‘Lightning messages’ helped Lincoln win the Civil War

May 4, 2018
by Mark Ollig

Abraham Lincoln was the first US president who used a communication technology similar to today’s email.

During the Civil War, Lincoln transmitted and received secretly-coded messages using telegraphy.

One book author referenced Lincoln’s use of telegraphy as Telegraph Mail or T-Mail.

Today, we email and text using smartphones and computers over broadband connections; Lincoln communicated using a mechanical telegraph switching key mounted to a wooden block connected to battery-electrified telegraph wires.

We are using the internet; 156 years ago, President Lincoln used the telegraph network.

Lincoln’s first experience with the telegraph was in 1857, while he was at the Tazewell House in Pekin, IL.

There, he watched a young telegraph operator, Charles Tinker, send and receive telegraph messages using the Morse keying device.

Lincoln became very interested and asked Tinker to explain how the telegraph worked.

Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1860.

In 1861, the US War Department’s telegraph office was named Office US Military Telegraph. It was also known as the wire room.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln spent much of his time there.

The wire room is where he received telegram status reports, sent messages, correspondences, and telegraphed encouragement to his generals and commanders in the field.

“Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War,” is a book written by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The book reveals Lincoln personally sent more than 1,000 “lightning messages,” or telegrams, during the time of the Civil War.

Wheeler explains how Lincoln, wanting to be able to send rapid responses to his generals out in the field, would spend most nights in the war department’s telegraph office.

Lincoln used the telegraph to supplement his preferred forms of communication; face-to-face meetings, and handwritten letters.

The telegraph gave the Union states an advantage; communications transmitted over telegraph wires were received much faster, compared to any other transport available at the time.

President’s Lincoln’s messages, converted into electrically transmitted dots and dashes, sped over the telegraph wires to their destinations much quicker than the fastest horse rider could deliver official papers.

Lincoln communicated with the generals on the battlefield in nearly real-time via “mobile telegraph stations.”

Telegraphy was the modern communications technology of the period; Lincoln embraced and capitalized upon it.

His use of the telegraph directly from the White House helped push its development and growth westward across the country.

I learned President Abraham Lincoln was no stranger to engineering and technology.

He received a US patent for his invention to lift boats over shallow waters using an expandable floating chamber device under air pressure.

Lincoln’s patent is titled, “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals.”

He filed his invention idea March 10, 1849, shortly after his 40th birthday, and was granted US Patent No. 6,469 May 22.

Abraham Lincoln is the only US president to hold a patent.

It was back in 1838, when a battery-operated, electromagnet telegraph device was successfully demonstrated by Samuel F.B. Morse.

Following the demonstration, funds were approved for the construction of a telegraph pole line between Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD.

May 24, 1844, Morse, before members of Congress, keyed this telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?” from the US Capitol in Washington. His communication was received nearly 40 miles away at the B&O Railroad station in Baltimore.

An 1853 map detailing the geographic routes of telegraph lines and station depot locations along the eastern United States, is viewable on The Library of Congress’s website: https://bit.ly/2jl1sgI.

By October 1861, the west and east coast telegraph networks of the US became connected with each other.

Tom Wheeler talks about President Lincoln’s use of the telegraph on this C-Span.org video link: https://cs.pn/2rdOaG5.

An Aug. 14, 1864, telegraph message President Lincoln sent to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is viewable here: https://bit.ly/2jozd0B.

Other telegraph messages sent and received by President Lincoln are stored and viewable on the National Archives website: https://bit.ly/2rcnSVo.

Be sure to visit my weblog: https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

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