Learning Lincoln On-line


The War Room & the President During the Civil War

Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton

The White House in 1860


President Lincoln perhaps reading or writing a telegraph message to one of the commanders in the field

Secretary Edward Stanton's War Department, located behind the White House, only a walk for the President.  A room on the bottom floor was dedicated to a new U.S. Military Telegraph Office


       Quick to establish a national telegraph system, but did not trust the new hot-air surveillance balloons

The Intrepid Air Balloon

Check my Air Balloon Page Here


        The President had no privacy or real security in this old building.  Anyone could walk inside and join a crowd waiting to meet with him.  He would have to greet and talk to job-seekers, government-position seekers, and people wanting solutions to their problems. 
         In addition, the First Lady felt it necessary to host a big dinner and/or reception regularly.  The Telegraph Office was a place where the President could get private time to think and run the war.

Check the Mr. Lincoln's Whitehouse site for the Washington D.C. Page for a map to show where the War Department was actually located.

       President Lincoln would use the Telegraph Office (on the bottom floor of the Department of War building right behind the White House) as his strategy, and sometimes "escape-place" to get away from the high-stress of the always full White House.  In the War Room, also called the Telegraph Office, he would receive instant updates on battles, events and other topics through his telegraphers.  The White House did not have telegraphs within it, and therefore all messages were sent and received from the War Room.  

Lincoln in the Telegraph Office by David Homer Bates, 1907

Excerpts from Chapter 2 and 3

1.    Chapter 2: Organization of the Military Telegraphic  Corps p. 25-26

       The four boy operators, heretofore mentioned, reached Washington on Thursday, April 27, 1861, and after securing rooms at the old National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue at Sixth Street where the New York Seventh, recently arrived, were quartered, proceeded to the War Department and reported to Thomas A. Scott, who had just been commissioned colonel of volunteers, and who, on August 1, 1861, was appointed Assistant Secretary of War.

       The telegraph instruments were in Chief Clerk Sanderson's room, adjoining that of the Secretary of War. Upon entering, we could see through the open door two very tall, slim men, President Lincoln and Secretary Cameron, and General Winfield Scott, the old Mexican hero, who was massive as well as tall. To tell the truth, Lincoln's homely appearance did not at first impress us favorably. We had heard of him as "Old Abe the rail- splitter," and he seemed to us uncouth and awkward, and he did not conform to our ideas of what a president should be; while old General Scott, with his gold epaulets, sash, and sword, made a magnificent presence.

       But as afterward I saw Lincoln almost daily, often for hours at a time, I soon forgot his awkward appearance, and came to think of him as a very attractive and, indeed, lovable person.

       This, then, was the beginning, and the four young operators I have named, formed the nucleus of the United States Military Telegraph Corps, which later, at its maximum strength, contained over fifteen hundred members.

Chapter 3: The War Department Telegraph Office p. 42-46

The staff of the War Department telegraph office consisted at first of a few operators only, our manager from May, 1861, to March, 1862, being William B. Wilson who in the service of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had opened on April 17, 1861, in Governor Curtin's office at Harrisburg the first military telegraph office on the continent. Later, in the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns, and during Early's raid, Wilson rendered important scouting service, carrying with him a telegraph instrument which he utilized in sending reports over the wires by cutting in when opportunity offered.

I succeeded manager Wilson in March, 1862, soon after Major Thomas T. Eckert was appointed chief of the War Department telegraph staff, which office he held until August, 1866. I continued to hold the position of manager until the latter date, serving also as cipher-operator with Charles A. Tinker, Albert B. Chandler, George W. Baldwin, and Frank Stewart.

As the telegraphic work increased the staff was enlarged, until at one time there were ten or twelve day and, as needs required, two or three night operators. It was not always an easy matter to procure enough skilled telegraphers for the service, and whenever we learned of enlisted soldiers or drafted men who could telegraph we took immediate steps to secure an order from the Secretary of War detailing such men for our service.


Bates, David Homer. (1907). Lincoln in the Telegraph Office. "The War Department Telegraph Office" p. 25-26 and 42-46

From: http://huntington1.com/ps/_decoding_the_civil_war/inquiries/i1_telegraph/i1_telegraph.html

U.S. Civil War Telegraph System Resources:


David Homer Bates' book, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office.  Also much can be learned about the development of the U.S. Telegraph System at this site.

Read actual Library of Congress Presidential Telegraphs, Click Here.

Here are questions to answer:

1.  Communication on the battlefront before the Civil War was done by what means (how)?

2.  Did the United States have telegraph lines everywhere, as we do phone lines now?  Why?

3.  Who was the Assistant Secretary of War that got the military telegraph system started?

4.  A war telegraph office was placed next to the White House.  List some of the men who were operators and managers of that first office.

5.  Who was a regular visitor of the telegraph office?  Why did he stay in it so much?

6. What is a cipher, and who designed the first cipher to be used with telegraph messages over the military telegraph system?

7.  What was the name of the code used to send the ciphered messages?

8.  Why were military messages ciphered?

9.  Why was being a telegraph operator/ cipherist so dangerous? 

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