From Somerset, Kentucky, on July 22, 1862, Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan telegraphed Union Brigadier General J.T. Boyle at Louisville: “Good morning, Jerry! This telegraph is a great institution. You should destroy it, as it keeps me too well posted. My friend Elsworth has all of your dispatches since July 10 on file. Do you wish copies?” Morgan’s “friend” was George A. Elsworth, his telegraph operator. While Morgan was slashing through Kentucky that July, Elsworth had been wreaking havoc with his unsuspecting Union counterparts on the wire.
Elsworth’s task was easy enough, but also risky. A year into the war, each side was doing its best to take advantage of the new technology, stringing thousands of miles of copper wire between military departments (often along railroad tracks) and temporary lines between army corps on the battlefield. The rush to extend the networks made guarding them difficult, and left openings for telegraph men (better known as operators) to intercept information and send misleading intelligence. At Knoxville, Tenn., for instance, Elsworth said he simply “took down the telegraph line and connected my pocket instrument [portable telegraph gear carried in a box the size of an eyeglass case] for the purpose of taking off all dispatches as they passed through.”
Soldiers may not always have known what to make of these men, with their queer equipment and the buzzing wires that followed them. But the life of an operator was a thankless and often dangerous one. Allowed more freedom and flexibility in their work than most servicemen (telegraph men were occasionally known to edit messages), each operator had the added responsibility of understanding and keeping secret the cipher employed by his side. The Northern telegraph men were officially civilian employees of the Quartermaster Department working either for the Military Telegraph or the Signal Corps, while their Southern counterparts worked under the Confederacy’s Secret Service department. Neither side’s operators were accorded the recognition, pay or pensions of soldiers.
Lacking the equipment available to Yankee operators, Confederate telegraph men worked at a disadvantage. With the exception of the Beardslee magneto-electric telegraph instrument used by the Union Signal Corps in 1862-63, each side counted on heavy, battery-powered Morse telegraph instruments carried in wagons to send signals. Early in the war, U.S. Signal Corps Superintendent Alfred Myer perfected a signal train consisting of two wagons, five miles of wire and two telegraph instruments. Setting up in one position, operators would string lines from a contraption secured to a horse or mule several miles away to a second instrument. The wire often rambled through bushes or ran along the ground until operators could prop it up with pikes. Initially formed from exposed copper that was prone to snapping, wires were eventually insulated with rubber sheathing strong enough to occasionally trip up unwary soldiers.
Establishing communications at the front, getting messages off behind a retreat or venturing into strange territory to repair a line (often at night) left operators exposed to bullets, capture or worse. While ticking off play-by-play coverage of the Rebel ironclad Virginia’s March 8, 1862, rampage through Hampton Roads, for example, operator George Cowlam was forced to duck crashing shells and flying debris in his Newport News station. “There goes a shell through this shanty,” Cowlam reported at one point. “That one knocked my bunk away,” he added later. Rushing to repair a downed line on the Peninsula, Union operator J.D. Lathrop reportedly “trod on a buried torpedo, which exploded, tearing a leg almost off and otherwise injuring him.” Lathrop’s subsequent death added to a 10 percent casualty rate among telegraph men—a rate similar to that of the infantry.
Writing with perhaps understandable magniloquence, Colonel Anson Stager—the assistant quartermaster and superintendent of the U.S. Military Telegraph—summed up the state of the telegraph and the operators in mid-1863: “The public mind has but a faint conception of the magnitude of the uses of the army telegraph. Follow the army where [you] may, there also you will find the telegraph exercising its vigilance and its protection over the surrounding camps. At the foremost picket-posts, in the rifle-pits, and in the advance parallels, at any hour of the day or the night, you can listen to the mysterious yet intellectual click of the telegraph instrument.”
Originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.