Abraham Lincoln and the Telegraph

Interest in Technology Helped Lincoln Command the Military During the Civil War

Artist's depiction of Lincoln in the War Department telegraph office.
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President Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph extensively during the Civil War, and was known to spend many hours in a small telegraph office set up in the War Department building near the White House.

Lincoln's telegrams to generals in the field were a turning point in military history, as they marked the first time a commander in chief could communicate, practically in real time, with his commanders.

And as Lincoln was always a skillful politician, he recognized the great value of the telegraph in spreading information from the army in the field to the public in the North. In at least one instance, Lincoln personally interceded to make sure a newspaperman had access to telegraph lines so a dispatch about action in Virginia could appear in the New York Tribune.

Besides having an immediate influence on the actions of the Union Army, the telegrams sent by Lincoln also provide a fascinating record of his wartime leadership. The texts of his telegrams, some of which he wrote out for the transmitting clerks, still exist in the National Archives and have been used by researchers and historians.

Lincoln's Interest in Techology

Lincoln was self-educated and always highly inquisitive, and, like many people of his era, he had a keen interest in emerging technology. He followed the news of new inventions. And he was the only American president to obtain a patent, for a device he designed to assist riverboats to cross sandbars.

When the telegraph changed communication in America in the 1840s, Lincoln would certainly have read about those advances. It's likely he knew about the wonders of the telegraph from newspaper articles he read in Illinois before any telegraph wires had reached that far west.

When the telegraph started to become common through the settled parts of the nation, including his native Illinois, Lincoln would have had some contact with the technology. As a lawyer working for railroad companies, Lincoln would have been a sender and receiver of telegraph messages.

One of the men who would serve as a government telegraph operator during the Civil War, Charles Tinker, had done the same job in civilian life at a hotel in Pekin, Illinois. He later recalled that in the spring of 1857 he chanced to meet Lincoln, who was in town on business related to his legal practice.

Tinker recalled that Lincoln had watched him sending messages by tapping the telegraph key and writing down incoming messages he converted from Morse code. Lincoln asked him to explain how the apparatus worked. Tinker recalled going into considerable detail, describing even the batteries and electrical coils as Lincoln listened intently.

During the campaign of 1860, Lincoln learned he had won the Republican nomination and later the presidency via telegraph messages which arrived in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. So by the time he moved to Washington to take up residence in the White House he was not only aware of how the telegraph worked, but he recognized its great usefulness as a communication tool.

The Military Telegraph System

Four telegraph operators were recruited for government service in late April 1861, soon after the attack on Fort Sumter. The men had been employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and were enlisted because Andrew Carnegie, the future industrialist, was an executive of the railroad who had been pressed into government service and ordered to create a military telegraph network.

One of the young telegraph operators, David Homer Bates, wrote a fascinating memoir, Lincoln In the Telegraph Office, decades later.

Lincoln In the Telegraph Office

For the first year of the Civil War, Lincoln was barely involved with the military's telegraph office. But in the late spring of 1862 he began to use the telegraph to give orders to his officers. The Army of the Potomac was becoming bogged down during General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, Lincoln's frustration with his commander may have moved him to establish faster communication with the front.

During the summer of 1862 Lincoln took up the habit he followed for the rest of the war: he would often visit the War Department telegraph office, spending long hours sending dispatches and waiting for responses.

Lincoln developed a warm rapport with the young telegraph operators. And he found the telegraph office a useful retreat from the much busier White House. One of his constant complaints about the White House was that job seekers and various political figures wanting favors would descend upon him. In the telegraph office he could hide away and concentrate on the serious business of conducting the war.

According to David Homer Bates, Lincoln wrote the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation at a desk in the telegraph office in 1862. The relatively secluded space gave him solitude to gather his thoughts. He would spend entire afternoons drafting one of the most historic documents of his presidency.

The Telegraph Influenced Lincoln's Style of Command

While Lincoln was able to communicate fairly quickly with his generals, his use of communication was not always a happy experience. He began to feel that General George McClellan was not always being open and honest with him. And the nature of McClellan's telegrams may have led to the crisis of confidence that led Lincoln to relieve him of command following the Battle of Antietam.

By contrast, Lincoln seemed to have a good rapport via telegram with General Ulysses S. Grant. Once Grant was in command of the army, Lincoln communicated with him extensively via telegraph. Lincoln trusted Grant's messages, and he found that orders sent to Grant were followed.

The Civil War had to be won, of course, on the battlefield. But the telegraph, especially the way it was used by President Lincoln, did have an effect on the outcome.

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McNamara, Robert. "Abraham Lincoln and the Telegraph." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-and-the-telegraph-1773568. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Abraham Lincoln and the Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-and-the-telegraph-1773568 McNamara, Robert. "Abraham Lincoln and the Telegraph." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abraham-lincoln-and-the-telegraph-1773568 (accessed June 2, 2023).