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. As the telegraph changed communication in America in the 1840s, Lincoln would likely have read about advances in newspapers which reached Illinois before any telegraph wires arrived that far west.
And when the telegraph started to become common through the settled parts of the nation, Lincoln would have had some contact with the telegraph. One of the men who served as a government telegraph operator during the Civil War, Charles Tinker, had worked as a telegraph operator at a hotel in Pekin, Illinois, in the spring of 1857, and met 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 as he listened to the clicking of the device. Lincoln asked him to explain how the apparatus worked, and Tinker recalled going into considerable detail, describing even the batteries and electrical coils.
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 utility 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 Spent Time 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. As the army was becoming bogged down at the time, he may have been inspired by the frustration he felt.
During the summer of 1862 Lincoln took up the habit which would continue 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. According to David Homer Bates, Lincoln wrote the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation at a desk in the telegraph office. The relatively secluded space gave him solitude to gather his thoughts, and he would spend entire afternoons drafting what would eventually become 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.