Telegraph Communication In The Civil War

Telegraph Communication In The Civil War

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I. The Telegraph and Abraham Lincoln

The urgency of communication was never much felt until the beginning and use of telegraphy. It was much easier to transmit and receive messages over long distances that no longer needed physical transport of letters.

As such, Abraham Lincoln made use of this medium described in an unprecedented manner that revolutionized and secured the status and dealings of his national leadership. When Lincoln arrived for the 1861 inaugural, there were no existing telegraph line to the War Department and even the White House itself. This did not stay for long when rapid changes were implemented. Wires were installed in the War Department and other similar key installations almost immediately (Wheeler, 2006).

The telegraph room for Lincoln was considered one of the sacred places in the War Department. It was surprising that the White House had no telegraph office that is why Lincoln made daily visits thereto (Wheeler, 2006). According to the writer Benjamin, he spent a good deal of soul searching in the cipher room where the quiet seclusion made it a favorite place for both rest and work that requires undivided attention and undisturbed thoughts on the brewing Civil War (1997).

In the telegraph room, Lincoln turned over with precise exactness and anxious expectations the files that come in for important news and messages. Lincoln patiently awaited every translation of ciphers that gave forecasts and promising information about the dragging war, the acceptance of the telegraph as a new mode of communication, the unexpected defeats and countless lives lost, the story of victory in battles coupled with the drama of betrayal and treason among others.

With the influx of messages from the telegraphs, Lincoln absorbed and pondered every vital information to find answers for both political and military problems that needed considerations for the public good. The telegraph became a tool to win the war and also they symbol of that will lead to the proclamation of emancipation (Benjamin, 1997).

II. Importance of the Telegraph Communication

The installation and use of telegraph communication was indispensable during the American Civil War. In spite of the growing interest for the new technology at that time, the telegraph' potential was received with skepticism and was likewise unduly underappreciated. The beginning of the work was not easy because it had to gather personnel to attend to its use and enforcement.

Nevertheless, Lincoln made use of this advantage by tapping and capitalizing on electric communications. This is considered as something remarkable because it is utilized without precedence and it was use in a time where war was waged in America during the Civil War.

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As such, Lincoln with sheer determination changed and transformed the nature of his presidency through telegraph communication. He used it as a tool to manage and promote leadership which soon helped win the war (Benjamin, 1997).

The turn of events during the war could be seen in using the telegraph as soon as Lincoln assumed his presidency. The generals leading the war were taken aback and unaccustomed with adjusting to the use of rapid communication that they stalled each passing time as the war raged on. Still, Lincoln was getting anxious every time messages were delayed after every unforeseen circumstance that tried to cut communications and sabotage the passing of pertinent information. Ultimately, Lincoln was soon found working first hand in communication from the front office of the War Department. As such, the telegraph was beginning to change the presidents' relationship with his forces in the field (Wheeler, 2006).

All throughout the entire history of the Civil War, there were no instantaneous exchange of vital information between the national leaders at the seat of government and his forces in the field except of the stubbornness Lincoln showed in advocating the telegraph. Usually, during battles, the field commanders wield power especially designed to decide on immediate responses against the enemy. Once they cut off from the national leadership, it can result to losses and more so in undermining the fate of soldiers and every individuals life. That is why most heads of governments from other nations stood by their troops to combine both national and military leadership (Jones, 1990).

This is not usually done when America fights in a war because the head of government is usually removed from the scene of battle. Lincoln used the telegraph to put starch in the spine of his often all too timid generals and to propel his leadership vision to the front. Much more, the telegraph communication was utilized for information gathering tool that will give him immediate understanding on what was going on in the headquarters of his military leadership.

The best way Lincoln use the telegraph to success of the Union is by taking command himself. The president would give communications and direct orders to his generals in the field. He would give instructions of moving men around instantaneously from one regimen to another according to his military strategy and tactics. Soon Lincoln's gamble of giving direct orders finally found a leader in the designation of Ulysses Grant as the commanding general of the northerners.

He continued to take every advantage of using the electronic messages. The wire was instrumental for the president to stay informed of the battle situations and continually assert himself. This was also discovered by General Grant in an exchange of messages from the president to continue the attacks relentlessly. One can just imagine the situation of Lincoln commanding miles away to order the general with immediate and straight forward urgency to accomplish their mission.

III. Structures, Peoples and Operations of the Telegraph Service

The structure of the electric telegraph operated about more than fifteen thousand miles of lines that were directly used for military purposes. It is a tactical factor in military operations that marked and necessitated the sure victory for the northerners.

The telegraph service had neither definite personnel nor corps organization. It was made up of a civilian bureau that was attached to the Quartermaster's Department, in which a few of its favored members received commissions. The people delivering the messages were employees and contractual personnel who most often than not were underpaid. Likewise, they were treated with scant consideration. For instance, the Civil War brought about many casualties that occurred in the line of duty. There were about three hundred casualties among the operators that were stricken by disease, death in battle or even captivity by the enemy. There were many victims whose families did not receive legal remunerations from the government (Feriols, 1982).

It is notable to mention that operators in the telegraph service suffered to from the natural impatience shown by military commanders that were forced to feed by this new communication that was being implemented by Lincoln. For awhile, there arose abnormal relations which somehow resulted to distrust and contention. However, while such irritations and distrust did pervade the ranks of the Union, it nonetheless did not hamper the best interest of winning the war.
The obvious defects of such poorly attended organization made it impossible for it to adjust and adapt itself to the varying demands and imperative needs of great and independent armies such as were employed in the Civil War.

Although the work involved too much risk and personal danger, still the operators of the military telegraph were uncompromising. They performed their work with efficiency, fidelity and patriotism; however, their services have never been practically recognized by the government.

IV. Discrepancies in Running the Telegraph Office

The continuing Civil War was dragging and taking too long. Soon Congress enacted to increase the scope of work being done by telegraph operators designating the Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott as general manager of all designated lines. Also, a certain Andrew Carnegie obtained the force which opened the War Department Telegraph Office. This led to a rapid importance shown to this kind of work. However, according to Levitt, the operations of telegraph communications too suffered its own setbacks (1988).

With the continuing evolution, the success of the telegraphic policy of 1862 by the government was then entrusted to trusted names with administrative ability as Colonel Anson Stager, E. S. Sanford, and Major Thomas T. Eckert. The improvement also awarded the selection of operators for the War Office Department acting as three cipher-operators namely D. H. Bates, A. B. Chandler, and C. A. Tinker who were characterized as men of high character, rare skill, and unusual discretion.

All the seeming redirection brought about by the military exigencies brought Sanford as censor and Eckert as assistant general manager. Yet, there were politics too within the telegraphic and military authority. This can be seen when Sanford intentionally mutilated McClellan's passionate message that was dispatched to Stanton in the midst of the Seven Days Battle. Another similar situation this time was done by Eckert who also withheld information from Lincoln a dispatch announcing the Federals defeat at Ball's Bluff. This was due to insubordination and prevailing resentment among the ranks (Jones, 1990).

V. Conclusion

It can be said that there were slightly about 1000 telegrams which Abraham Lincoln sent during his presidency. He kept no diaries and beside some of his writings, his telegrams are the next best thing to understand the mindset introduced by communication using the telegraph. He applied this technology in the absence of a precedent and the results were more than positive as expected. Furthermore, the technicalities in mobilizing its use, the specific guideline or training among the operators were all essential in order to ensure victory for the Union and winning the civil war.

Similarly, the institutionalizing of efficient field telegraphs had been a big help for the military commanders. As such, there were formations of a telegraph battalion of three companies along military regiments in spite of the difficulty of funds. This would just show how important communications were given as a priority.

Many people connected with the telegraphic communication lost their lives especially in the tour of duty .This involved the delicate work of repairing lines which were easy targets for snipers other than the telegraphic espionage committed by both sides. In any other way, these are all results and casualties of war. However, there should be given the corresponding reparation especially for the families of people who have been part of the telegraph companies (Levitt, 1988).

In the broadest sense, the use of telegraph communications was purely for grand strategy and tactics. The Civil War did not drag anymore long enough if not for the help of concerting vital communications and timely movements that dealt the last blow to the defeat of the Confederacy.


Benjamin, Micheal. (1997). The Story of Abraham Lincoln: The Leader Par Excellence.
Harvard Business Review. January-February, pp. 124-134.

Feriols, D., & Friesen, A. M. (1982). Telegraph Communication in the Civil War. Academy of Management Journal (25), pp. 867-892.

Jonas, Richard. (1990). The Union Military Strategy and Tactics:
Understanding the Enemy. New York: Princeton. pp. 36-48.

Levitt, C., & March, A. G. (1988). Civil War Atrocities.
New York: HarperCollins Publications.

Wheeler, Tom. 2006. Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used
the Telegraph to Win the Civil War. New York: HarperCollins.
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