The Telegraph in the War Room

The United States MilitaryTelegraph System




      President Lincoln would use the telegraph to communicate with his generals and other officers to keep tabs of what was going on at the battle front.  He spent many hours in the telegraph room in the Department of War building, next to the White House.  This page is dedicated to the telegraphers and cipherers (decoders) who helped the President to keep tabs on the great war. 


Ran the Telegraph Office in the War Room, had direct contact with President Lincoln, and Left a Narrative History of the Telegraph and the President

From the Library of Congress From Voices of America

David Homer Bates (1843–1926)

          The chief chronicler of President Lincoln’s telegraph operations, David Homer Bates (1843–1926) was born in Steubenville, Ohio, to Francis and Catherine Bates. As a teenager, he moved to Altoona, Pennsylvania, and entered the telegraph service in the Pittsburgh Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which at that time was under the supervision of Andrew Carnegie. In April 1861, Bates and three other cipher operators were ordered to Washington, D.C., to form a new telegraph corps within the War Department—the first time a federal government department had telegraph service. Major Thomas Eckert was appointed superintendent of the telegraph corps shortly after their arrival. Except for two weeks of service in early 1865 as the operator for General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point, Virginia, Bates was stationed for the duration of the war within the telegraph room of the War Department, located directly across the lawn from the White House. Lincoln visited the telegraph room on a daily basis and came to know Bates and the other operators well. Following his 1867 marriage to Sallie Raphael Kenney, Bates began a twenty-five-year career with the Western Union Telegraph Company, rising to the position of vice president. As was the case during the Civil War, his service at Western Union was under the supervision of Thomas Eckert. In 1907, David Homer Bates published Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, a well-received account of his Civil War reminiscences. At the time of his death, he had completed a book of anecdotes of the sixteenth president entitled Lincoln Stories Told by Him in the Military Office in the War Department during the Civil War.


          The Civil War of 1861-1865 required a new communication system for use by the government and the armed forces.  President Lincoln was already very much aware of the value of the telegraph, and would order that it be set up quickly.  A system of wires would be run throughout the northern states to connect all areas.  Some areas would be covered by quickly set-up poles and wires by use of wagons, horses and men.  The telegraph equipment would be portable.  The President would nearly take personal command of the battle fronts through use of the telegraph.  The White House never had telegraph wiring, but the nearby War Department building would be the location.  The President spent hours in the telegraph office waiting for and sending messages.


          Conditions in 1861 caused the seizure of the commercial systems around Washington, and Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott was made general manager of all such lines. He secured the cooperation of E. S. Sanford, of the American Telegraph Company, who imposed much needed restrictions as to cipher messages, information, and so forth on all operators. The scope of the work was much increased by an act of Congress, in 1862, authorizing the seizure of any or all lines, in connection with which Sanford was appointed censor.
          Through Andrew Carnegie was obtained the force which opened the War Department Telegraph Office; which speedily attained national importance by its remarkable work, and with which the memory of Abraham Lincoln must be inseparably associated. It was fortunate for the success of the telegraphic policy of the Government that it was entrusted to men of such administrative ability as Colonel Anson Stager, E. S. Sanford, and Major Thomas T. Eckert. The selection of operators for the War Office was surprisingly fortunate, including, as it did, three cipher-operators-D. H. Bates, A. B. Chandler, and C. A. Tinker-of high character, rare skill, and unusual discretion.


           One phase of life in the telegraph-room of the War Department--it is surprising that the White House bad no telegraph office during the war -- was Lincoln's daily visit thereto, and the long hours spent by him in the cipher-room, whose quiet seclusion made it a favorite retreat both for rest and also for important work requiring undisturbed thought and undivided attention.


            Especially important was the technical work of Bates, Chandler, and Tinker enciphering and deciphering important messages to and from the great contending armies, which was done by code. Stager devised the first cipher, which was so improved by the cipher-operators that it remained untranslatable by the Confederates to the end of the war.

            Read the book Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, by David Homer Bates, 1907, chapters IV and V to learn about the "Cipher-Codes of the North and the South."


            During the war there occurred in the line of duty more than three hundred casualties among the operators -from disease, death in battle, wounds, or capture. Scores of these unfortunate victims left families dependent upon charity, as the United States neither extended aid to their destitute families nor admitted needy survivors to a government pension.

            The code used during the Civil War was NOT the "modern" two-element (dot dash or didah) code, but the earlier "American Morse" developed by Albert Vail and Samuel Morse, and it was a more complex multi-element code.

          Telegraphers could send and receive this code very fast.  That was the problem:  everyone could read everyone's messages.  Ciphering (secret codes) were developed using updated and changing code books throughout the war.  This worked well for the Union, but Union cipher-operators were very good at de-ciphering Confederate messages.  Cipher-operators either operated in a building (permanent setting) or would travel around in wagons to set up at the battle front.  This was very dangerous work.

Cipher-Telegrapher Wagon

Men working on or installing telegraph lines near a Civil War camp



The Early American Morse Code (used by Civil War telegraphers)

Information from The Telegraph Museum Pages

            "The original "MORSE CODE" used by Samuel Morse since the 1840's to allow letters to be sent as short electrical signals (dots) and long electrical signals (dashes) along with some embedded spaces was also called the "AMERICAN" MORSE CODE.
            The telegraph was widely used throughout Europe and America in very early (mid 1800's) land-line communications and has continued to be used to the present in America for this form of Land-Line telegraphic communication in which the signals were carried across the land by lines (wires) supported by telegraph poles.  Land-line communications use "sounders" to allow the receiving operator to "hear" the clicking sounds of the code and to translate them into letters.

            The early American code would be replaced by a similar English code, but which eliminated all of the embedded spaces and long dashes within letters of the original code.  Wireless radio transmissions could not use the Early Morse Code.

             Telegrapher/Coders during the Civil War had to have great auditory acuity, and memory abilities.  The coded messages would have to be converted to complex ciphers.  The ciphers would be changed often to prevent Southern spies from hearing messages."

             Check out the J.H. Bunnell Telegraph Site for details of the U.S. Military System code during the Civil War.

             The big differences between the older code and the new code are that the American Morse code depended on spaces as well as dots, short dashes, longer dashes and "real long" dashes.



The Telegraph Activity

Lincoln and His T-Mails

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