Secrets on the Wire: Anson Stager, Ciphers, and the U.S. Telegraph Office
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Anson Stager was born on April 20, 1825, in Ontario County, N.Y.; as a teenager he joined the telegraph business which was growing rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century. He became one of the most important people in telegraphy, and he created the most widely used, and the most successful, secret code employed during the Civil War.
As a teenager, Stager was apprenticed to Henry O’Reilly, the publisher of the Rochester Daily Advertiser and the local postmaster. O’Reilly became involved in telegraph construction, and in the course of doing so he hired Stager, a self-taught telegrapher, to operate the lines for one of his companies. Stager was appointed to the stations in Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. In 1848, he was promoted to chief operator of the Cincinnati office of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & Louisville Telegraph Company. Stager proved to have a fortuitous combination of skills and interests, and combined his telegraph operating abilities with an interest in electrical engineering. He was known for his technical improvements, most notably a method of operating multiple telegraph lines from a single battery.
In 1852, Stager was appointed general superintendent of a company that would be reorganized as the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1854. In this position, Stager developed a system coordinating the building of the telegraphic lines with railroads. As railroads adopted his system, Stager acquired the exclusive rights-of-way for his company. It was largely due to his efforts that Western Union had grown into one of the largest American companies on the eve of the Civil War.
In the first days of the Civil War, Governor of Ohio William Dennison, wishing to secure Ohio’s border with Virginia, invited Stager to devise a cipher system for telegraphic communication between regional managers. George B. McClellan – whose organizational abilities and popularity brought a much-needed morale boost to the Union cause – was appointed to command the Department of the Ohio, which was responsible for the defense of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Western Virginia, and later the western part of Pennsylvania. McClellan invited Stager to become his superintendent of the military telegraph operations for the entire War Department; he also adopted Stager’s code for all telegraphic communications. Suddenly, Stager found himself with full authority over all telegraph lines in the region, including those belonging to his competitors.
By late 1861, Stager had reorganized the military telegraph office, and his plan was recommended by Thomas Alexander Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War, to President Lincoln, who agreed. Stager’s plan envisioned an expressly civilian company operated by business managers and reporting directly to the Secretary of War. However, the Office of the Quartermaster would release supplies only to commissioned officers. If the company remained a civilian enterprise, its managers would be personally responsible for all government funds advanced to it, a potential liability. Stager and his managers received officers’ commissions; their subordinates were civilian employees.
On November 11, 1861, Stager was commissioned as a Captain and appointed Assistant Quartermaster. On November 25, special orders assigned him “to duty as general manager of the Government telegraph lines,” with Thomas T. Eckert as his assistant. Under Simon Cameron’ tenure as Secretary of War, Stager’s outfit was known as the Telegraphic Bureau. In February 1862, Congress authorized President Lincoln to take possession of any or all telegraph lines in the country and place them under military control. The administration did no such thing, instead expanding the power of the civilian managers.
On February 26, 1862, the new Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, reorganized the agency as the United States Military Telegraph; Stager became the Superintendent in charge of lines and offices. He was given full authority over the construction of military lines,
purchase of material, and appointment and removal of officers and operators. No Army officer, even a general in the field, could interfere in any way with operation of a telegraph post without Stager’s approval.
The United States Military Telegraph was dissolved in February 1866, and Stager returned to Western Union, which had grown into a virtual monopolist in telegraphic communications. With his wartime credentials, Stager promptly moved up the ranks, becoming the company’s vice-president in 1878, but after Jay Gould took over Western Union in 1881, tendered his resignation. Stager was one of the founders of Western Electric Company and served as its president until 1884. In 1882, he became president of Western Edison Electric Company, a position that he held until his death on March 26, 1885.