Pressed by the Press

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5.30 P.M. Chattanooga, Oct. 11, 1863
9 A.M. Oct 11th to Eckert
the dispatch disclosed was the first
one of Sept 20th Gen R.S. Granger explains
that being very anxious for news
he went with Gen’l Gillen to
the telegraph office. as my dispatch
was passing through ” some portions
of which were guessed out by
the operator ” the person
who guessed out the dispatch was
Mr. Smith who informed us at
the time it was mere surmise
as he had no Key to
the Cipher It is rather curious
however that the agent of the Assd Press
at Louisville in a private printed circular
quoted me as authority for reporting
the battle was a total defeat while
Horace Maynard repeated in Cincin.
the entire second sentence of the
dispatch. If practicable send
me a cipher whose meaning no
operator can guess out.
CA Dana

The media, as it’s now called generically, has been accused of many sins, especially in recent months. Telegrams were always at risk of interception and deception. Sometimes, though, the enemy didn’t intercept the messages, but rather, the press — in the case of this telegram, the Associated Press. The AP, which had been founded in 1846 by five daily newspapers in New York City to share the cost of sending news about the Mexican-American War, soon found itself reporting on another, larger conflict, and was hungry for news. After revealing that the AP had attempted to decipher an intercepted missive (and garbled it in the process, “guessing it out” the original sender incorrectly), Charles A Dana asked Thomas Eckert to “send me a cipher whose meaning no operator can guess out.”

Say What?!?

mssEC_05_213 - message received is confusing - sarahtheentwife

4 PM  New York 7. Nov 1862
Genl H W Halleck Genl-in-chf
there appears to be some mistake
in transmitting or translating your message
I dont understand whether there ten
thousand troops or transports at Ft Monroe
or the troops only or merely
transports for ten thousand the message
says the latter do you wish
me to come to Wash or
to go direct from here to
Ft Monroe N P Banks Maj General
Comdg
Answer to Astor House

If you’ve ever suffered through reading an incoherent text message because of some ham-fisted correspondent, you’ll relate to General Banks’ frustrations in making sense of one telegram in the Fall of 1862. The shorthand used in telegrams was sometimes insufficient to clearly convey a message. “There appears to be some mistake in transmitting or translating your message,” Banks wrote to Captain Halleck. At issue was whether there were 10,000 troops at Fort Monroe, or simply sufficient transportation for 10,000 troops — a big logistical difference.

Thanks to Zooniverse user SaratheEntwife for pointing this telegram out.

Grant’s “Former Bad Habits”

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St Louis 1 PM 4th  Recd Mch 4 ” 62
No fifty three Andes a rumor
has just reched me that since
the taking of Fort Donelson Grant
has resumed his former bad habits
if so it will account for
his neglect of my often repeated
orders I do not deem it
advisable to arrest him at present
but have placed Genl C F
Smith in command of the expedition
up the Tennessee R I think Smith
will restore order & discipline I
hear unofficially but from a reliable
source that our forces took possession
of Columbus this morning – the enemy
falling back to Island number ten
& N Madrid – I am expecting official
telegram hourly Alden Clear road windy

It’s bad enough when rumors circulate about you at work, but when the boss starts listening to them, you may be in trouble! Although the arbitraries used here (“Andes” and “Alden”) are part of a codebook that we no longer have, it is a pretty safe bet that this telegram’s sender is General Henry Halleck, who briefly relieved Grant of command in March of 1862. We know from published copies of this telegram that the recipient was George B. McClellan. Andes is so frequently seen in the telegrams from 1862, even ones otherwise written in clear, that it seems to have become a shorthand for McClellan. We are hoping to reverse-engineer some of the missing codebooks by comparing telegrams in the Eckert ledgers with those in the Official Record, so this message helps us on our way: Alden=Halleck. Check!

Thanks to Zooniverse volunteer red_mtn for pointing this telegram out!

Save

What Did He Do?!?

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12 Nov 4
Columbus Nov 4
Maj Eckert
I will never forgive you
for what you did at Baltimore
David

There are many tantalizing glimpses into peoples’ everyday lives during the Civil War lurking in the Eckert ledgers, but this one has been teasing me for months. One of the benefits of having access to all of the ledgers is that I can go hunting through the nearby pages for related messages, but in this case I was unsuccessful. It’s unclear who David was or what on earth happened in Baltimore, and I can only hope that some eagle-eyed transcriber is able to catch what I’ve missed!

It can’t have been too bad though, for only a few days later he sent a telegram to Eckert that ended:

mssEC_30_429 - I will never forgive you follow up.jpg

Hope to see you Saturday
David

On Illegal Leaks and Fake News

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

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New York Herald in the field, August 1863, James E. Taylor Collection

By the time the Civil War broke out, news had become a saleable commodity, with the New York Associated Press (AP) acting as the leading broker that enjoyed a close relationship with the Lincoln administration. President Lincoln dispensed with the practice of relying on newspaper editors and instead used AP as the news conduit. The flow of news, however, was tightly controlled by the War Department: AP received only information that had been cleared by military censors.

Although the system overall worked reasonably well, there were glitches which resulted in loud scandals. In June 1862, Charles C. Fulton, the head AP agent in Baltimore and the editor of the Baltimore American, was arrested for publishing an unauthorized account of the Seven Days’ Battles which the War Department considered a serious leak of military intelligence.  Following public outcry, Fulton was released after forty eight hours and immediately published an account of his ordeal, much to the delight of Confederate and the Union opposition press.

On the morning of May 18, 1864, two morning New York newspapers published an AP wire asserting that President Lincoln issued a proclamation ordering the draft of 400,000 into the Union Army. The news, which indicated that the Union side was losing the war, crashed the New York stock exchange sending stock prices tumbling down and raising the gold. The news, however, was fake, planted by two gold speculators well familiar with AP’s delivery system. This “bogus proclamation” incident became the only known instance when Lincoln actually issued an order to suppress the newspapers.

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Newspaper cart, November 1863, James E. Taylor Collection

As seen in Eckert’s letterpress books, on August 1, 1864, AP again found itself in a predicament. On July 31, Fulton transmitted to New York a report which he had received from a source in Fortress Monroe. The first part of the report, which contained the news of the loss of the Battle of the Crater of July 30, had been cleared by William Bender Wilson, the head of the Baltimore office of USMT.  However, Fulton tacked on an additional bit of news:  his Fortress Monroe source also “says Gen. Grant has arrived from City Point at 9 a.m. & was met at Ft. Monroe by President Lincoln who arrived from Washington at 10 o’clock both embarked on the Baltimore & after going in direction of Cape Henry steamer returned towards Norfolk there avoiding all interruption during interview at 3 p.m. President returned to Washington. General Grant returned to army.”

This meeting was not supposed to be publicized. A private meeting with the commander of the Union army coming on the heels of the shocking loss of the battle of the Crater could be seen as a sign of panic. As soon as Eckert got wind of the report, he ordered Daniel H. Craig, AP general agent, to suppress the news.

According to Craig, it was too late, as he had already sent out Fulton’s report “all over the country fifteen minutes before the order to suppress it came to hand. We are now trying to suppress it but I have no idea we shall necessarily.” He also tried to minimize his role in the leak: “There is intense excitement & anxiety here & all over the country & the substance of the news was undoubtedly known to Wall St. an hour before we got our own report and that is always the case when there is important news.”

 


Sources:

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 91: Center right (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49338)

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: Telegraph operators, June 1865, James E. Taylor Collection : Scrapbook One, page 92: Top (photCL 300, vol. 1, UDID 49339)

Hooray For Us!

It’s always nice to earn recognition for your achievements, so we were thrilled to learn that we were 2nd Runner Up in the Public Engagement category of the Digital Humanities Awards! The nominees included projects from Mexico, Japan, Spain, Italy, and France, in addition to the English-speaking countries, so we were in excellent, and diverse, company.

Thanks to everyone who voted, and everyone who has participated in Decoding the Civil War in the last nine months!

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Prophetic words

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3.10 P.M. Harrisburg July 1, 1863
For Gen. Meade I shall try
and get to you by
tomorrow morning. A reliable gentleman
and some scouts who are
acquainted with the country you
wish to know of. Rebels
this way have all concentrated
in direction of Gettysburg and
Chambersburg. I occupy Carlisle. Signed
D.N.Couch great battle very soon

It’s well known that Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the war, and that casualties were staggering, with each side suffering more than 23,000 deaths in the course of the three-day battle that raged between July 1-3, 1863, in and near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Every conflict has its opening intrigues, and clues to its impending size or effect, because planning and strategy are essential aspects of war. Generals on the Union side knew that a hard rain was about to fall. Yet, the final four words of this telegram from General Crouch to General Meade are truly chilling. They are added after Crouch’s sign-off, almost as an afterthought: “Great battle very soon,” it closes.


Zooniverse volunteer dawnoftheundead noted this message and ended their comment with “wow.”