Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Lightning Messages"

"A little help here...."
Telegraphy in America's Bloodiest War

The Civil War was a revolution in more ways than one.  The fighting itself was an inner struggle to determine the nation’s destiny.  Yet at the same time, the war and its people were being affected by even broader technological forces.  During this time, the telegraph became a preferred method of communication for both Federals and Confederates.  Seeking to harness the influences of the Industrial Revolution, telegraphers became the first instant messengers in history.  This new mode of correspondence, employed on a wide scale basis during the Civil War, forever altered the conducting of business and the exchange of intelligence.

Throughout the 1830s, Americans Samuel Morse, Alfred Vail, and Joseph Henry designed a system in which electrical currents could be streamlined via a punctuated succession of dots and dashes.  In 1844, Morse relayed his first message, “What hath God wrought,” from Baltimore to the nation’s capital with this technique.  Known as Morse Code, operators mastered this new language to connect the country.  But as the wires stretched across the nation in this era of rapid  national expansion, so too did the institution of slavery and the looming clouds of civil war.

Communication efforts went beyond the desire to converse solely in the United States.  From 1857 through 1858, the first transatlantic cable was unfurled across the ocean floor thanks to a joint British-American business venture.  The result was an international connectivity that had never before existed.  The first such global cablegram was dispatched from Queen Victoria of Great Britain to Lincoln predecessor James Buchannan from the Bedford Springs Hotel in Pennsylvania.  Despite this achievement, a stable and enduring transmission quality was not achieved until one year after the Civil War.  In the meantime, however, Americans embraced the new communicative means on a continental basis.  By 1861, the east coast was connected to California by telegraph due to the efforts of Western Union.  Despite such growth and the need of a thorough telegraph system in the military, the process to establish one was a slow endeavor.  Over time, however, leaders realized that the implementation of a formal and effective communication system was not a luxury but an exigency of war.  

Perhaps the most influential proponent of this adoption was Abraham Lincoln himself, who was frequently more in-tune with mechanical advancements than some of his contemporaries in the halls of Washington.  Referring to his telegrams as “lightning messages,” Lincoln’s telegrams offered him a front row seat to Union successes and disasters.  For hours at a time, “Lincoln hardly left his seat in our [War Department] office and waited with deep anxiety for each succeeding dispatch,” one operator recalled.  The president realized early in the war that the one who held the greater advantage in telegraphy possessed the ultimate weapon in wartime: information.  Indeed, the telegraphs Lincoln received became his newsfeed to conflict, offering him the broad perspective of the larger military situation.  Surprisingly, the president never had his own telegraph installed in the Executive Mansion.

By early 1862, Congress enacted legislation that permitted complete government authority over telegraph systems.  The subsequently formed United States Military Telegraph Corps (USMTC) was composed mostly of civilian workers, including young Andrew Carnegie, who were employed by private businesses.  Yet, most of them realized who they truly worked for: the Lincoln government.  Approximately 1,200 civilians served in this capacity.

Such office clerks and paper pushers were not the only ones to regularly utilize the power of this new communications technology.  Troops in the Engineers and Signal Corps, who had previously utilized signal flags for messaging, began to use telegraphy out of necessity.  If one was lucky, tapping into the telegraph lines of the enemy offered opportunities of interception and deception.  As such occurrences increased throughout the duration of the conflict, more telegraphers began creating confidential transmission codes and ciphers.  In the words of one veteran, Confederates often used a code that “was merely a systematic and shifting use of arbitrary letters for real ones, as applied to words only which indicated the subject of the dispatch.”  The secret language system stumped many a would-be code breaker in the Federal ranks.  Even as John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raiders scoured the Indiana countryside in their famed raid, they tapped into existing telegraph lines to obtain information on nearby Yankees and relay misinformation back to them.

Alfred R. Waud sketch of Union telegrapher in the field.
This was not to say that Unionists could not be as covert or efficient.  In fact the telegraph became a staple in Federal Army life.  As the war was underway, even General Ulysses S. Grant recalled, “No orders ever had to be given to establish the telegraph” in military camps or headquarters.  The small and seemingly simple machine had become an essential apparatus to the daily functions of military command.  Even so, telegraphers remain unheralded heroes of the conflict.  Often facing imminent dangers alongside combatants, they were not considered military men and risked being tried as enemy agents if captured. 

These telegraphers were often a colorful assortment of entrepreneurs, academics, clerks, and mere teenagers.  One famed civilian operator was Professor Thaddeus Lowe, who sent numerous reconnaissance messages from his aerial balloon Intrepid during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.  Other telegraphers were sometimes too young to be deployed in the field.  War Department operator Willie Kettles was fifteen-years-old in April 1865 when he exuberantly reported the fall of Richmond to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  Six days later on April 9, Stanton received a telegram from Grant stating, “General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon. . . .”  The war was over, but the role of the telegraph was not.

By the end of the Civil War, over 15,000 miles of military telegraph lines stretched across the country.  In the four year course of the rebellion, over six million telegraph messages were sent.  As with other modes of industry and technology, the South lacked the infrastructure or means to compete with Federals in regard to telegraphy.  In the war’s aftermath, the USMTC was dismantled and its duties were transferred to the Signal Corps.  In the following decades, civilian and military telegraph operators played a vital role in the development of the western United States and future military endeavors.  Although telegraphers unsuccessfully petitioned for postwar pensions, many nevertheless celebrated their services at reunions well into the twentieth century, perhaps realizing their efforts helped spark a communications revolution.

Sources and Suggested Reading:

Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.

Plum, William Rattle. The Military Telegraph during the Civil War in the United States with an Exposition of Ancient and Modern Means of Communication, and of the Federal and Confederate Cipher Systems; Also a Running Account of the War between the States. Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Company, 1882.

Varhola, Michael O. Everyday Life during the Civil War. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest, 1999.

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

1 comment:

  1. Long before the evolution of mobile phones, people back then rely mainly on Morse Code for long distance communication.