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THE PRESIDENT AND THE TELEGRAPH: THE FIRST WIRED PRESIDENTBy Tom Wheeler
May 24, 2012 12:34 pm NEW YORK TIMES
In an era when everything is online and the nation’s leader is tethered to what many call BlackBerry One, it’s important to remember that presidential telecommunications has a long history — going back to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
When President-elect Lincoln arrived in Washington in 1861, the telegraph had been around for 17 years, but the agencies of government were flummoxed over how to use it. When the Army wanted to send a telegram, for instance, it sent a clerk to stand in line at Washington’s central telegraph office, a public facility. There was no telegraph station at the White House, the War Department, the Navy Yard or any other vital government installation.
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Lincoln saw his first telegraph key only three years before he ran for president, in a hotel lobby while riding circuit in Pekin, Ill. Always fascinated with technology, he peppered the operator with questions. Yet to most people in the mid-1800s, electricity was a mystery, and the telegraph was magic. A vague scientific concept to most, electricity wouldn’t become obvious until Thomas A. Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. Sending messages by electric sparks was a doubling down on that mystery.
When, in 1843, Congress considered financing Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph trial, the debate on the House floor turned into a carnival — Congressmen joked about the preposterous concept, even laughingly offering an amendment to share the money with a trial of mesmerism, or hypnotism, as a means of communication. Although the House finally passed the $30,000 appropriation, it did so by the narrowest of margins, just 89 to 83. Even more revealing, 70 Congressmen abstained from having to choose one side or the other.
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After the Morse test line was finally built between Washington and Baltimore, some of the clergy at the terminus warned that it could only be Black Magic. Morse’s operator at the Baltimore end of the line telegraphed that emotions were so high among the public that it might be prudent to suspend the trial until things calmed down.
While the telegraph went on to become a mainstay of news organizations, financial houses and far-flung enterprises like railroads in the antebellum years, it remained an outlier to both the people and their government. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1854, in “Walden,” “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Lincoln didn’t have the luxury of being so dismissing of the country’s far-flung corners. By the mid-19th century the nation was struggling to find the path from the Jeffersonian agricultural Arcadia to an Industrial Revolution that had been enabled by new network technologies like the railroad and telegraph. One author picturesquely described Americans as having “one foot in manure and the other in the telegraph office.”
Amid all his other challenges, then, Lincoln had to make sense of his country’s industrialization and harness the new technology to his leadership purposes – and to do it in the middle of a civil war. No leader in history had ever faced such a challenge of determining how to use such a revolutionary means of exercising responsibility. Henry V was at Agincourt and Napoleon was in front of Moscow because they had to be: there was no speedy communication between the battlefield and the nation’s political capital. Lincoln didn’t need to be, thanks to advances in technology, but it wasn’t clear yet how best to use it: he was thrust into harnessing a new information network to provide wartime leadership without precedent, text, or tutor.
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Up until May 1862 Lincoln had sent, on average, a little over one telegram a month. But things changed when a telegraph office was opened next door to the White House, in the War Department. On May 24 the president had his online breakout, sending nine telegrams. That week he would send more than all his previous messages, combined. From May 24 — 18 years to the day since Morse had first tapped out “What hath God wrought” — forward, Lincoln and the telegraph were inseparable.
The new telegraph office became the first Situation Room. Several times a day the president would walk into the telegraph office, sit down at the desk of its manager and begin going through the copies of all telegrams received, whether addressed to him or not. During great battles the president would even sleep in the telegraph office, just to be close to his oracle.
Using the telegraph to extend his voice was an obvious application of the technology. “You are instructed…to put twenty thousand men (20,000) in motion at once for the Shenandoah,” the president ordered Gen. Irvin McDowell on May 24. Less obvious, however, was how Lincoln made the telegraph his eyes and ears to distant fields and the keyhole into his generals’ headquarters. As he sat in the telegraph office reading messages, he gained insights, felt the pulse of his Army in the field and reacted.
Reading a telegraphed report from Gen. George McClellan offering excuses for his failure to pursue the Confederates for five weeks after the 1862 Battle of Antietam, Lincoln bridled at the excuse that the Army’s horses were tired. Armed with firsthand information about the general’s supplies gleaned from the stream of telegraphic information, the president superseded the chain of command to express his frustration and dissatisfaction directly to McClellan: “I have just read your despatch [sic] about sore tongued and fatiegued [sic] horses – Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?” Two weeks later the president removed McClellan from command.
Mr. Lincoln's Leadership displayed in a message
In the late summer of 1864, as the Union advance on Richmond stalled and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant came under mounting criticism, Lincoln read a fretful telegram from Grant to the Army chief of staff. Reading between the lines, the president understood his general’s spirits and immediately used the telegraph to address the issue: “I have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible.” It was as good as walking into the general’s headquarters, sizing up the situation and responding through conversation. The message was even conversational in tone, as though Lincoln had been standing next to Grant, yet it was unmistakable as to its author’s intent.
As he put down the message, Grant laughed out loud and exclaimed to those around him, “The president has more nerve than any of his advisers.” He was correct, of course, but more important than the message was the medium: he held in his hands Lincoln’s revolutionary tool for making sure that neither distance nor intermediaries diffused his leadership.
Tom Wheeler is the author of “Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War"