you find any good examples, be sure to post them on a talk board or put them on social media!