By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Daniel Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Maintaining the secrecy of high-level political and military communications during the American Civil War was a necessity for both the Union and the Confederacy. In the previous post, we learned that the Union had the advantage of a simple but ingenious system developed by Anson Stager, the civilian superintendent of the Western Union Company in Ohio. Early in the war, Stager developed a cipher system for use by the governor of Ohio and Union generals in the area. When he became the head of the United States Military Telegraph in October 1861, Stager brought his cipher system with him and used it throughout the Union high command.
Stager’s system depended on absolute secrecy, and not even top civilian or military officials were allowed to see the cipher codes. The cipher Stager developed relied on two key principles. First, a cipher telegrapher replaced key nouns and verbs for persons, places, and military terms with arbitraries, or code words, known only to his counterpart at the other end of the telegraph line. Although this technique was effective, so long as the cipher remained absolutely secret, over time, dedicated Confederate agents who intercepted such messages might be able to guess at the true meaning of many or most arbitraries.
However, Stager’s system had another key component. It was also a sophisticated “route cipher.” At its simplest, a route cipher simply reorders the words in a message from their ordinary reading order. For example, a backwards route would simply reverse the order of all words in the message, and the recipient could read the message from the end to the beginning to understand it. The system employed by the Union during the American Civil War was substantially more complicated.
The key to decoding a route cipher is to place the words in the proper number of rows and columns, similar to a modern-day spreadsheet. The key unit in Stager’s system was the word, not the letter. So, a cipher telegrapher would take a message and write it out in a series of rows and columns. If the message did not end on the last column of the last row, he would add additional “null words” to fill out the grid. These null words could be nonsense or they could even send a short message to his counterpart on the other end of the line, such as “Nab those Rebs” and “Rained nicely tonight.”
After the message was arranged in a grid, the cipher telegrapher chose a route through the grid to reorder the words. For example, if the message was 10 columns wide by 11 rows long, then the cipher telegrapher could use the commencement word “Morton” (among others) to indicate that the message had 10 columns and the commencement words “Next” or “News” to indicate that it had 11 rows (2 rows + 9 rows). The receiving cipher telegrapher consulted his cipher 1 code book and knew that the incoming message of 110 words should be arranged in 10 columns and 11 rows. Then, he placed the words in their proper order by reading the route indicated in cipher 1: down the sixth column, down the tenth column, up the first column, down the eighth column, up the second column, down the fourth column, up the seventh column, down the third column, up the fifth column, and down the ninth column.
Reading the words in this manner placed them in their proper order, but the receiving cipher telegrapher still needed to replace the arbitraries in the message with their clear counterparts, either words or punctuation. The telegrapher also stripped out the commencement words and the null words to leave only the words of the message.
The scrambling of words through the route cipher method made Stager’s system far more difficult to decipher than using arbitraries alone. In fact, the Confederates never broke any of the Union ciphers, and the ability for political and military leaders to communicate important information securely was important to the overall success of the Union war effort.
Fortunately for researchers, none of the telegrams in the Thomas T. Eckert Papers are scrambled in the route in which they were originally sent. Even those with arbitraries for words and punctuation are in their proper order, making decoding them a much simpler task than Confederate agents faced in the 1860s.
By Daniel Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Keeping secrets from the enemy is vital to combatants in any war, and the American Civil War is no exception. Union and Confederate leaders sent directions to and received reports from their subordinates over wide areas. The telegraph made “lightning” communication between distant points possible. Leaders who could use it effectively had a decided advantage, both on the battlefield and in mobilizing their society’s resources for war.
The simple substitution of words or letters for other words or letters is an ancient technique for keeping messages private between the sender and the recipient. Lovers sent messages to each other in their own private codes, and diplomatic and military leaders also sent messages that messengers or interceptors could not understand. Critical to transmitting such messages successfully was that both parties knew and understood the code and that the encoded message made it safely between them, usually by a personal courier or perhaps even by mail. The development of the telegraph complicated the private transmission of messages, because anyone along the line of communication could tap the line and intercept the series of dots and dashes that were used to transmit messages over the wires. In wartime, messages traveling hundreds of miles were often intercepted by enemy agents.
The fact that Confederates could often intercept Union messages sent by telegraph made encoding important messages critical to the success of the Union war effort. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, the governor of Ohio asked Anson Stager, the civilian superintendent of the Western Union Company, to manage telegraph operations in southern Ohio and along its border with (West) Virginia. Stager developed a cipher, or code, with which the governor of Ohio could communicate secretly with the governors of Indiana and Illinois. General George B. McClellan also used the cipher when he was leading a Union army in western Virginia. When Stager became head of the Military Telegraph Department in Washington in October 1861, the Union Army put the components of Stager’s cipher into widespread use.
The key to the success of Stager’s cipher was absolute secrecy. Typically, fewer than a dozen people had access to any cipher. These small books became the most important piece of property traveling with an army. Even commanding generals and other telegraphers did not have access to the cipher code. Large armies in the field generated thousands of telegrams, and only a minority of the most important were sent in cipher. The cipher telegrapher had to encode and decode any message sent in cipher himself. Once encoded, he could have another telegrapher send the message because the other telegrapher was only sending a series of words, without understanding their meaning. Similarly, a telegrapher could receive a telegram in cipher, then pass it along to the cipher telegrapher for decoding.
In addition, the War Department used multiple ciphers simultaneously, so different armies communicated highly sensitive materials to Washington using different codes. Only the cipher telegraphers in the War Department knew which codes were used by which armies. If a cipher telegrapher were captured by the enemy, as happened at least once, the telegraphers switched to a different cipher to communicate with that army.
Like messages for thousands of years, Union cipher telegrams used word substitution to obscure the meaning of the message. Stager developed code words for times of day; important political and military leaders, from both the Union and the Confederacy; cities, states, and rivers; and important military terms. Substituting arbitraries, or code words, for key words in a message made them difficult to understand. In addition, Stager added arbitraries for punctuation. In Cipher No. 1, for example, “pedlar” and “Pekin” were arbitraries for a comma, and “star” was an arbitrary for the word “interrogation” or a question mark, depending on context. “Unity,” “zodiac,” and “zebra” were arbitraries for a period.
For frequently mentioned persons, multiple arbitraries referred to a single person. For example, in Cipher 9, used from late 1862 to mid-1864, the arbitraries for President Abraham Lincoln were “Adam” or “Asia.” In Cipher 1, used from mid-1863 through the end of the war, arbitraries for Lincoln included “Bologna,” “Bolivia,” “Ida,” “ink,” “Irving,” “ingress,” “ingrate,” and “ingot.” Only the cipher telegrapher would know that any of those eight arbitraries referred to President Lincoln.
The use of arbitraries in cipher messages provided a great deal of security for important messages, but arbitraries might only replace 10 to 20 percent of the key nouns and verbs in a message. Through careful study, Confederates might have been able to decipher one or more of the Union ciphers, but Stager’s system had another feature that made cracking the Union ciphers much more difficult.
That is our next blog post!
12 Aug 4
Cherrystone Aug 4
Have you any
objections to my going to F to
get some more clean duds on
me did not think would be
here as long & did not bring
any with me
Apparently Operator Snyder was not a Boy Scout, because he was definitely not prepared for his sudden deployment to the telegraph office at Cherrystone.
Volunteers Wanted! 75,000 Strong!
The call for volunteers on April 15, 1861, by President Abraham Lincoln at the start of United States Civil War was for 75,000 men. One hundred and fifty years after the conclusion of that war, we now issue a new call for volunteers. Decoding the Civil War seeks to engage experts and amateurs alike, our new volunteer corps, in a unique collaboration that promises to provide fresh insights into a much-studied conflict.
Thanks to a two-year federal grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, along with its collaborators, Zooniverse, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum) and North Carolina State University’s Digital History and Pedagogy Project, launches Decoding the Civil War, a crowdsourcing project, to transcribe and decipher a collection of 15,971 Civil War telegrams between Abraham Lincoln, his Cabinet, and officers of the Union Army. This extraordinarily rare collection, acquired by The Huntington in 2012, is a near-complete archive of Thomas T. Eckert, the Head of the United States Military Telegraph office of the War Department under President Lincoln.
The Thomas T. Eckert Papers was thought to have been destroyed after the United States Civil War and includes crucial correspondence that has never been published. Key among the materials are the 35 manuscript ledgers in which the telegrams sent and received by the War Department were recorded. About one-third of the recorded messages were written in code, and another third may have never been published in the The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (often simply abbreviated to OR), and there are more than 100 communiques from Lincoln himself. Fortunately the collection also includes some of the top secret cipher books revealing the complex coding system used to encrypt and decipher messages. It is worth noting that the Confederate Army never cracked the Union Army’s code.
Through crowdsourcing, The Huntington and its partners hope to transcribe and decipher these Civil War telegrams and code books with greater efficiency and accuracy than could be done by limited staff, expediting the process of providing open access to these important historical documents. As science has extended its workforce with “citizen scientists” who collect data for scientific research, so humanities scholars are now engaging “citizen archivists.” Indeed the hope is to have done in six months what would take a full time staff member 3 to 4 years.
For our volunteers, the new citizen archivists, there will be moments where they will find a message that will bring the immediacy of the war home. Consider this message from General Darius N. Couch:
3.10 P.M. Harrisburg July 1, 1863
For Gen. Meade I shall try
and get to you by
tomorrow morning. A reliable gentleman
and some scouts who are
acquainted with the country you
wish to know of. Rebels
this way have all concentrated
in direction of Gettysburg and
Chambersburg. I occupy Carlisle. Signed
D.N.Couch great battle very soon
The last four words, great battle very soon, were added by the telegraph operator as null words. He needed four words to make the last row the same length as the rest of the telegram rows, which are each five words long. Having seen the messages come and go, and knowing the Confederates had almost made it to Harrisburg, he chose those four words. The battle had indeed been joined at Gettysburg, and it became a turning point in the United States Civil War.
These telegrams, as written down in ledgers in Washington D.C., and likely read by President Lincoln, will help us to expand our knowledge of, to provide fresh insight into, the greatest conflict in American history. Join our volunteer corps to witness the United States Civil War in a visceral way. Join us in transcribing and deciphering these telegrams and codes from the United States Military Telegraph!
To learn more about Decoding the Civil War, or try your hand at transcription, please visit our site, decodingthecivilwar.org.