4:20 P April 1
The Magruder msg come from
Montreal by the Canada line, to Portland –
here is the reply.
You will see it is a Naval
Halifax Commodore G.A. Magruder
Montreal – I sail today for St. Thomas
arrives in Havana the fifteenth (15) or twentieth
(20) Expect to meet you. Letters not recd
(signed) G.A. Magruder Jr.
It is probable that neither of these parties
are aware that the telegraph line runs
through W.U. Territory & an international
question of great interest to telegraph companies
may be involved in this case.
The message is retained at Portland subject
to order of the Dept, or Gen Dix.
If referred to him. I Conjecture that young
Magruder is bearer of dispatches from
abroad. I have sent to Halifax to make
certain whether the word “expect” is correctly
written, It may have been expected to meet you.
What do you do when an enemy communication just falls into your lap?
On March 31, 1864, a puzzled Edward S. Sanford sent a message from the New York office of the American Telegraph Company. The Company’s office in Portland, Maine had received a telegram addressed to “Maj. G.A. Magruder at Halifax.” The sender was Commodore George Allan Magruder (1800-1871), the former chief of the U.S. Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography of the Navy Department who lived in Montreal ever since he resigned from the service in April 1861. The recipient was his son and namesake, Major George Allan Magruder, Jr., (b. 1842), a Confederate officer on the staff of his uncle, John Bankhead Magruder. Since October 1863, the younger Magruder acted as a special envoy of the Confederate State Department and carried diplomatic dispatches to Europe and Cuba.
How did a message sent from Montreal to Halifax end up in Portland? Sanford thought “it was not sent by Magruder in person but brought to Portland by some one [who] had orders to forward from first telegraph station.” This theory fell through the next day, when the Maine operator received the response. Magruder informed his father that he was about to sail for St. Thomas, to arrive in Havana in two to three weeks, adding that he had received no letters.
Sanford shouldn’t have been so puzzled. Right before the war, his own company, the American Telegraph Company had engineered a long-term lease of two major Canadian companies, the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph lines, thus linking Nova Scotia and Maine. Apparently, the Magruders used the Nova Scotia company unaware that it was operated by Sanford’s outfit.
The messages were not intercepted. Neither the USMT nor Sanford, who was serving as “military supervisor of telegraphic messages,” had anything to do with obtaining this piece of intelligence. It’s just sort of wandered into an office of a private commercial telegraph line.
The realities of the Civil War often run contrary to our ideas of what war-time communication lines are supposed to be. There was, of course, no unified system of military telegraph. In February 1862, Congress had authorized President Lincoln to “take possession of any or all the telegraph lines in the United States, their offices and appurtenances.” The Lincoln administration did no such thing. Instead, the War Department created what historian Joshua D. Wolff called “a mixed military economy” which relied on private contractors and “public enterprises.” (Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845-1893 (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
The system created numerous problems. The USMT leadership retained their positions of executives of communications companies, raising suspicions about a conflict of interest. The leadership of Western Union and the American Telegraph Company painted themselves as selfless patriots. The reality was more complicated: serving as government officials while overseeing their own businesses, the companies’ managers not only turned the United States government into their customer, but also harnessed the military necessity to extract the unprecedented level of protection, public funding, and material support.
The overlapping commitments more or less erased the boundaries between public service and private interest. For example, Stanton’s directives that military supervisors did not interfere with “private business” could jeopardize military secrecy, as with no provisions for an eventuality of said business located in a border or even a Confederate state.
As it turned out, it was also possible that an American commercial company could transmit messages sent and received abroad. No wonder Sanford was stumped. There was neither precedent nor proper chain of command. Eckert was to contact Charles A. Dana, newly appointed Assistant Secretary of War, to find out “to whom we can refer similar cases when they require alert action.”
There were also international implications to think about. Was it legal for a party in a civil war to intercept messages originating in another sovereign nation, especially if such intercept was done by a private company? With some relief, Sanford remarked that because it was “probable that neither of these parties are aware that the telegraph line runs through W.U. [Western Union] Territory,” an “international question of great interest to telegraph companies may be invalid in this case.” (Western Union did not have any holdings in Canada). In other words, finders keepers.
Hurrah for our volunteer JustStardust for spotting this!
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. The Huntington Library.
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History, Huntington Library.
From Washington May 11th 5 P.M.
4 PM. Butterfield About what
distance is it from
from the Observatory, we stopped
at last Thursday to
to the line of Enemys
you ranged the glass upon for me
Lincoln Honest Old Abraham
Quite a few telegrams in the Eckert ledgers have little messages from operators that filled up empty spaces at the end of the last line. Most of these notes are greetings of various degrees of jocularity (“wake up Charles!”), brief remarks about the ever so popular subject of the weather (“hot here” in the telegram on this page), reports of incidents (“Lawrence lost his cap”), observations the fighting, which often read like weather reports, or market tips. This telegram ends with a breathless tribute to Lincoln.
The telegram is part of the ledger EC 23 which comprises messages, mostly in cipher, sent from the War Department to the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and Fortress Monroe during the disastrous battle of Chancellorsville (1863, Apr. 30 – May 6), and its immediate aftermath.
The disaster was in large part caused by a breakdown in communications. Hooker’s battle plan hinged on complex system on the telegraph and flag signaling, which, ideally, would provide him with an unprecedented mode of instant communication. The USMT operators were to handle strategic communications between the army and Washington. The Signal Corps was charged with tactical communications between the army’s wings and units provided by the traditional flag signaling system and new Beardslee Patent Magneto-Electric Field Telegraph machines. Hooker’s chief of staff, Daniel Butterfield, was charged with overseeing all the communications.
The plan fell apart almost immediately. Beardslee machines were easily “disarranged,” which resulted in hours-long delays and messages garbled beyond recognition.
For some eighteen hours, the right wing of Hooker’s army was plunged into a communications blackout. On May 1, Butterfield dispatched USMT operators to take over. By then it was too late.
All the while the president and the War Department were kept in the dark. Hooker had instructed Butterfield not to wire anything to Washington. It was only at 8:50 a.m. on May 3 when Butterfield informed Lincoln that “a battle is in progress.” By then Washington was already awash in increasingly panicky rumors. At 1 p.m. on May 4, Butterfield wired that the army re-crossed the Rappahanock. Two hours later, Lincoln telegraphed “We have news that that the enemy has reoccupied heights above Fredericksburg is that so?” Hooker conceded: “I am informed that is so, but attach no importance to it.” On May 6, 1863, Hooker ordered the remaining troops to re-cross the north side of the Rappahanock. It was over. Lincoln received the word at 3 p.m. An hour later, Lincoln and Halleck boarded a steamer for the Army of the Potomac.
The president spent Thursday, May 7, at Hooker’s headquarters. At the end of the day, Lincoln refused to blame anyone and expressed his full confidence in the general. The War Department decided to put a positive spin on the defeat: not only “there “has been no serious disaster to the organization or the efficiency of the army,” but thanks to the “brilliant success” of Stoneman’s raid on Richmond, the enemy’s communications “have been cut in all directions.” This was an exaggeration, to say the least. The railroads that Stoneman claimed to have destroyed were fully operational by May 8. Hooker later grumbled: “I might as well have had a wet shirt command my cavalry,” adding: “ Had Gen. Lee’s communications with Richmond been severed, not many of his Army would ever have returned to that city.”
A disruption in the enemy of communications did occur, however. During the battle, the wig-wag signaling played an important role, although not the one intended. When it became apparent that the Confederate signal officers could easily read the Union signals, Butterfield ordered not to use them only to transmit false information.
As seen from this telegram, Butterfield took Lincoln on a tour of the lines of signal-flag stations. The” Observatory” is most likely the central station, known as Station F., located halfway between Falmouth and the Army of the Potomac headquarters. A notorious self-promoter and a loyal ally of Hooker’s, Butterfield, no doubt, worked hard to impress the president with the importance of flag-signals. Four days later, Lincoln was still thinking about how close the enemy lines were. Butterfield helpfully supplied that the distance between the lines was just “about two miles in a direct line.” As we have already seen, in the coming months, Butterfield regularly forwarded intercepted signals to the president. (See The Dust of War https://blog.decodingthecivilwar.org/2017/06/19/the-dust-of-war/)
But why would an USMT operator feel so overwhelmed by this seemingly routine message? Lincoln certainly was no stranger to the USMT office. The president spent hours at the cipher room, (he usually commandeered Eckert’s desk), drafting numerous telegrams and handing them over to the operators.
Curiously, there is no handwritten draft of this message. The draft of the telegram to John A. Dix, sent just before the message to Butterfield, has been preserved and now forms part of the Charles W. McClellan Lincolniana collection at the Brown University. Neither does it appear in the Official Records of the Rebellion, unlike the telegram to Hooker on the bottom of this page.
The editors of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln published it after the text in the 1865 Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The Committee was then investigating the Army of the Potomac; the heavily politicized inquiry aimed at replacing George G. Meade with Joseph Hooker and necessarily sought to rewrite the history of the battle of Chancellorsville. The telegram was among a batch of records covering Hooker’s command of the Army of the Potomac assembled by Edwin M. Stanton.
It is possible that Lincoln’s draft was lost, misplaced, misfiled or even destroyed by the clerks who prepared the Joint Committee’s final report. It is also, however, possible, that no draft ever existed and that the telegram was dictated rather than written. This would explain the operators’ gushing note: he was obviously thrilled to transmit “Honest Old Abraham’s” own words as the great man loomed over his desk.
8.40 P.M. New York. July 14, 1863
New York July 14th sixty three
For E. M. Stanton Washington We are expecting
momentarily that our Southern wires will
be cut as the rioters are
at work in their immediate neighborhood
It seems very important for the
United States government to define its
position immediately in this city and
if not done immediately the opportunity
will be lost. Governor Seymour has
sent for is to come here
immediately and he is on his
way the police so far report
themselves as having been successful in
every fight of which they have
had many but they say they
are exhausted and cannot much longer
sustain the unequal contest not less
than ten thousand good native soldiers
ought to be here at this
moment to restore and enforce order
signed E. S. Sanford burning shame
On the day when Edward Sewall Sanford (1817-1882), the president of the American Telegraph Company and the supervisor of the telegraphic messages in the United States, sent this telegram, July 14th, 1863, the New York Times came out with the headline: “A DAY OF INFAMY AND DISGRACE.”
What had begun a day early, on Monday, the 13th as a rowdy protest against the draft, had turned into a riot of mass pillaging, marauding, murder, and pogroms. The rioters, dominated by Irish Catholic industrial laborers, targeted police officers, government officials, prominent Republicans, journalists of Republican newspapers, as well as African-American, German and Chinese residents.
By noon of the 14th, the city was plunged into a full-blown race riot. One eyewitness, school teacher Samuel Morehouse, heard the rioters shouting that “this land is for white men only.” The horrified New York Times reporter described the scenes that “were painful in the extreme, and humiliating to human nature,” as mobs of “foul-looking boys and men” went door to “in pursuit of negroes, who were assailed wherever found.” At 4 p.m. a mob set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum of Forty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue and blocked the firemen from saving the building or its occupants. At 8 p.m., a crowd of about 400 white men attacked a black coachman with clubs and paving stones, hung him, and set his body on fire.
The Times reporter singled out the “inhuman treatment of the negroes of the City” as “the cunningly-devised cue that had been given to the rioters by the instigators of the outbreak.” This not too subtle hint endorsed a popular suspicion that the riots had been orchestrated by a network of Confederate sympathizers.
Another cue was the fact that the rioters set out to tear up railroad tracks, ferry slips, gas factories, and telegraph lines. Historian Iver Berstein noted that it was this assault on the city infrastructure, rather than the common attacks on draft offices or racial violence, that set the New York Draft Riots apart from other instance of mob violence of the Civil War era (The New York City Draft Riots, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 34).
To many commentators this certainly looked like sabotage designed to plunge the city into darkness and chaos and thus help the “Southern rebels,” perhaps even enable a Confederate invasion. This was how it appeared to Sanford. Reporting to the Secretary of War, he described the riots as “an organized attempt to take advantage of the absence of military force.” With the state militia fighting in Pennsylvania, the city could count only on a few troops protecting the Navy Yard and harbor forts, the untested Invalid Corps and Provost Guard and the Metropolitan Police.
What worried Sanford most was the fact that, as he informed Stanton on the evening of July 13, “the telegraph is especially sought for destruction.” Several hours later, he reported that rioters had torn down the wires around the Third Street. By Tuesday evening, as seen from the above telegram, the communication with Washington, D.C. was under threat. The lines were still operating, though, for he used them on evening of July 15 to report that he had to receive a telegram from Boston “from New Rochelle by horse-power, our lines up to that point being destroyed.”
Bernstein suggested that by tearing down telegraph lines, the rioters sought to prevent the city authorities to request troops from Albany or Washington. For New York City, the resort to federal troops was unprecedented; neither the Republican mayor, nor the Democratic governor were willing to go that route. Governor Horatio Seymour, summoned from this summer home at Long Branch, announced that the city was “in the state of insurrection” and declared a state of emergency, in part to forestall federal interference.
By the early afternoon of July 14, there was no choice. In a city plunged into chaos, the calls for “an immediate and terrible” display of federal power spread from Republican politicians to merchants and financiers. New York mayor George Opdyke formally asked Secretary of War to send what military force he could spare. Several hundred troops were diverted from the Gettysburg battlefield.
The theory of a Confederate conspiracy, never substantiated, soon dissipated, but the press and the public opinion seized upon the all too familiar image of the Irish Catholic immigrant as the sole culprit of the outrage. Even some Union regiments were suspect. General Henry W. Halleck was told that the only New York regiment that could be trusted with the riot duty was the native-born and Protestant Seventh Regiment of New York infantry. In this Sanford concurred, as seen the telegram, in his calling for “native-born,” i.e. non-immigrant, soldiers.
The New York Draft Riots that came only ten days after the double victory at Gettysburg and Vicksburg shocked the nation. It was, as Sanford’s telegraph operator, bitterly remarked, “a burning shame.”
Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American History. Huntington Library.