Mechanics of Telegram Traffic, Getting from A to B

By Daniel Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

In response to a query from one of our fantastic volunteers, crmiller211, and prodded by my colleagues Mario Einaudi and Kate Peck, I am going to explain the process of telegram traffic. I am focusing on how message X went from A to B the best I understand it, based on the research I did for the article (see p. 4-8) that walks through the process of decoding a telegram. In terms of actual mechanics, I fear I am no expert on the operation of the telegraph keys themselves.  There are active historical reenactors of the United States Military Telegraph that might be able to address some of those issues.

Message going from A to B. Let’s start with Lincoln, as that’s my guy.

Lincoln writes out a telegram, sometimes on Executive Mansion stationery (1).  If he wants it sent secretly, he writes “Cypher” at the top.  Notoriously bad speller, that Lincoln.  He gives it to Eckert or someone in the telegraph office or has it sent by trusted secretary to the War Department a block from the Executive Mansion.

Abraham Lincoln to Godfrey Weitzel

Abraham Lincoln to Godfrey Weitzel, 12 April 1865, RG 107, Entry 34: Records of the Secretary of War, 1789-1889, Telegrams Sent and Received by the War Department Central Telegraph Office, 1861-1882, Vault, National Archives, Washington, DC.

A cipher telegrapher at the War Department takes Lincoln’s telegram and rewrites it in a grid form (2), perhaps substituting arbitraries as he (almost always men, although I know there were exceptions, but I don’t think at the War Department) does so.  He also likely writes out a separate copy on a slip of paper in transmission order based on the route cipher used (3).


Telegram from Lincoln to Weitzel, in code, Thomas T. Eckert Papers, mssEC 18, p. 323, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.


If you’re keeping count, that means that there are already three copies of the telegram in Washington.

A telegrapher sends the message, let’s say to General Weitzel in Richmond, Virginia.  As I understand the process, the telegram may have to be intercepted and re-transmitted along the way, depending on the distance, but I’ll skip over that issue for now.  My understanding is also that at least on some messages, the receiving telegrapher repeated back the message to the sender, either in sections or in its entirety to insure correct transmission.

In Richmond, a telegrapher writes down the letters/words as received (4).  A cipher telegrapher then takes that sheet and arranges the words in a grid form according to the route cipher, perhaps substituting clear words for arbitraries as he does so (5).  Then, the telegrapher writes out the message in a clear form for General Weitzel (6).

By my count, that’s at least six copies of the telegram between Lincoln and Weitzel at a minimum, three in Washington and three in Richmond.  This total does not include the possibility of correspondence logs that at least some governors, generals, and others kept of all incoming and outgoing correspondence, which would add additional copies.

Finally, a few observations:

  • An “ordinary” telegrapher could send or receive an encoded message, so long as he did not have access to the code books, but only a cipher telegrapher could encode and decode the messages.  The number of such telegraphers was kept to a minimum by design.
  • Neither Lincoln nor Weitzel would have known the exact nature of the cipher, though Lincoln certainly knew and requested that messages be sent in cipher, as did generals, governors, etc.
  • My guess is that intermediate forms of telegrams were destroyed to cut down on clutter and prevent any “leaks” of information that Confederate agents could use to try to decode the cipher.  In a camp setting, they were likely burned, and perhaps even in cities like Washington and Richmond they were burned as well.  Severely restricting access to the code books was essential to the cipher’s success.
  • If I am right about the above, it would explain the absence of many intermediate forms in the historical record.  The transmission order telegram copy we have for the Lincoln-to-Weitzel telegram about which I wrote is quite rare, perhaps not destroyed because it came at the end of the war.
  • My guess is that the Eckert telegram books are either:
    • Texts 2 (sent) and 5 (received) in the scenario above; or
    • Correspondence log copies of all telegrams that were sent and received that were entered in books, perhaps at the end of each day.



An Equal Opportunity General

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910 am  Fort Monroe Va Sept 23rd 11. PM 1863

HM_77705r cropped.jpg

Unidentified African American soldier, 22nd USCT. Image in Huntington Digital Library.

Gen Halleck telegram received I shall be
glad to have the colored regiments
now at Baltimore ordered to report
to me at Fort Monroe I need
their services Foster Maj Genl weather good


Not all Union generals were enthusiastic about employing African American soldiers – they were often relegated to menial labor rather than combat – but Major General John G. Foster did not share their qualms. Foster took command of Fort Monroe in July of 1863, and in addition to receiving African American reinforcements from Baltimore, the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry mustered there in October of 1863.

Ho Hum: Bursting Shell Cracks Gun

Crew on deck of monitor Lehigh, James River, Va., courtesy of the Library of Congress,

Telegram to Secretary of Navy from Adm. Lee, July 14, 1863, Thomas T. Eckert Papers, mssEC 04, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Ft Monroe July 14 / 63
Maj Eckert DC
From off Newport News to Anthon
a shell burst in the Lehighs
fifteen inch saxon & has cracked
it Longitudinally three feet signed S
P Lee A R Admirable Florence Cobb

One doesn’t need the plaintext to understand the seriousness of this message. Clearly a shell exploded in the barrel of a gun causing a three foot crack. Fortunately the gun did not explode, but it must have been quite the moment on board when this occurred. The USS Lehigh was a Passiac Class monitor, with two guns in the turret, the XV (15) inch Dahlgren smoothbore that cracked, and an XI (11) inch Dahlgren smoothbore, both muzzle loading. It was built by Reaney, Son, & Archibold, Chester, Pa., and launched January 17, 1863, and was commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard April 15, 1863.

The Lehigh’s history mentions her combat in June and July 1863, when Union forces in the James River area were ordered to threaten Richmond. This was to provide a diversion that might weaken Gen. Robert E. Lee’s offensive in the north. There is no mention of any gun incident during this operation, although on the morning of 23 July the Lehigh was towed by the supply ship Circassian back to New York to undergo repairs.

The image above shows the Lehigh’s crew on the deck of the monitor,  taken while on the James River. One holds a cat, while another holds a rooster.

And You Thought Lawn Signs Were Bad

mssEC_30_252 - election flag causing problems.jpg

Oct 13
Maj Eckert & Bates
The trouble on this
wire is caused by
a McClellan flag
on D St near Ninth
I have spoken to the
party having charge
of it to move it nearer
the opposite side of
the street but they
refuse or seem unwilling
to do so
C B Hayes

The operation of the military telegraph was susceptible to damage from a number of sources, whether it was wind, ice, Confederate soldiers, or naughty children. This is the only case that I’m aware of in which General George McClellan was responsible, however unwittingly. And, just like your neighbor down the street, the McClellan flag’s owner had no interest in removing this expression of his free speech.

October Surprise: 1864 Edition

HM 2032, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

In an era of increasingly high-stakes elections, when, as we are told, the greatness and even very survival of the United States of America and the future of the Republic are at stake, many of us turn to opinion polls, stats, and election betting odds. We also anxiously look at the historical precedent, partly for guidance, and partly to reassure ourselves that things had in fact been worse and the nation was able to overcome even greater adversity.

However unusual, fateful, or unprecedented this election season may be, it has nothing on the campaign to re-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Even under ordinary circumstances, re-election of a sitting president was in the mid-19th Century a near impossibility.  After all, no President had won a second term since Andrew Jackson in 1832.

And the circumstances were anything but ordinary. There was no precedent for a presidential contest conducted in times of “actual armed rebellion,” amid the mounting toll of death and destruction and in a nation fractured and mired in despair.The unprecedented war-time emancipation provoked a bitter backlash; even the President’s supporters accused him of waging an abolitionist crusade and labored to convince him “cancel his abolition Proclamation.”

In addition, the new federal income tax and military drafts caused wide-spread protests and even riots. And a growing anti-war sentiment split the major parties, bringing the already bitter partisanship to fever pitch. Finally, tens of thousands of eligible voters, the enlisted men fighting on many a bloody battlefield, were away from their districts. None of this bode well for an increasingly unpopular incumbent.

Yet the stakes could not be higher. The Democratic candidate, General George B. McClellan vowed to restore the Union under “the old Constitution,” with the states free to allow property in men, while Abraham Lincoln pledged to continue to fight for a nation without slavery.  Although Lincoln’s party dropped the name word “Republican,” which many despised as synonymous with abolitionism, and adopted the name of the Union Party, it made the national abolition of slavery the centerpiece of its platform.

The conventional wisdom points towards the fall of Atlanta on September 25 as the turning point in the election. However, the outcome of the campaign was unclear until days before the nation went to the polls on November 8, 1864.

In the absence of public opinion polls, the anxious American public watched the betting odds (most of which favored McClellan). State elections offered another closely watched indicator. Due to the rolling electoral timetable, there were a number of state elections scheduled to take place prior to the Election Day.

In August, the Democratic candidates for minor county offices and the judge of the court of appeals won in Kentucky, in spite of the martial law established in the state. On September 6, Vermont voted in the Union Party candidate for governor and all of its candidates for Congress. Maine followed suit, scoring “a great victory for the Union cause.”

The most important were Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where the state elections were in October. The results of the elections in the “October states” had correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential elections in 1856 and 1860.


On October 11, Thomas T. Eckert, charged with monitoring telegraphic communications from the wards and districts, took his place at the telegraph in his office. He entered the dispatches in his own letterpress books rather than the ledgers of the United States Military Telegraph. Those same letterpress books now constitute part of the Huntington’s Thomas T. Eckert papers.

Although the elections in Indiana and Ohio brought clear victory to the Union candidates, the dispatches from Pennsylvania were troubling. The telegraph in Eckert’s office tapped out the results: “Dist. Dauphin Co. Harrisburg 233 Dean Maj. Dem gain 140”; “Returns from two thirds 2/3 of Allegheny Co. indicate a Union Majority on the house vote of Seven Thousand two Thousand additional as confidently expect from the army vote; Nothing yet from Lawrence or Fulton.”

In the end, the Union Party did carry the election in Pennsylvania, but by far fewer votes than expected. If it hadn’t been for western Pennsylvania, which gave the Union ticket a 15,000 vote majority, Lincoln’s party would have been defeated.

Two days later, Lincoln walked over to Eckert’s office. As the two men pored over the data, Lincoln grabbed a telegram blank and began tallying up numbers. Indiana and Ohio were placed in the “Union Vote” column. Pennsylvania, however, went to the “Copperhead,” or McClellan’s column. Lincoln also expected to lose his home state of Illinois as well as New Jersey, New York, and all the border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware. This would bring Lincoln’s tally to 117 electoral votes to McClellan’s 114.


Abraham Lincoln’s tabulations for the upcoming 1864 election. HM 2032, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Then Eckert reminded him that he could also count on Nevada and its 3 electoral votes. On September 7 the constitution of Nevada, which outlawed slavery, was overwhelmingly approved by the state voters. Nevada brought Lincoln’s total to 120.  The margin was less than reassuring.

On the main Election Day, Lincoln won with 55% of the popular vote, re-elected with 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. In the end “Little Mac” carried only Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware.

A little more than three months later, on January 31, 1865, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States and to ban slavery “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Those Must Have Been Some Terrible Horses

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Jno Horner N.Y.  Wash June 13 63
For Maj Van Vliet Quarter Master
New York Horses received here from
you are bad many too young
too old wind broken strained blind
spaimed(?) ring boned and halt among
them Do not pay for them
until you have seen the reports
and thoroughly investigated Should not the
Officer inspecting be tried by court
martial signed M C Meigs General

General Meigs is letting the quartermaster know just what he thinks of the latest batch of horses he received. Not being much of a horse person I was unfamiliar with the term “ring boned”, and I still up have no idea what “spaimed” might be, but I think the general gist is pretty clear: these horses are rubbish. Apparently they were so appallingly bad that Meigs wanted the officer in charge of sending them to be court-martialed! He must have been unfamiliar with case of General Jefferson Davis, who got away with murdering another general because the army was desperate for experienced officers.

Many thanks for Zooniverse user red_mtn for pointing out this message, and bonus thanks to anyone who can tell me what “spaimed” means!

Update: the word is most likely “spavined”, which is a bony swelling on the hock of a horse caused by inflammation. In my defense, the dot that should be over the i seems to have wandered a few letters to the left. Thanks to Craig and Ray for their help!

Why Make New Weapons When You Can Buy Them Off Deserters?

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City Point Mch 19
1030 am 19th for Secy of War – Will you please
direct the Ord Dept to send money
here at once to pay for arms
brought in by deserters. a great
many are coming in now bringing their
arms with them (sig) US Grant (ahr) 12 M

With the end of the war drawing ever closer, the flow of deserters from the Confederate Army turned into a flood. Grant saw their arrival as an opportunity to bolster Union chances while providing deserters with a reason to be grateful to the U.S. government – cash. Parts of the Confederate Army were underfed and underpaid, so the chance for some fast cash may have seemed welcome.

For more information about this 19th century guns-for-cash program, see this interesting post from the Civil War Daily Gazette.