Tag Archive | telegraphoperators

Laughing Matter

mssEC_18_167_Aug. 26

To McCaine
4:30 pm Washn. Aug. 26th 1864
Katy Nabob The provisional battalion of Pacific belonging
to Greggs quitman which is tower upper
Attica saddling the Windsor while the Platina Andover
Panama is absent pekin has been ordered to
Blubber stop This will leave me without means
of saddling the windpipe while the paddle Andover
is absent stop Taunton Waite whites wedge that
he cannot get his whip ready to Talbot
before Monday zebra The forges coal &c had
toby sent from here I think he will
get ready Persia possible unity If you think
it advisable I will send out the Gas
Amos sligo direction of Aldie They cannot raise
more perfume prolong forth field & they cannot
go to Laughter Sheffield zodiac they may wolf
about Aldie & pick up rumors Cork = screw
Draw off your water out of town

Decoded, reads:

To McCaine
4:30 pm Washn. Aug. 26th 1864
4:30 P.M. P. H. Sheridan The provisional battalion of Cavalry belonging
to Greggs Division which is over the upper
Potomac guarding the River while the 8 Illinois
Calvary is absent comma has been ordered to
City Point stop This will leave me without means
of guarding the River while the 8 Illinois
is absent stop Major Waite reports today that
he cannot get his Regiment ready to movement
before Monday period The forges coal &c had
to be sent from here I think he will
get ready as soon as possible period If you think
it advisable I will send out the 16
New York in the direction of Aldie They cannot raise
more 3 hundred for the field & they cannot
go to Snicker Gap period they may scout
about Aldie & pick up rumors Augur
Draw off your water out of town

On August 26, General Christopher Columbus Augur, the commander of the the defenses of Washington, D.C., sent a ciphered telegram to Phillip Sheridan who was in the process of planning an expedition against John S. Mosby’s men. Major John M. Waite of the 8th Illinois Infantry was charged with leading the force. He, however, needed some time to assemble the men: the regiment, formally part of Augur’s XXII Corps, had been scattered on all over Virginia and Maryland: six companies were assigned to Lew Wallace at Baltimore, four were guarding the Potomac between Great Falls and the Monocacy, another was at Port Tobacco, and one was with the army of the Potomac. Augur, still reeling from Jubal Early’s raid on Washington on July 11, was not overly enthusiastic about the arrangement. The best he could to reinforce the expedition was the 16th New York which had already been cut up by Mosby’s men.

As with many telegraphic communications between generals, this telegram was published in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, after the deciphered recipient’s copy. Augur


Our telegram, which appears in the USMT ledger of sent messages (EC 18), is not just the ciphered version of the OR publication. For one thing, it was sent from the USMT office at the War Department an hour and a half after the original message went out from the headquarters of the XXII Corps, located on the corner of Fifteenth and a Half St. and Pennsylvania Avenue. The message is addressed to R.R.R. McCaine, Sheridan’s operator, rather than Little Phil himself.

R.R. McCaine

Robert Rezin Redman McCaine, 1833-1873


And then there is the strange appendix involving a cork screw and instructions to “draw your water out of town.” In fact, the message offers a glimpse into how codes were modified and adjusted, which often happened on the fly.

The message had been ciphered a variation of Cipher No 1.  This version, found in EC42, EC44, and EC46, features significant and apparently recent changes. The term “commencement word” was replaced with “blind word” which indicated the number of columns rather than lines. mssEC_46_007_Blind words


As seen from the handwritten corrections made in EC 46, “the sum of the numbers set the opposite the next two words” indicated the number of lines. “Town” equaled to 6 lines, and “water,” to 10, which translates into sixteen lines of the eight-column message.


Instead of simply instructing McCaine to add the values, however, his Washington counterpart opted by a coded message involving the “cork-screw” and drawing off, i.e. “decanting,” his “water out of town,”  and added a few words at the top and bottom of the message. When the operator followed the respective routing instructions, he saw a tip to “use tower for on the Not Received letter.”  (The value of the arbitrary “tower” as listed in the code book is “over the.”)  Most likely, this message was not even intended for Sheridan’s eyes, but rather served as a test case for changes and modifications in ciphers.

It should be noted that the term “Cork=screw” is a triple play on words. The message was sent by Augur, a homophone of which is “auger”. An auger is a helical screw, often used for boring holes in things. A short step sideways and you have “corkscrew,” split in two to fit the columns. (Thank you MEinaudi for this find. I must confess, my knowledge of drilling equipment and terminology a bit limited; I was thinking more along the lines of an augur as in the ancient Roman priest. This, of course, would be very hard to code).

And another thing. Because there was no arbitrary for Snickers Gap, Va., the operator had to improvise: Snickers was replaced, of course, with “Laughter.” I would probably go with “Chortle” or “Giggles.”

What Did He Do?!?

mssEC_30_408 - I will never forgive you.jpg

12 Nov 4
Columbus Nov 4
Maj Eckert
I will never forgive you
for what you did at Baltimore

There are many tantalizing glimpses into peoples’ everyday lives during the Civil War lurking in the Eckert ledgers, but this one has been teasing me for months. One of the benefits of having access to all of the ledgers is that I can go hunting through the nearby pages for related messages, but in this case I was unsuccessful. It’s unclear who David was or what on earth happened in Baltimore, and I can only hope that some eagle-eyed transcriber is able to catch what I’ve missed!

It can’t have been too bad though, for only a few days later he sent a telegram to Eckert that ended:

mssEC_30_429 - I will never forgive you follow up.jpg

Hope to see you Saturday

Pictures Please! Telegraph Operators


Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection

Ever wonder what the telegraph operators of the United States Military Telegraph looked like? In earlier posts we have shown the men who ran the USMT,  Anson Stager and Thomas T. Eckert, and even one of the few women operators, Louisa Volker. But what of the other operators? The above image is a popular photograph of the men in the USMT, taken in June of 1865. It was reproduced in the 1911 edition of The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume 8, Page 363, which provides the following identifications:

“…The members of the group are, from left to right: 1, Dennis Doren, Superintendent of Construction; 2, L.D. McCandless; 3, Charles Bart; 4, Thomas Morrison: 5, James B. Norris; 6, James Caldwell; 7, A. Harper Caldwell, chief cipher operator, and in charge; 8, Maynard A. Huyck; 9, Dennis Palmer; 10, J.H. Emerick; 11, James H. Nichols. …”

There is a variant of this image at the Library of Congress:


Richmond, Virginia. Military telegraph operators

Identification is, from left to right: James Caldwell, J.H. Emerick, Charles Bart, L.D. McCandless, Thomas Morrison, James B. Norris, A. Harper Caldwell, Dennis Doren, Dennis Palmer, Maynard A. Huyck, James H. Nichols.

Pulling from these two images we get these close up of the operators:

Charles Bart

A. Harper Caldwell

James Caldwell

Dennis Doren

J.H. Emerick

Maynard A. Huyck

L.D. McCandless

Thomas Morrison

James H. Nichols

James B. Norris

Dennis Palmer

Finally, there is this image, which we have used in several posts, of Thomas T. Eckert with a few of his operators in 1864:


There is no identification given, save for Eckert. But now some of the other men are identifiable, including A. Harper Caldwell immediately behind Eckert, and Dennis Doren to Eckert’s left, staring at the camera. Behind Doren, in profile, is J.H. Emerick. But the other three men? Time and others will possibly identify them.


Thanks to Zooniverse users OlEnglish and absoluteforth for the idea of connecting a few faces to a few names.


The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 90: Top (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49337)

The Library of Congress: Richmond, Virginia. Military telegraph operators, Digital ID: (digital file from original neg.) cwpb 03642 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpb.03642 Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Col. Thomas Eckert and telegraph assistants, 1864, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook Two, page 55: Top (photCL 300, vol. 2, UDID 49424)

And You Thought Lawn Signs Were Bad

mssEC_30_252 - election flag causing problems.jpg

Oct 13
Maj Eckert & Bates
The trouble on this
wire is caused by
a McClellan flag
on D St near Ninth
I have spoken to the
party having charge
of it to move it nearer
the opposite side of
the street but they
refuse or seem unwilling
to do so
C B Hayes

The operation of the military telegraph was susceptible to damage from a number of sources, whether it was wind, ice, Confederate soldiers, or naughty children. This is the only case that I’m aware of in which General George McClellan was responsible, however unwittingly. And, just like your neighbor down the street, the McClellan flag’s owner had no interest in removing this expression of his free speech.

Missing Repairmen

mssEC_05_111 - repairs on the line.jpg

Ft Monroe Sept 9th 1862
I fear Ryan and Haines are
Captured. I sent Haines to repair
Line between Yorktown and Williamsburg which
had been badly torn down by
Teamsters. The line was working to
Williamsburg at ten last night heard
nothing from Haines or Ryan since
have no Repairer or Tools here
will be in bad fix if
line break between here and Yorktown
can you send repairer and Tools
by this evenings Boat please reply

Sheldon’s concern for two of his telegraph repairmen is interesting, especially because it made its way into the regular ledger books. The letterpress books in the Eckert collection primarily contain telegrams about the business of the USMT, but they don’t begin until March of 1864, so the only glimpses that we have of the early days of the Military Telegraph come from notes like this one.

You Hired Whom!?!

mssEC_26_146 - objection to a new hire.jpg

630 P Apl 11
New York
Apl 11
Maj Eckert
Norton says he has obtained
position upon Military lines
I hope you will not employ
A. A. [unclear]Lovett[/unclear]

This brief telegram offers a reminder (in case we needed it), that not getting along with your coworkers is not a recent development. Somewhere along the line Norton and Lovett(?) crossed paths, and Lovett(?) is pretty unhappy that they are crossing paths again.


Boyd is About to Get a Big Raise

mssEC_27_454 - how much to pay an operator.jpg

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.

Hunger on the Line

hunger on the line - mssEC_28_310 cropped.jpg

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.

Family Drama

family drama mssEC_28_314 cropped.jpg


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?

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

10) photCL_40_48 cropped.jpg

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.

photCL_301_019 cropped.jpg

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.

tt eckert portrait from LOC - 05664v cropped.jpg

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.