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How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Help Win the Civil War

July 9, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

Lincoln was so taken with the new technology—which he called ‘lightning messages’—that he sometimes slept on a cot in the telegraph office during major battles.

Nearly 150 years before the advent of texts, tweets and e-mail, President Abraham Lincoln became the first “wired president” by embracing the original electronic messaging technology—the telegraph. The 16th president may be remembered for his 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 needed to wait in line with the rest of the public at the city’s central telegraph office. After the war’s outbreak, the newly created U.S. Military Telegraph Corps undertook the dangerous work of laying more than 15,000 miles of telegraph wire across battlefields that transmitted news nearly instantaneously from the front lines 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.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln Slept on a Cot in the Telegraph Office During Pivotal Battles

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, writes Tom Wheeler in Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War. As a president who craved knowledge, he trod 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 Lincoln in the Telegraph Room that several times a day, Lincoln sat down at a telegraph office desk near a window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue and read through the 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 …read more