Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts.
On 10 a.m. July 4, 1863, the United States Military Telegraph transmitted this notice:
“The President announces to the country that news from the Army of the Potomac, up to 10 p.m. of the 3rd. is such as to cover that Army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen. And that for this, he especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude. ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”
This was the President’s press-release of the victory at Gettysburg. Two hours later, Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the Confederate army at Vicksburg, Miss. The double victory of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, made July 4, 1863, in the words of historian James McPherson, “the most memorable Independence Day in American history since the first one four score and seven years earlier.”
Yet, apart from the traditional celebrations on the White House grounds, there were few signs of jubilation elsewhere in the Capital. The immediate reaction to the battle of Gettysburg was a mixture of relief and frustration at the failure to capture Lee’s army. It would take three days for the news of the fall of Vicksburg to reach Washington.
The work of the United States Military Telegraph proceeded at a frantic pace, as a team of operators were busy receiving, sending, and routing messages. On 6 p.m., for example, one operator entered a message in his ledger (EC 6), reporting the progress (or rather lack of thereof), General William F. Smith’s unsuccessful pursuit of Lee’s army.
6 P.M. Harrisburg Pa. July 4, 1863
For SecWar Genl Smith on his
march met a flag of truce
two miles from Mt. Holly on
the Bendersville road with two thousand
prisoners which he recd & sent
the escort back trusting that the
exaggerated idea which they had of
his numbers would have a good
effect he delayed his march for
for two hours as his route was
thus discovered he says with
references to news “nothing unfavorable”
Signed L. Thomas Adjut Genl
Sent to Fredk & Baltimore 7 P.M.
At the same time, another operator, his own ledger (EC 8) on his desk, was receiving this message from Dana Couch to General Meade:
6 PM Harrisburg Penna July 4,1863
for Genl Meade Genl Smith’s
advance in the mountain
passes beyond Mount Holly
met two thousand paroled
prisoners from your army
under Escort period Smith
being discovered recd the
prisoners I will send
them to Camp at
West Chester Signed D. N. Couch
Not sent to Meade. One from Thomas gives same information.
Thirty minutes later, Thomas T. Eckert transmitted this cipher from the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (Arabia) to William H. Ludlow, the Union commissioner for exchange.
Sheldon Ft Mon. Wash DC July 4, 1863
Rosetta Venus Lud-low you will
if it has not already been
done forward to Adorn by Express
the copy of Jeff Davis’ dispatch
sent him today also my telegram
of this Evening and until you
receive the Adam’s instruction hold no
communication with Mr Stephens or Mr
Ould nor permit either of them
to come within our lines period
Our Victory is complete Lee in
full retreat Arabia Bully
The blotted out “Bully,” (meaning “Well done!”), at the end of the message is one of the few signs of celebration at the War Department.
Yet the telegram showed that the victory at Gettysburg had already born results. Alexander H. Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederate States of America and Robert Ould, chief agent for prisoner exchange of the Confederate Army, were envoys of the President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis dispatched the two on July 2, in anticipation of Lee’s successful invasion of Pennsylvania. Lee’s victory was expected to force Lincoln’s hand not only in the negotiations over cartel of the prisoner exchange — suspended in retaliation for the harsh treatment of African American prisoners of war — but in recognizing the independence of the Confederate States of America.
Stephens acted as the bearer of the official communication addressed to Lincoln and intended to start international diplomatic negotiations “which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between hostile forces.” The communication was filled with complaints about “numerous difficulties” in “the execution of the cartel of exchange,” for which Davis, unsurprisingly, squarely blamed the Union side. More ominously, Davis accused Lincoln of war crimes: some of “your officers” asserted “a right to treat as spies” and execute prisoners of war, i.e., “the military officers and enlisted men under my command who may penetrate into States recognized by us as our allies.” Davis referred to the execution of William Orton Williams, a staff officer in Braxton Bragg’s command, and a cousin-in-law of Robert E. Lee, and his adjutant, Walter G. Peters. Captured by in Tennessee, while impersonating Union officers, Williams and Peters were hanged on June 9 on the order of William S. Rosecrans.
Rosecrans had acted in accordance with the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, a.k.a. Lieber Code, the first United States Army field manual, (and a foundation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions). The Code distinguished between a prisoner of war, “a public enemy armed or attached to the hostile army for active aid, who has fallen into the hands of the captor, either fighting or wounded, on the field or in the hospital, by individual surrender or by capitulation” (Section III, Article 49), and a spy defined as “a person who secretly, in disguise or under false pretense, seeks information with the intention of communicating it to the enemy.” (Section IV, Article 88). While a prisoner of war was “subject to no punishment,” nor any acts of “the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity,” a spy was “punishable with death by hanging by the neck, whether or not he succeed in obtaining the information or in conveying it to the enemy.” The execution of Williams and Peters was, in fact, the lead item in the July 4, 1863 issue of the Harpers’ Weekly:
Stephens’ mission hinged on the success of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. But when Stephens and Ould arrived to Fort Monroe in the afternoon of July 4, they were greeted by the news of the Union victory at Gettysburg. When Stanton found out about their arrival, the Secretary of War “swore and growled indignantly.” He then fired off the above telegram, instructing Ludlow to forward Davis’ message to John A. Dix (Adorn) and refrain from any communication with the envoys until he received Lincoln’s instructions.
Lincoln’s instructions were telegraphed a couple of hours later. The President of the United States refused to meet with Stephens. Stating that all questions having to do with prisoner exchange were to be resolved through “Military channels,” he added that “nothing else, will be received by the President, when offered, as in this case, in terms assuming the independence of the so-called Confederate States.” (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 6, p. 315)
On July 7, after the news of the fall of Vicksburg reached Washington, a procession with bands of music marched to the Executive Mansion. The crowd cheered as the President marveled at the double victory in Pennsylvania and Mississippi marking the “birthday of the United States of America. It was no accident that “the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal” should “turn tail and run” on the very same day when, “eighty odd years” ago “for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.'” Lincoln then added as an afterthought: “Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.” He finally delivered that speech on the Gettysburg battlefield on November 19, 1863.
9:40 p.m. HeadQrs A of P May 29th 63
For A. Lincoln Following taken from Enemys
Signals today period any news from
Vicksburg signed Capt. F. answer
it is certainly taken with all its
blank blank blank period the last
part of the message failed to
be read on account of the
dust intervening Sig. Butt = er = field
The month of May of 1863 was a trying time for the president. If he hadn’t enough dealing with the fallout from the defeat at Chancellorsville, there was a feud between Samuel P. Curtis with the governor of Missouri, not to mention a constitutional crisis triggered by the arrest of Clement L. Vallandigham, the leader of the anti-war Democrats. The only bright spot was the reports from Ulysses S. Grant’s army: on May 18, Vicksburg, the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” was under siege. By the end of the month, however, Lincoln’s elation had given gave way to anxiety: there was no news of progress, and Grant appeared to be bogged down.
Daniel Butterfield, the chief of staff to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, supplied the anxious president with bits of intelligence gathered from the Confederate sources. On June 4, for example, he telegraphed a gleeful report from the Richmond Sentinel: “The federal troops are demoralized & refused to renew the attack on Saturday. The enemy’s Gunboats are firing hot shot at the City the federal loss is estimated at 25,000 or 30,000.” Lincoln dismissed this report.
One of Butterfield’s main sources of information were intercepted wig-wag signals. This type of communication involved waving flags in a binary code similar to Morse’s system of dots and dashes.
The system had been developed in the 1850s, by Albert J. Myer who was appointed to lead the Union Army’s Signal Corps in March 1863. The Confederate Army beat the Union command: the Signal Corps headed by William Norris and attached to the Inspector General’s Department had been in operation since April 1862. Because the Confederates used a slightly modified Myer’s system, their intercepted messages could be deciphered without much difficulty.
The Confederate command relied on signal communications to a much greater degree than their Union counterparts, largely due shortages of telegraph wire and trained telegraph operators. Confederate signal men could be privy to valuable information. The Confederate Secret Service Bureau was folded into the Signal Corps , and thus intelligence gathering and covert operations fell under its aegis.
Butterfield’s men seemed to watch the enemy signal officers very closely, and Butterfield routinely telegraphed the findings to Washington. Apparently, the Confederate signal men not only provided tactical battlefield communications, but also transmitted news and even rumors. On 9:40 of June 3, for example, Butterfield reported that “Rebel signals yesterday say ‘Nothing new from Vicksburg.” Twelve hours later, news had moved on, as seen from this telegram (Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Library of Congress; Series 1. General Correspondence, 1833-1916):
Our, previously unknown, telegram uncovered by our volunteers escholzia and S.Holm reveals that there were rumors to the contrary. This is probably why Butterfield felt compelled to convey a message, despite the fact its large chunk could not be read “on account of the dust intervening.”
This was not the first-time news of the Union victory popped up. Just five days before, Lincoln anxiously telegraphed to Anson Stager “Late last night Fuller the quartermaster telegraphed you, as you say, that “the stars and stripes float over Vicksburg, and the victory is complete.” Did he know what he said, or did he say it without knowing it?” Stager replied that the message that William G. Fuller, the telegraph superintendent for the Army of the Tennessee, was “no doubt based upon the hopeful feeling.”
So far, we don’t know how or whether Lincoln responded to Butterfield’s update. If refused to get his hopes up, he, of course, was right: Vicksburg would not be taken “with all its blank blank blank” until the Glorious Fourth of 1863.
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library