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Abraham Lincoln: Our First "Wired" President

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 7, 2024 3:02 am

Abraham Lincoln: Our First "Wired" President

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 7, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here’s Christopher Klein with the story of how Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph to help win the Civil War.

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Send them to ouramericastories.com. They're some of our favorites. Christopher Klein is the author of four books and is a frequent contributor to the History Channel. You've heard Chris tell the story of how Johnny Carson saved Twister and how Mark Twain helped Ulysses S. Grant complete his memoir that saved his wife from destitution.

He's back with another. Here's Christopher Klein with a story of how Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph to help win the Civil War. Nearly 150 years before the advent of texts, tweets, and email, President Abraham Lincoln became the first wired president by embracing the original electronic messaging technology, the telegraph.

The 16th president may be remembered for a soaring oratory that stirred the union, but the nearly 1,000 bite-sized telegrams that he wrote during his presidency helped win the Civil War by projecting presidential power in unprecedented fashion. The federal government had been slow to adopt the telegraph after Samuel Morse's first successful test message in 1844. Prior to the Civil War, federal employees who had to send a telegram from the nation's capital had to wait in line with the rest of the public at the city's central telegraph office.

Days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Andrew Carnegie, the future industrialist who at the time was superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, sent the following order to the railroad's superintendent of telegraphs. Send four of your best operators to Washington at once. Prepare to enter government telegraph service for war. Those four men would be the first of the 1,500 called into service in the newly created U.S. Military Telegraph Corps. Using wire coils born on the backs of mules, the Corps undertook the dangerous work of crossing battlefields to lay more than 15,000 miles of telegraph wires on poles, fences, and bushes. That allowed news from the front lines to be transmitted nearly instantaneously to a telegraph office that had been established inside the old library of the War Department building adjacent to the White House in March 1862. Lincoln, who had a keen interest in technology and remains the only American president with a patent, spent more of his presidency in the War Department's telegraph office than anywhere else outside of the White House. As a president who craved knowledge, he trotted a well-worn path across the executive mansion's lawn to the War Department to monitor the latest intelligence arriving in dots and dashes. David Homer Bates, one of the four original members of the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps, recounted in his book, Lincoln in the Telegraph Room, that several times a day the president sat down at a telegraph office desk near a window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue and read through their fresh stack of incoming telegrams, which he called lightning messages. As telegraph keys chattered, he peered over the shoulders of the operators who scribbled down the incoming messages converted from Morse code.

He visited the office nearly every night before turning in and slept there on a cot during pivotal battles. Lincoln, though, had not made a great first impression upon Bates and the other telegraph operators. He seemed to us uncouth and awkward, and he did not conform to our ideas of what a president should be, Bates recalled. But the more time the president spent in the telegraph office, the more their impressions changed. He would dare relax from the strain and care ever-present at the White House, and while waiting for fresh dispatches, or while they were being deciphered, would make running comments or tell his inimitable stories, Bates wrote. I soon forgot his awkward appearance and came to think of him as a very attractive and indeed lovable person.

Major A.E.H. Johnson remembered, he came over from the White House several times a day and, thrusting his long arm down among the messages, fished them out one by one and read them. He had a habit of sitting frequently on the edge of his chair with his right knee dragged down to the floor. Bates also recalled in Lincoln that in the intervals of waiting he would write messages of inquiry, counsel, and encouragement to the generals in the field, to the governors of the loyal states, and sometimes dispatches announcing pardons or reprieve to soldiers under sentence of death for desertion or sleeping on post. Lincoln even communicated by telegraph with his family when they were away from the nation's capital. One time when traveling in New York City, Mary Lincoln wired her husband asking for fifty dollars and news of their young son's pet goats at the White House.

Lincoln telegrammed back, tell tab the goats and father are very well, especially the goats. As his family learned, Lincoln would be very direct in his communications. While generals such as George McClellan sent ten page missives, the president replied in three to four sentences. The telegraph allowed the president to act as a true commander in chief by issuing commands to his generals and directing the movement of forces in nearly real time.

For the first time, a national leader could have virtual battlefront conversations with his military officers. The lack of interstate telegraph lines in the south precluded Confederate President Jefferson Davis from doing the same. Lincoln wasn't shy about stepping in and asserting his thoughts on telegrams that weren't even addressed to him. When General Ulysses S. Grant rejected General Henry Halleck's suggestion to remove troops from the siege of Petersburg in 1864, the president lent this support after reading their communications.

Hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible. To Lincoln, the telegraph office was not just a 19th century command center, but a sanctuary from the throngs who descended upon the White House every day in search of jobs and favors. I come here to escape my persecutors, Lincoln quipped to telegraph officer Albert B. Chandler.

Telling homespun tales and cracking jokes, the president befriended the officer's telegraph operators. When news of Grant's capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi arrived by wire in 1863, Lincoln flouted regulations and bought beer for the operators, drinking a sudsy toast with the general's telegram in his hand. On April 8th, 1865, Lincoln himself telegraphed the office from City Point, Virginia with news of Grant's capture of Richmond. A week later, the telegraph office broke the devastating news of Lincoln's assassination to the nation as it tapped out the message that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote from the president's deathbed across the street from Ford's Theater. Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after seven. And a great job as always to Greg Hengler for the production on the piece and a special thanks to Christopher Klein.

Abraham Lincoln, the first wired president here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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