By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Washington, April 30, 1864
Lieutenant General Grant.
Not expecting to see you again
before the Spring Campaign opens, I wish to express,
in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have
done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The
particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to
know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleas=
ed with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints
or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that
any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great
numbers, shall be avoided, I know these points
are less likely to escape your attention than they would
be mine. If there is anything wanting which is with=
in my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may
God sustain you.
Yours very truly
The Civil War, born of a grave constitutional crisis over slavery, tested many provisions of the Constitution that hitherto had remained mere abstractions. One of these was Article II Section 2 which proclaimed the President “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”
The extent of these powers was unclear and was subject of fierce debates, most famously those over the constitutionality of suspension of the writ of habeas corpus or emancipate the enemy slaves by means of a presidential proclamation. It was also unclear to what extent commander-in-chief should be involved in the actual business of commanding the army and navy.
On April 30, 1864, as Ulysses S. Grant was preparing to embark on what would become the bloodiest campaign of the war, the President wrote the above letter to the newly appointed Lieutenant General–a title that only George Washington had borne before.
Lincoln, acutely aware of his lack of military experience, generally refrained from giving orders. He left the planning, and the follow through, of the campaign in Grant’s hands, much as he had done with other generals. And many times had Lincoln been disappointed and frustrated by their performance. This time, however, he had found the correct general. Grant devised a campaign in the Spring of 1864 that would lead to the final collapse of the Confederacy a year later.
Wash’n Jan’y 27th /63
Enter the name of Joseph
Hooker cipher the bottom word
on page ten of no
nine to Borgia and berry
are the arbitrary words given
Sometimes changes to codebooks required entirely new printings, but occasionally the cipher clerks would only need to add a single entry. In the case of General Joseph Hooker, this late addition may have occurred because he was not commissioned immediately at the start of the war, and only rose to prominence during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
9 P July 9
St Louis “ 9
Our Operator and repairer at
Bloomfield are refused rations this
month on my requisition on the
ground that an order been rec’d
from the Comdg Genl prohibiting issue
to the Signal Corps or telegraph operator
it is the only case in the Dept &
must be a misunderstanding but
the Chief Commissary declines to
G H Smith
Although the telegraph system was vital to the Union war effort, the Signal Corps operated in a strange in-between world that was neither military nor civilian. This message from 1864 is just one illustration of the kind of bureaucratic issues that the operators ran into. Unfortunately we don’t have a record of Eckert’s response, but the issue seems to have been resolved, as there were no further messages from G.H. Smith in this ledger in the following weeks.
6.00P July 25
Fort Corcoran July 25
The Adjt Genl at these
Hd Qrs requested me to say to
you would you please send a man
to make some slight alterations in
the wires. A clamorous Lt Col
says one of the poles disfigures the
garden- I have received from
him very unpleasant words on
In spite of the important role that the telegraph played in the Civil War, there were still people who didn’t care for the aesthetics of the poles and wires. One has to wonder what Eckert’s response was – he was responsible for thousands of miles of telegraph wires, and here’s an officer in Northern Virginia complaining about the unsightliness of a single pole.
Fort Monroe Apl 27th 1862 4 P.M. Recd Apl 27
Hon Stanton Col Havelock called on me
this morning with Col Hicks of
the English army the former represented
that you are anxious to have
Col Hicks appointed on my staff
I would be greatly gratified to
do any thing to oblige you
It is however due to myself
to you and the country to
say that I have now several
aids more than I require J.E. Wool
Apparently there is such a thing as too much help. Perhaps the Union government thought that General Wool, as the oldest general serving on either side of the war, born in 1784, required more help than most. Clearly they were mistaken, as this message rejecting the appointment of yet another aide (this one from the English army!) indicates.
W. B. Dinsmore N.Y. March 14th
Send this to C Vanderbilt
market strictly Confidential. The Secretary
of War directs me to
ask you for what sum
you will contract to destroy
the Merrimac or prevent her
from coming out from Norfolk
you to sink or destroy
her is she gets out
answer by telegh as there
is no time to be
lost John Tucker Asst Secy
The CSS Virginia (again referred to as the Merrimac) is perhaps one of the most famous ships of the Civil War, and the panic that it caused the Union is evident in this telegram sent to Cornelius Vanderbilt, asking how much it would cost to sink or disable it. This came barely a week after the Battle of Hampton Roads (see yesterday’s post), when the Merrimac fought the USS Monitor to a stalemate. Vanderbilt responded the same day that he could not estimate the cost, but that he would come to Washington to confer. As it turned out, he donated his steamer, the Vanderbilt, to the Union Navy, who used it to bolster the blockade at Hampton Roads.