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How Abraham Lincoln used the new technology of telegraphy to win the war and transform national leadership.

One night two years ago, I was watching the evening news coverage of the war in Iraq. A video showed a huge headquarters tent filled with soldiers and airmen sitting at computer terminals and sending electronic messages— some to the front lines to position troops and deliver intelligence, some to the rear to bring up the supplies necessary to keep the army advancing. It struck me: “This is war by e-mail.”

Shortly thereafter, touring the National Archives with a small group, I had the opportunity to visit the vaults. Among the items shown to us by an archivist of military records was a book of glassine pages, each containing a handwritten telegram in the precise, forward-slanting cursive of Abraham Lincoln. As I looked through the pages, my vocation as a telecommunications executive and my avocation as an amateur historian collided. Turning in awe to the archivist, I said, “These are Mr. Lincoln’s T-mails.”

What I held in my hands that day was a record of the first time telecommunication was used as a regular part of national leadership. At a time when the Union cause was faltering in the field, the president embraced the capability of electronic messaging to impose his leadership in a manner and to a depth never before permitted any other leader in history. The telegraph changed the nature of national executive leadership and provided Lincoln with a tool that helped him win the Civil War.

Like most of the people it represented, the U.S. government was slow in awakening to the opportunity presented by the telegraph. When Lincoln took office, if a government agency wished to send a telegram, an employee was sent to queue up at the central telegraph office. At the outbreak of the war, even an agency as essential as the War Department was not connected to the telegraph network.

Like his countrymen and his government, the president had to learn how to use the telegraph. Lincoln’s added challenge, of course, was that his learning curve occurred amidst a military conflict to determine the fate of the national union. Time and again, that conflict would provide him with opportunities to test the new technology and his exploration of its communications and leadership powers, beginning with the war’s first major battle.

The Union route to the Confederate capital at Richmond ran through Manassas, Va., approximately 30 miles west of Washington, a railroad junction near a key pass through the Bull Run Mountains. There, on the plain beside the small, steep-sided stream that gave the mountains their name, Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell planned to attack the Confederates while another Union force on the opposite side of the Blue Ridge Mountains attempted to keep the Rebels in that area bottled up and out of the action.

The Union Army’s plan was based on the old realities of horse-mounted messengers and plodding troop marches. The new reality was expanded battlefield capabilities made possible by two new civilian technologies: rail transport and speedy telegraph messages. The application of these two new innovations greatly affected the outcome of the battle.

The telegraph summoned transport trains and Rebel troops to Manassas. For the first time in the history of warfare, troops were carried directly to the field of battle by train. After giving the slip to the Union force that was supposed to keep them caged, Confederate soldiers were loaded into boxcars. The troops moved faster than any army in history ever had; one moment they were too far from the action to be decisive, the next moment they were on the battlefield. Their arrival turned the tide on July 21, 1861.

The president and the other national leaders in Washington could hear the cannons’ thunder on the horizon, yet there was an almost unreal lack of involvement in the first engagement at Manassas. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War but now fighting a new war by the same old rules, was so accepting of the tradition of being unable to communicate rapidly with the front that he took a nap during the battle. Lincoln had to awaken him as the fighting raged.

Before the Battle of Bull Run, Andrew Carnegie, who had begun his career as a telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad, was placed in charge of extending the telegraph lines across the Potomac River into occupied Rebel territory. By the time of the battle, however, the line reached only as far as Fairfax Court House, about 10 miles east of Bull Run. In a hybrid of the old and new, messengers galloped from the battlefield to the end of the telegraph line carrying news. “Lincoln hardly left his seat in our office and waited with deep anxiety for each succeeding despatch,” recorded the telegraph office manager.

Thirteen months later, when the armies clashed again along Bull Run, it was a decidedly different commander in chief who took up residence in the War Department telegraph office. The office had become the president’s Situation Room, where he not only monitored events through incoming messages but also initiated communications directly to the field. Lincoln became so involved with the flow of information during Second Manassas that he did not return to the White House for sleep, preferring instead a cot that had been set up in the telegraph office.

Unable to communicate with his key generals because the Rebel forces had cut their telegraph lines, Lincoln opened a telegraphic dialogue with a subordinate officer that continued over the next several days. The telegrams between Lincoln and Colonel Herman Haupt were at one point the national leadership’s best source of information from the front. It was another historic moment: a national leader electronically engaged in monitoring the activities of a battle at which he was not present.

Throughout the entire history of armed conflict, the ability to have a virtually instantaneous exchange between a national leader at the seat of government and his forces in the field had been impossible. As a result, field commanders had come close to being living gods. Cut off from the national leadership, the unilateral decisions of generals at the front determined not only the fate of individual lives but also the future of nations. It was for this reason that heads of government, such as Henry V at Agincourt or Bonaparte in Russia, had remained in the field with their troops to combine both national and military leadership.

American wars had always been fought differently, with the head of government removed from the scene of battle. Had the traditional model of generals divorced from speedy interaction with the national leadership persisted, the result of the Civil War could have been quite different. Lincoln’s embrace of the telegraph allowed him to keep tabs on distant activities—almost a keyhole into his generals’ quarters—and to insert himself when necessary.

The government that Lincoln took over had not been very adroit at embracing the management possibilities of the telegraph. The U.S. Army’s major use of the technology, for instance, was for coordinating the ordering and shipment of supplies and personnel. The most notable involvement Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, had with the telegraph was a ceremonial message he sent Queen Victoria in 1858 on the occasion of the completion of the trans-Atlantic cable. After having a telegraph station set up in the White House for the ceremony, Buchanan had it removed once the exchange was completed.

As telegraph technology was incorporated into government activity early in Lincoln’s term, it was organized to favor serving the military, not the civilian leadership. Lincoln learned early on how the party that controls the electronic conduit controls both its information and the application of that information. It was a lesson painfully realized as the result of yet another battlefield defeat—a battle that touched the president personally.

Three months after the Union lost its first major engagement along Bull Run, yet another debacle occurred, this time along the banks of the Potomac. Federal troops ferried across the river into Virginia were stacked up in an indefensible position atop a riverside escarpment known as Ball’s Bluff. Killed leading his troops on the battlefield was Colonel Edward Baker, a former Illinois congressman and U.S. senator from Oregon—and an extremely close friend of the president.

Telegraph dispatches reporting the disaster arrived at the headquarters of the commanding general, George McClellan, while he was at the White House meeting with the president. Although the message was rushed to him during the meeting, McClellan did not discuss its contents with his commander in chief.

Perhaps sensing that something was amiss, Lincoln later in the day wandered over to McClellan’s headquarters a few blocks from the White House and inquired of the telegraph operator, Thomas Eckert, whether any dispatches had arrived from the front. Eckert, however, had been ordered to give dispatches only to the general. He slipped the Ball’s Bluff message under his desk blotter and told the president there was nothing new “in the file.” Lincoln then walked into McClellan’s office, where he saw a copy of the report on the general’s desk.

Returning to the telegrapher’s office, a less-than-pleased commander in chief demanded to know why the clerk had withheld the information. It was only then that the president learned of the standing orders to share such information only with McClellan. The telegraph operator argued he had told the truth while also following his orders; by slipping the offending telegram under his blotter, he had been technically truthful in telling the president there were no new messages in the file.

It was an untenable situation. Secretary of War Simon Cameron had ceded control of electronic information to the military, even to the exclusion of the elected government. A growing number of such lapses in judgment convinced Lincoln to exile Cameron by making him minister to Russia. In January 1862, Edwin Stanton became the new secretary of war.

When Congress returned that same January, it enacted legislation allowing the government to take control of the telegraph lines as necessary for military purposes. Secretary Stanton’s War Department, not McClellan’s headquarters, became the hub for all telegraph traffic. It was a decisive moment in the leadership of the war. Communication with the nation’s military forces was now in civilian hands. The ability to review developments in the field on an ongoing basis was no longer the exclusive purview of men in uniform. Most important, moving the telegraph office from McClellan’s headquarters to the War Department building next to the White House placed Lincoln near the technology and opened the door to his discovery of electronic leadership.

The cortex of the nation’s electronic information network became a series of rooms adjoining Stanton’s office at the War Department, a nondescript four-story rectangular box next to the White House. One special room, between the instruments themselves and Secretary Stanton’s office, became Lincoln’s hideaway. Only there was he comparatively free from interruption, and he would frequently remain for hours and sometimes all night. The president would set up shop at the desk of the chief of the operation, next to a window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. Sequestered in his hideaway, Lincoln would take his pen or pencil in hand, smooth out the sheet of paper carefully and write slowly and deliberately, stopping at times in thoughtful contemplation to look out the window for a moment or two, and then resume his writing. Because the procedure was for a message to be handwritten before being given to the telegraph operator for transmission, most of Lincoln’s original messages still exist.

The more time the president spent in the telegraph office, the more he evolved his use of the technology from a tool for simply sending messages into a means of obtaining a bird’s-eye overview of developments at distant points and a keyhole into his generals’ thinking. “His thoughts by day and anxiety by night fed upon the intelligence which the telegraph brought,” the president’s secretary noted.

At times of breaking news, Lincoln would hover over the shoulder of the telegraph operator, reading the dispatch word by word as it was decoded. Most often, however, Lincoln’s review of the material consisted of the simple ritual of opening the telegraph clerk’s desk drawer and reading all the dispatches that had been received since his last visit. Although a simple process, it was a revolutionary breakthrough that gave Lincoln an almost real-time understanding of activities for which previous national leaders would have waited days or weeks.

A personal news service is of limited value, however, unless something is done with the information. Lincoln acted on his discoveries in the desk drawer even if he was intruding into an exchange that had not included him. The telegraph was the president’s “big ear” to eavesdrop on what was going on in the field and his “long arm” for projecting leadership that was now informed by the newly garnered information.

The late summer of 1864, for instance, was yet another dark hour in the North. The Federal advance to Richmond had stalled, and Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant was the target of mounting criticism. Confederate troops were advancing north through the Shenandoah Valley. The fall presidential election was only a few months away. Unable to deliver either victory or peace and facing draft riot upheaval in some major Northern cities, Lincoln anticipated electoral defeat. It was in this environment that the president read a telegram between Grant and the army chief of staff in which the general-in-chief fretted about the depletion of frontline forces to quell the draft riots.

The telegraph clerk’s drawer having provided a window into Grant’s concerns, Lincoln used the same messenger to interpose himself, share his resolve and allay the commanding general’s concerns: “I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible.” It was as good as walking into Grant’s headquarters, sizing up the general’s state of mind and responding through conversation. The very phrase “hold on with a bull-dog grip” even resembles a verbal repartee more than a through-channels dispatch.

Grant’s response proved the value of Lincoln’s intercession. As he put down Lincoln’s telegram, the general, who had been beleaguered by criticism that even called him a butcher for pursuing strategies that Lincoln endorsed, laughed out loud and exclaimed to those around him, “The president has more nerve than any of his advisers.” Grant was correct in his observation, of course. More important, however, Grant had just held in his hands Lincoln’s implement for reinforcing his resolve and making sure that neither distance nor intermediaries diffused the president’s leadership.

As the president grew to appreciate its capabilities, the telegraph became a surrogate for the transactional give-and-take of a face-to-face discussion. Lincoln could not walk into a general’s tent the way he walked into Washington offices, so he used the telegraph to establish a virtual conversation. While, for the most part, the president continued to transmit official orders through the chain of command, he used his own electronic messages to add color, substance and animation to those orders. His telegrams to generals in the field added flesh to the bones of the official dispatches much as one would do in a one-on-one conversation.

As Robert E. Lee’s Confederates maneuvered in the early summer of 1863 toward what ultimately would be the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln electronically dialogued with Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker commanding the Army of the Potomac. Only a month before, Hooker had been humiliated by Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville. On June 5, the general had telegraphed the president, ostensibly to clarify his overall orders but actually to float a trial balloon proposing that he attack the forces left behind by Lee. Lincoln quickly responded and spoke to Hooker in a colloquial manner that could leave no doubt as to the commander in chief’s opinion about his general’s proposal: “Yours of today received an hour ago…. I have but one idea which I think worth suggesting to you, and that is in case you find Lee coming to the North of the Rappahannock, I would by no means cross to the South of it….In one word, I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence, and liable to be torn by dogs, front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way and kick the other.”

Five days later, Hooker again floated a new idea via telegram addressed to “His Excellency The President of the United States.” This time he wanted to move south and attack the Confederate capital. Hooker’s telegram, sent at 2:30 p.m. on June 10, was replied to by Lincoln at 6:40 the same day. Again, the president conversationally conveyed to Hooker what he felt were the errors in the general’s judgment and reminded his commander as to the objective of the Army: “If left to me, I would not go South of the Rappahannock, upon Lee’s moving North of it…I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point [emphasis in original].”

The spirits of leaders past must have looked on Abraham Lincoln with envy as he transposed the techniques of face-to-face dialogue into electronic exchanges that imposed his will onto the decision making of distant generals as though he was with them in the field.

Today we often see photographs of the president in the White House Situation Room dealing with commanders in the field through communications technologies that, themselves, are derivative of the telegraph. That such instantaneous communications are such a common occurrence in our lives makes it difficult for us to appreciate just how foreign the idea was in the mid-19th century. Abraham Lincoln could look to no other national leader’s use of the telegraph for guidance. Without text or tutor the rail-splitter from the prairie applied his early-adopter instincts to the new electronic technology. In the process he transformed the nature of leadership and built the modern electronic leadership model.


This article is adapted from Mr. Lincoln’s T-mails by Tom Wheeler. Copyright©2006 by Tom Wheeler. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.