Women Telegraphers in the Civil War

In most histories of the Civil War, often we only see glimpses of women toiling around the edges. There are the iconic women-Clara Barton comes readily to mind-and those who called forth patriotism and courage, such as Julia Ward Howe. But there were many, many more who aided in the fullest prosecution of the war. This is true in the telegraph world and the ledgers from the Thomas T. Eckert Archive give us a great opportunity to learn more about the struggles and challenges that women faced when the country was at war.

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Louisa Volker, courtesy of Louisa Volker Auxiliary 215 – A.S.U.V.C.W.

A very small group of female telegraph operators – or operatrixes, as they were sometimes referred to – have been identified and had their stories told. Louisa Volker is one of the most prominent ones, having been described at length by Plum in The military telegraph during the civil war in the United States. Volker was “a most estimable young lady” who “became at once not only the first lady operator in the corps, west of the Mississippi, but the only operatrix who had ever telegraphed on that side of the river.” (Plum, v. 1, p. 345) Later he recounts the story of Volker and her sister defending their father’s house from marauding Southern cavalrymen, while concealing the evidence of her profession so that she could continue transmitting. (Plum, v. 2, p. 218-219)

Louisa Volker received a certificate of Honorable Service under the Congressional Act of January 26, 1897, along with Mary E. Smith Buell. Nothing is known of Buell’s service; she is listed by Plum in his roster as “Mary E. Smith.” She lived in Norwich, New York, and was admitted to the Society of the United States Military Telegraph Corps in 1909, shortly before her death at the age of seventy-eight on May 24. (Telegraph Age, June 1, 1909, 380; July 1, 1909, 498)

Louisa Volker and Mary E. Smith were the only women whose contributions were acknowledged by a certificate of honorable service, but there are glimpses of other operatrixes in Plum’s history.  There is a Mrs. Palmer referred to in passing, and then there is Mrs. Reaser:

The telegraphers during this time lost Frank B. Tyler and Robert Reaser from sickness. The surviving operators subscribed about one thousand dollars for those left dependent, and Captain VanDuzer installed Mrs. Reaser, an operatrix, in her consort’s place, and thus she cared for his two children at Waverly, Tenn. (Plum, v. 2, p. 240)

A number of volunteers have found what they believe are the names of female operators within the body of some telegrams, but it is more likely that these names are arbitraries for time, as they were used in several of the codebooks. The telegrapher’s name will usually be either above the message or below. But should you come across any of the women discussed here or other possible women operators, feel free to share them on the Talk pages, where you can tag them as #operatrixes on the Telegraph Operators & Technology board.

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Time table from Cipher Book 1, mssEC 45, Thomas T. Eckert Papers, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

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  1. Pictures Please! Telegraph Operators | Decoding the Civil War - March 2, 2017

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