Abraham Lincoln and the Telegraph
By Daniel Stowell, Director and Editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Abraham Lincoln was fascinated with technology, with how things work. He is the only American president to have held a patent—for an inflatable device attached to steamboats to lift them over shoals in the western rivers. It was natural, then, that he would take an interest in the revolution in communication technology introduced by the telegraph.
Lincoln’s first recorded use of the telegraph dates to the summer of 1848, when he attended the Whig National Convention in Philadelphia. After the convention bypassed its favorite son Henry Clay for Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, Lincoln telegraphed the editor of the Whig newspaper in Springfield, the Illinois Journal on June 9, 1848: “General Taylor has received the nomination of the Convention for President of the U. States. A. Lincoln.” While a letter would have taken days to reach its destination, Lincoln’s telegram arrived in Springfield forty-five minutes after he sent it from Philadelphia. It would have been transmitted and retransmitted along a likely circuitous route from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Alton, and Jacksonville. The telegraph line to Springfield had been completed only weeks before Lincoln sent the telegram.
Over the next dozen years, the reach of telegraph lines extended throughout the nation. By the time of the presidential election in November 1860, Lincoln could sit in the telegraph office in Springfield and receive telegrams from states across the North, relaying the results of the election. When in the early hours of November 7, telegrams from New York indicated he would receive that state’s electoral votes, he told his supporters, “I guess there’s a little lady at home who would like to hear this news,” and walked the few blocks to his home.
As President, Lincoln made extensive use of the telegraph to confer quickly with governors of the loyal states in the critical process of raising and equipping soldiers to defend the Union. His ability to confer with governors in distant states such as Ohio and Illinois quickly allowed him to maintain the firm support of Republican and even most Democratic governors.
His most important use of the telegraph during his administration was to confer with generals, especially in the western armies, but increasingly even with the Army of the Potomac. By 1863, Lincoln could communicate with his commanders in the field almost in real time. Such access allowed him to become a much more active commander-in-chief. During the first year of his presidency, he used the telegraph sparingly, but when a telegraph office was established in the War Department, the building just west of the Executive Mansion, Lincoln spent many hours there. It became a secondary cabinet room and command post. During major battles, Lincoln spent anguished hours reading the latest dispatches, agonizing over Union setbacks, and rejoicing in triumphs.
Telegraph lines began following advancing Union armies, so that by the summer of 1862, Lincoln could communicate with the Army of the Potomac in the peninsular campaign and with occupying Union forces in Nashville, Tennessee. During the peninsular campaign, telegraph lines ran down the eastern shore of Maryland and across the Chesapeake Bay via a submarine cable to Fortress Monroe. From there, the army strung telegraph lines to the advancing headquarters of the Army of the Potomac as it moved up the peninsula toward Richmond.
Telegraphic communications allowed the President to encourage and cajole reluctant commanders to follow up victories to crush opposing forces, most famously with General George B. McClellan after Antietam and General George G. Meade after Gettysburg. The telegraph also allowed him to respond more quickly to appeals for clemency, to prevent soldiers from being shot for desertion or other offenses.
By the winter of 1865, telegraph communications had expanded even within Washington. When the House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on January 31, 1865, presidential secretary John G. Nicolay sent a telegram from the Capitol less than two miles down Pennsylvania Avenue to President Lincoln at the War Department.
When General Philip Sheridan reported by telegram on April 7, 1865, “If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender,” Lincoln immediately sent a telegram to General Ulysses S. Grant, “Let the thing be pressed.” Two days before the end of his life, Lincoln communicated by telegram with the Union commander in Richmond, Virginia, over newly established telegraph lines to the former Confederate capital.
And, when an assassin killed President Abraham Lincoln, the terrible news spread over “lightning lines” across the reuniting nation in a matter of hours.