The Century; a popular quarterly
Volume 38, Issue 5, Sept. 1889
~ by ~
J. Emmet O'Brien

       Before 1861 the value of the military telegraph had not been demonstrated. Crude experiments had been made, with poorly equipped lines,in the Crimea,in India, and by France, Spain, and Italy in different campaigns, while the Germans possessed a distinct military telegraph organization as yet untested ; but it was on the very route where Morse’s first message ”What hath God wrought!“ announced the benefits of his invention to the arts of peace that the telegraph was to begin its first practical use in war. The outbreak of the mob in Baltimore on the 19th of April, 1861, culminated in the destruction of railroads, bridges, and telegraphs, and for a time Washington was isolated from the North. In this emergency the Administration called upon Thomas A. Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad to aid the military operations of General Butler in re-opening communication. Taking with him Andrew Carnegie and four of his best telegraphers, Mr. Scott attacked the problem with amazing enargy. Rails were relaid, bridges rebuilt, wires restrung, as if by magic; and as the nation poured its defenders towards Washington, the genius of Scott, aided by the sagacity of these assistants, guided the long trains of volunteers safely to their destination. Reaching Washington after the accomplishment of this mission, the telegraph corps was enlarged to connect important stations, as the navy yard and the arsenal, with the War Department, and to run lines to Arlington, Chain Bridge, and other outposts. The names of the four pioneers of the service were David Strouse, D. Homer Bates, Samuel Brown, and Richard O’Brien. Strouse soon succumbed to the hardships of the new service, and went home to die: he sleeps by the Juniata. Of the three others, Bates served at the War Department and Brown and O’Brien at the front throughout the war. Thus informally began the career of the corps, which grew to number more than 1000 experts, which constructed 15,000 miles of line in the field, transmitted millions of important dispatches, regulated the movements of distant armies, as those of Grant, Sherman, and Thomas, and, in short,made it possible to move vast forces as a unit over a wide territory. It will be remembered that in 1861 telegraphy was not twenty years old, and that the art of rapid operating by sound was still younger. Most of those who responded to the call for operators to serve in the field were in their teens, but they were enthusiastic, already trained to the faithful performance of duty, and ready to face danger when necessary. At Great Falls, an outpost on the Maryland side of the Potomac, the pickets were one day withdrawn, and simultaneously the Confederates began to shell the telegraph office. As steps, porch, and roof were successively shot away, the operator, Ed. Conway, reported progress to the War Department, adding that his office would “now close for repairs,” and withdrew with his instrument as the enemy crossed the river.

       With McDowell’s advance to Bull Run, in 1861, lines were extended to Alexandria, Fairfax Station, and Fairfax Court House. Aided by a line of couriers, the progress of the first battle of Bull Run was reported to the War Department by operators at the front, who were among the last to leave the field.

       They soon became veterans. A gorgeous uniform which had marked the gilt-edged, brassbutton period of the telegraph service, and which had not sufficiently distinguished the operators from major-generals, was discarded, and the corps settled down to the exigencies of its novel situation, sharing the dangers and privations of the troops, keeping up communication night and day, and faithfully guarding the important military secrets intrusted for transmission.

       It might be supposed that Southern sympathizers would have endeavored to interrupt Government communication by telegraph when it could so easily be done by cutting wires and cables, or by connecting them with each other or with the ground. As a matter of fact, lines in Washington were interrupted by cross connections made with fine copper wire which could not be seen from the ground; but these were so quickly detected by electrical tests and the lines were so well guarded that such attempts became too dangerous and ceased.

       As we advanced southward whole sections of wire would sometimes be torn down at night by bushwhackers and carried into the woods, and the work of repair often proved extremely hazardous. A favorite point for such exploits on the part of the Confederates was the line between Fort Monroe and Newport News. They being camped at Yorktown, and our videttes, after the Big Bethel affair, only extending to Hampton, they could strike the exposed line anywhere from there to Newport News. This they usually did at night. On one occasion, early in 1862, the chief operator at Fort Monroe went out to repair such a break, accompanied by an escort of infantry. Being well mounted he left the troops out of sight, found the wire torn down near Newport News, repaired it, and returned rapidly towards Hampton. As he passed the New Market road he received simultaneously a bullet through his coat and an order to halt from a party of cavalry charging down upon him from the direction of Yorktown. Disregarding both bullet and order, he spurred his horse forward and succeeded in reaching his escort, who poured a volley into his pursuers which caused them to wheel and retreat as rapidly as they had come.

       It was on this line that the operator at Newport News reported from his point of view the phases of the fight between the Merrimac and our wooden ships, while shells from the former and her consorts burst around him at short range. Amid the reverberations of the heavy broadsides from our ships, which shook the massive ramparts of Fort Monroe, the writer read to the assembled officers, from the click of the instrument, this terse description: “The Merrimac steers straight for the Cumberland.” “The Cumberland gives her a broadside.”, “The Merrimac keels over.” “She seems to be sinking.” A pause. “No; she comes on again.” “She has struck the cumberland and poured a broadside into her.” “God! the Cumberland is sinking.” Another pause and then: “The Cumberland has fired her last broadside.” Next day the historic combat of the iron-clads occurred, and though largely within view from our ramparts, it was similarly bulletined by the same steady hand from Newport News.

       Telegraphic operations began in West Virginia almost contemporaneously with those about Washington, and materially aided General McClellan in his campaign in that quarter. Operations in other States will be noted further on. By the close of the first year of the war over a thousand miles of line had been built with the armies in the different departments; the telegraph having proved itself invaluable in the strategic movement of troops in the field, and equally essential to the efficiency of the commissariat and the prompt transportation of quartermasters’ supplies.

       A new era was now begun by the appointment of Colonel Anson Stager as general superintendent of all military telegraphs, with Thomas T. Eckert, afterwards Assistant Secretary of War, in immediate charge of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and later with other competent telegraphers in charge of the departments of West Virginia, Ohio, the Cumberland, Missouri, Tennessee, the South, and the Gulf. In these several departments material was accumulated, operators employed, and construction corps organized to build and operate lines in the field with efficiency and dispatch, so that every army, whether moving or fighting, should act in harmony with the rest.

       Preparatory to McClellan’s peninsular campaign a line was carried from Washington via Wilmington along the eastern shore of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia to Cape Charles and Cherrystone Inlet, whence communication was completed to Fort Monroe, first by dispatch-boats and afterwards by cable. The first attempt to lay this cable resulted in the wreck of the vessel containing it on Cape Henry, where the whole party narrowly escaped capture. A second attempt proved successful and placed McClellan in direct communication with the War Department, by a line of about two hundred miles in length. On this single wire, during McClellan’s campaign, throbbed and pulsed the hurried orders for supplies, entreaties for reenforcements, fateful lists of killed and wounded, news of victory and defeat — all the tidings of glory and of horror which pertain to war.

       At Cherrystone, Eastville, Cape Charles, and northward the military telegraphers enjoyed a holiday, faring on luscious oysters, shooting wild ducks, lazily riding with a cavalry escort over the line, wherein was just sufficient danger from guerrillas to give zest to life; while across the bay at the front the boys were working their instruments under fire in the trenches around Yorktown, keeping McClellan in constant communication with his generals and with Fort Monroe and Washington.

       The telegraph not only worked through sea and land, but sought to establish communication in cloud-land, carrying a light wire skyward by balloon near Washington, at Pohick Church, Va., and several times on the Peninsula. Before Yorktown the operator in the clouds telegraphed to headquarters the position of Confederate intrenchments and the effect of our fire, assisting to regulate the range of our guns.

       One of the first of our army to enter Yorktown was operator Lathrop, who hurried to the Confederate telegraph tent to try the Richmond wire, and was blown to pieces by an ingeniously placed torpedo of the enemy. After Yorktown the construction party always kept the mainline up with the troops as they marched, and the branches to corps headquarters when they halted, stringing the wire on poles or trees as the needs of the march required. The Count of Paris attests that the generals were surprised and delighted to find the telegraph at hand at the end of each day’s march, giving them communication with one another and with the base of operations. The instruments of slight resistance and currents of small electro-motive force employed on the well-insulated lines of to-day would not have recorded signals, nor have overcome the “escapes” of our field lines of that time. We used “relays” of great resistance, and nitric acid batteries of the strongest kind.The operators at the front, too, were experts. Seated under fire, on a stump or a cracker-box, while troops and artillery swept by, they would send or take thousands of words of military orders, at the rate of forty words per minute, without an error. From the battle of Williamsburg to that of Fair Oaks and in the Seven Days’ fighting the telegraph assisted largely in handling the several corps of the Army of the Potomac. At Gaines’s Mill, Porter obtained reenforcements at the critical juncture through the promptness of his operator, who tapped the wire as our line of battle receded, and transmitted the necessary dispatches under a heavy fire which killed several of his mounted messengers.

       The inner history of this campaign can best be read in the pregnant telegrams of McClellan and the Administration, found in the Official Records. These dispatches, and all succeeding ones of importance throughout the war, were transmitted over the wires in cipher, the keys of which were held only by confidential telegraph operators and were not permitted to be revealed even to commanding generals. The principle of the cipher consisted in writing a message with an equal number of words in each line, then copying the words up and down the columns by various routes, throwing in an extra word at the end of each column, and substituting other words for important names and verbs. This code was frequently changed to insure secrecy, as when a cipher operator was captured. The reader who may be curious on this subject is referred to Plum’s “History of the Military Telegraph,” which contains a full expose of both the Union and the Confederate cryptographs. The Confederate ciphers were always easily solved by our experts, sharing, as they did, the faults of all ciphers constructed on an alphabetical system, while it is believed that no instance is known of the enemy having been able to decipher a telegram in one of our ciphers. When the Army of the Potomac was recalled from the James, our lines were taken down as far back as Williamsburg. South of the James we had communication with Norfolk by cable from Fort Monroe, through Hampton Roads and thence to Suffolk, on the Nansemond. At Norfolk, in 1862, the chief operator was offered by a committee twenty thousand dollars in gold, the freedom of the Confederacy, and passage to England by blockade runner if he would anticipate a telegram expected from Mr. Lincoln granting a reprieve to a citizen condemned for shooting a Union officer. The offer was made on the day preceding that was fixed for the execution and was indignantly rejected.

       During 1862 nearly four thousand miles of line was built over the wide territory occupied by our forces. Of this nearly half was taken down or abandoned as the necessities of the conflict dictated; over a million important telegrams were transmitted. As much more line was constructed in the field in 1863, and again 1500 miles was abandoned, while about 2,000,000 dispatches were transmitted; and from 1863 to the close more than 6ooo miles of line was built and about 5,ooo,ooo dispatches were forwarded. While the Army of the Potomac was engaged on the Peninsula the telegraphic situation nearer Washington consisted of three principal lines radiating thence to McDowell at Fredericksburg, to Manassas Junction, extended via the Manassas Gap road to Strasburg, and a line via Harper’s Ferry to Winchester, following Banks to Strasburg.(1)

(1) -This was exclusive of the Fort Monroe line, the civil lines northward, and a network of shortwires connecting fortifications and outposts.

       In the retreat of Banks from Strasburg, Jackson captured both his telegraphers. One of them, while detained at Winchester to send important messages after our rear-guard had passed, finding himself surrounded, destroyed his dispatches, broke his instruments, and surrendered. Three other operators, while pushing forward a reconnaissance by locomotive on the Manassas Gap route, were captured by Jackson’s men, who obstructed the track in their front and rear. In Pope’s Virginia campaign of three weeks his essential telegraph lines formed a triangle, its base extending from Washington along the Virginia side of the Potomac to Aquia Creek and Fredericksburg, its sides from the latter point to Culpeper Court House, and from Washington via the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to the same point, whence a single wire accompanied him to the battlefield of Cedar Mountain and beyond. In the retrograde movement as soon as he uncovered the apex of the telegraph triangle at Culpeper he lost the Fredericksburg wire, which became more inaccessible the farther he receded on the Orange and Alexandria route, while “Jeb" Stuart rode in and cut the line in his rear at Manassas Junction, capturing our operator, who was shot while attempting to escape. Thus was Pope entirely isolated, while Washington seemed as completely cut off from knowledge of his movements or of Jackson’s as it was from the North on the 20th of April, 1861. Again the telegraphers plunged into the work of re-opening communication, this time at far greater hazard. Pushing out on the Orange and Alexandria and Manassas Gap roads, by locomotive or by hand-car, they concealed themselves in woods and cliffs, observing the movements of the enemy’s forces and of our own, and giving all the definite information which reached the Administration at that time. The field operators with Pope, too, finding their usual occupation gone, became independent scouts, reconnoitering the country and tapping the wires wherever reached to obtain information of the enemy or to communicate news to the War Department. The earliest advices of the second battle of Bull Run, like those of the first, were given by the operators, two of them riding direct from the battlefield to the nearest line and telegraphing their own description of it to the President, who personally thanked them by telegraph. In such hazardous work a number were wounded or captured.


       On one occasion an operator started out from Fairfax Station on a hand-car propelled by three contrabands to attempt to restore the line so that Pope’s operators could communicate his whereabouts. Finding the line cut beyond Pohick Bridge, he spliced it and got signals from both directions. While so engaged a party of guerrillas emerged from the woods to the track and surrounded him. Bidding the negroes stand fast, he dictated a swift message over the line, which was being repeated back to him and copied as the Confederate leader leaned over his shoulder and read the significant words: “Buford has sent back a regiment of cavalry to meet the one from here and guard the line. If you are molested we will hang every citizen on the route.” The instrument ceased ticking as the operator firmly replied, " . . — . — " (O. K.). A painful pause ensued. The Confederate might have suspected a ruse if at the moment a gleam of sabers had not shone in the direction of Fairfax Court House. Hastily starting for the woods, the leader exclaimed, “Come home, boys; these yere ain’t our niggers”; and they disappeared, while the hand-car, as if driven by forty contraband power, sped rapidly rearward. Pope’s wires were not well guarded at any time.

       Later in the war, in attempting to re-open this line for Sheridan, via the Manassas Gap road to Front Royal, a railroad and telegraph party while proceeding by locomotive were ambushed and five of them killed.

       In the Antietam campaign McClellan had a line to Hagerstown looped via Poolesville to Point of Rocks, whence a branch extended to Harper’s Ferry. Stuart cut this loop as Lee advanced, and an attempt to restore it proving disastrous to the telegraph party, Harper’s Ferry remained isolated until captured. Five military operators surrendered with the troops at that point, but they escaped and at Antietam joined their comrades, who had pushed the line to the battlefield of South Mountain and on through Boonesboro’ and Keedysville.

       The electric tongue which had aided him on the Peninsula and in Maryland now proclaimed McClellan’s victory at Antietam and again became the messenger of his humiliation. The telegraph corps revered “Little Mac,” both in person and in military genius. Perhaps none knew better than some of its members the extent and scope of his plans or had more confidence in their success. The orders for his withdrawal from the James were reluctantly transmitted, and on his removal from the command of the Army of the Potomac, in November, his chief operator telegraphed, “We are all grieved at McClellan’s removal. The whole army, from major-generals down to foot orderlies, feel it. Old soldiers of the regulars wept like boys when he left.”

       Burnside’s lines in the Fredericksburg campaign were the same as Pope’s had been in August, but were less extended and less exposed. Three of the operators were captured at their posts, one of whom escaped by his wits and the others joined the considerable delegation of the corps already in captivity, where they suffered the usual horrors of Libby, Belle Isle, and Andersonville, and whence they communicated by many ingenious devices with their friends. A brass button by the hands of an exchanged prisoner would contain a cipher dispatch on tissue paper. A ring carved from bone and marked with a few Morse characters told us of our captured comrades.

       From the beginning of the war there had been some friction between the telegraph and the signal corps. Early in 1861 the chief signal officer assumed control of the telegraph in Butler’s department, from which he was immediately relieved by the Secretary of War. In 1863 he was again in the field with thirty cumbrous “magneto “ machines, intended to operate a dial telegraph. The system was operated by the signal officers in the Chancellorsville campaign, and, proving inefficient, it was turned over to the telegraphers, who discarded the machines and worked with Morse instruments the short lines laid by the signal corps. Had Major Myer then had the telephone, he would have succeeded. It will Undoubtedly be used with Morse telegraphy in future wars; (2) but the antiquated system introduced, and expected to be worked by officers unfamiliar with electricity, resulted in disastrous failure. Had the telegraphic field not been thus divided, and had General Hooker ordered the necessary lines, he would probably have had better control of his forces, particularly of Sedgwick’s corps.

(2)- The Hand 'Phone is a sensitive instrument for Morse Telegraphy.

       A swift glance southward and westward, without regard to chronological order, may indicate the value of the telegraph in other fields than the Potomac.

       Military lines were not required in North Carolina until 1863, when they connected Morehead City, New Berne, Bachelor’s Creek, and outposts. General Palmer credited the telegraph with having apprised him of the approach of Pickett’s force against New Berne in February, 1864, and with enabling him promptly to concentrate his forces to meet the attack.


       Three of his operators died of yellow fever. Plum says: “On the pay-rolls, which alone indicate that these men were in the service of their country, is written opposite their names, ‘Discharged.’ An eternal discharge, indeed.” (3) Yet that epitaph comprises all of rank, reward, or pension ever tendered an operator of the military telegraph, or his family, by the United States.

(3)- "History of the Military Telegraph."

       In the same region, in March, 1865, the writer ran the line along with the troops in General Schofield’s advance on Kinston and Goldsboro’, lying in Gum Swamp — where the enemy struck us — two days and nights with the relay to his ear, transmitting dispatches. The signal corps cooperated handsomely, and ten picked cavalrymen rode right and left under fire with the dispatches. A whole regiment of ours was captured almost beside us.

       The morning after this affair General J. D. Cox called at our post and courteously said that he wished “personally to thank the chief operator for the service rendered at the front.” He seemed astonished at finding only a boy of fifteen, muddy and haggard, lying on the ground andl too exhausted to care even if the President called.

       The military telegraph service in South Carolina was peculiar in the preponderance of submarine cables connecting the sea islands, and in the exposure of the operators on Morris Island and vicinity to the fire of the Confederate batteries during the long siege of Charleston. On one occasion two of our men were up alternate poles stringing a wire which had just been cut by a shell when another well-aimed shot struck the pole between them and brought poles, wire, and men in a tangle to the soft sand.

       In September, 1863, a Union operator named Forster tapped the Charleston and Savannah line near Pocotaligo and sent information to Generals Gillmore and Terry which enabled them to foil a concerted attack by the enemy. Forster was captured on the third day and died in prison.

       Not pausing to detail the movements of the telegraph with expeditions in Florida, we note in the Gulf Department seven military lines radiating from New Orleans under Butler and Banks, one of them reaching Baton Rouge, after its occupation, another accompanying the Red River expedition, and one connecting New Orleans and Port Hudson with field lines at the latter point during the siege. Experiments by the telegraphers in exploding powder by electricity, such as had been made at Fort Sumter and elsewhere, resulted in that department in the successful clearing of obstructions from Bayou Teche. At the close of the war about three thousand miles of military lines in the Department of Mississippi, including Texas, were turned over to commercial use.

       In Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas military lines connected St. Louis with Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott, and by February, 1864, with Fort Smith and Little Rock, from which point three wires radiated important posts. In March, 1864, three of our builders were killed by guerrillas on the Fort Smith line. By 1865 these lines aggregated seventeen hundred miles.

       In Tennessee about a thousand miles of lines were constructed for Halleck’s and Grant’s operations. These, in 1862, connected St. Louis with Forts Henry and Donelson when captured, thence reaching to Nashville and on to Bowling Green, Kentucky. Nashville was connected with Decatur, Alabama, and other points. In the Shiloh campaign Buell carried a line from Nashville with him, meeting midway one from Grant, who was at Pittsburg Landing, so that Grant, Buell, and Halleck were in telegraphic communication on the eve of the unexpected battle of Shiloh. This must have been a source of reliance to Grant when the fight actually opened. During the siege of Vicksburg field lines connected Grant with all his forces, and the telegraph gave timely notice of Johnston’s movements.

       When Rosecrans was defeated at Chickamauga and retreated to Chattanooga, where Grant sent him timely aid; and in the concentration of Sherman and Hooker with Thomas, which culminated in the victory of Chattanooga, the telegraph was of incalculable service.

       About this time Longstreet besieged Burnside at Knoxville and Grant sent Sherman swiftly to the rescue. Plum says: “After Grant had driven Bragg from Missionary Ridge he received dispatches from the advance office at Tazewell, notifying him that Burnside could not hold out longer than December 1. Secretary Stanton telegraphed for Colonel Stager to ‘come to the key.’ Stager had retired, but an instrument by his bedside awakened him. Stanton in Washington asked Stager, who was in his bed-chamber in Cleveland, Ohio, to forward news to Burnside by the most trusty means. The colonel instantly called up the chief operator in Louisville, Kentucky, and the latter the operators at four separate points nearest to Burnside. Thus it happened that in the dead of night four telegraphers, each with a cipher message notifying Burnside of the approach of Union troops, started on their perilous journey from four separate points. Some of them reached Burnside, and he held out until his army was saved. The episode has not been immortalized nor its heroes rewarded.

       While Sherman was preparing his army to start from Chattanooga in the Atlanta campaign the military telegraph spread a network of additional wires in Tennessee for his use, some of them extending into Alabama and Georgia and accompanying him to Atlanta. In his “Memoirs” he says: “There was perfect concert of action between the armies in Virginia and Georgia in all 1864; hardly a day intervened when General Grant did not know the exact state of facts with me, more than fifteen hundred miles off, as the wires ran.” The operations of Sherman’s telegraph in the advance on Atlanta were similar to those with the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula. For instance, in front of Kenesaw, when about to hurl his whole force on Johnston’s center, he says: “In order to oversee the whole and be in close communication with all parts of the army, I had a space cleared on top of a hill to the rear of Thomas’s center, and had the telegraph wires laid to it.” Sherman further says, speaking of the telegraph on the battlefield, ”This is better far than the signal flags and torches.” November 12, 1864, the line north from Atlanta was severed as the last message passed, and Sherman went out of the region of the knowable, so far as the telegraph and the North were concerned. He was accompanied by telegraphers, however, who busied themselves in tapping the Southern wires, and who carried the cipher keys. The first use of the latter was on the march north from Savannah in exchanging dispatches with Schofield, who on the taking of Wilmington sent his dispatches in cipher by Lieutenant Cushing of the navy, who had already distinguished himself for reckless bravery. Cushing, going up the Cape Fear River in a steam launch, met Sherman’s scouts near Fayetteville. Thus Sherman was informed of successful cooperation in North Carolina, and the cipher code permitted full explanation of plans of campaign between Grant, Schofield, and Sherman.

       It also enabled us later, at Raleigh, to communicate over the Confederate wires with General James H. Wilson at Macon, Georgia, pending the negotiations for the surrender of Johnston.

       Meantime the telegraph served Thomas in retreat and defense — covering his front during the siege of Nashville with watchful sentinels, reporting his condition daily to Grant, and bringing constant messages from City Point and Washington.(4)

(4)- For an account of the Western service the reader is referred to Plum’s History, already quoted, to which the writer is much indebted for details of the Western departments.

       Taking up the electric thread with the Army of the Potomac, in 1864, Badeau attests that when Grant crossed the Rapidan in the final campaign he moved synchronously by telegraph Sherman in Georgia, Crook in the Valley, and Butler on the Peninsula, and received responses from each before night, while all the remaining forces of the Union were placed on the alert by the same agency. In addition to the main line, via the Orange and Alexandria road, accompanying Grant, keeping him in direct communication with Washington, General Eckert had at this time perfected a field telegraph system somewhat on the mountain howitzer plan. Reels of insulated cable, strong enough to resist cannon-wheels, were carried on the backs of mules paying out the wire over the field, where it was raised on lances or on trees, while compact portable electric batteries were transported in ambulances constructed for the purpose.

       This system was found efficient on the battlefield and at Spotsylvania Court House, where at one time operators and cable were within the enemy’s lines, and in subsequent battles it was thoroughly tested. Throughout the remainder of the war General Grant received almost daily reports by telegraph from all the armies in the field, and issued his orders, in cipher, over our wires to all his lieutenants in pursuance of one comprehensive plan. With Butler’s cooperative move up the Peninsula went the telegraph to Gloucester Point, West Point, and White House on the Pamunkey; and when this feint on the York was followed by the real attack on the other side of the Peninsula, the telegraph was pushed up the James as rapidly as possible; so that when Grant swung around Richmond he was met at White House and at City Point by these electric nerves. Before Grant’s arrival wires were run from Bermuda Hundred to Point of Rocks, on the left bank of the Appomattox, under fire from the enemy’s batteries on the right bank, to Butler’s headquarters, midway between that point and Broadway Landing, and to W. F. Smith’s and Gilimore’s corps. A line was run down the south bank of the James from City Point to Fort Powhatan, and another was pushed across from Jamestown Island to Yorktown, whence it completed connection by McClellan’s old wire to Fort Monroe and Washington. These links were then united by a submarine cable from Jamestown Island to Fort Powhatan, some nineteen miles in the James River, and a short one across the Appomattox. The James River cable was necessitated by the incursions of guerrillas on both banks. facilities for the manufacture of telegraph cable in this country being then deficient, a portion of the original Atlantic cable was used. It never worked well, and in September, William Mackintosh, with a construction party of ten men and an infantry escort of one hundred, made an attempt to replace the cable by a land line on the south bank, which resulted in the capture of all but two of the party, six by six-mule teams, and twenty miles of wire. The party had camped at night on a tidal creek below City Point, expecting to start out in the morning, all but “Mack” and the colored cook preferring the right bank on account of its being higher ground. About daybreak the contraband heard firing and roused Mack, who thought it was only his escort killing pigs for breakfast. The old cook started to make a fire and fry some bacon, but a bullet whistling near his head demoralized him and he took to the woods. Mack then saw the raiders on the opposite bank of the creek and heard them shouting to him to surrender. Fortunately the tide was in, and while they were crossing he secured his horse and set off amid a shower of bullets, closely pursued by the Confederates. The chase was kept up for a mile by augmenting parties of cavalry who had forded the creek higher up, and was stopped only when the pursuers were confronted by a regiment of our men, who poured a volley into them and emptied a number of saddles. Mackintosh thus escaped a third term in Libby prison, he having been twice before captured and exchanged. A week after the capture of the telegraph party a “climber,” barefoot and tattered, found his way back to our lines. When asked where his shoes were, he replied, “The ribils schkarred me out of me boots.”

       In Butler’s advance on the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad, 7th of May, a line was carried along with the column to within sight of that road, and worked until Beauregard struck us at Drewry’s Bluff, on the 16th, when General Butler ordered his chief operator to “bring the line within the intrenchments.” In these trenches, one night, Maynard Huyck was awakened from sleep, not by the familiar voice of his instrument, but by the shriek of a Whitworth bolt, a six-pound steel shell, which passed through the few clothes he had doffed, then ricochetted, and exploded beyond. Congratulating himself that he was not in his “duds” at the moment, the boy turned over and slept through the infernal turmoil of an awakening cannonade until aroused by the gentle tick of the telegraph relay. We used no “sounders” in those days at the front.

       In illustration of the sensibility of hearing acquired by the military operators for this one sound, the writer may be pardoned another personal incident. At Norfolk, in April, 1863, he happened to be alone in charge of the telegraph when Longstreet with a large force laid siege to Suffolk. In the emergency he remained on duty, without sleep, for three days and nights, repeating orders between Fort Monroe and the front. Towards morning on the third night he fell asleep, but was roused by the strenuous calls of the fort and asked why he had not given “O. K.” for the messages just sent. He replied that none had been received. “We called you,” said the operator at the fort; “you answered, and we sent you two messages, but you failed to acknowledge them.” The dispatches were repeated and forwarded, when on taking up a volume of Scott’s novels, with which he had previously endeavored to keep awake, the writer was astonished to find the missing telegrams scrawled across the printed page in his own writing, some sentences omitted, and some repeated. It was a curious instance of somnambulism.


       During the siege of Petersburg every salient point on the front of the armies of the Potomac and James was covered with the wires radiating from Grant’s headquarters at City Point. One circuit, crossing the Appomattox, took in the intrenchments on the Bermuda Hundred front, the Tenth Corps’ headquarters. Later it crossed the James at Deep Bottom by cable, included the “Crow’s Nest,” Dutch Gap, headquarters Army of the James, Fort Harrison when captured, and eventually Weitzel’s headquarters and Kautz’s cavalry on our extreme right. The second circuit followed up the south bank of the Appomattox to our advanced works, and running to the left connected Smith, Hancock, Burnside, and Warren, Sheridan on his arrival, and other commands as they arrived or were shifted on this important field as the tide of battle ebbed and flowed, pushing farther to the left as Grant, throughout the winter and spring, deployed his forces to envelop Lee’s right, until the line reached the Weldon railroad and beyond. Thus all our forces in front of Richmond and Petersburg — a semicircle of thirty miles of intrenchments — were manipulated in concert by the hand of General Grant.

       The result of battles sometimes hung on the continuity of a slender wire, as when on March 25, 1865, the Confederates under Gordon attacked and carried Fort Stedman and cut the wire to City Point. The capture occurred about 5 A. M. According to General Humphreys, who has described this campaign, General Parke, then commanding the Ninth Corps, which received the attack, telegraphed at 5:30 A. M. to General Webb the loss of the fort. Webb immediately replied that Meade was at City Point, and he (Parke) in command. At 6:15 Humphreys, commanding the Second Corps, on Parke’s left, received the news also by telegraph that the enemy had “broken our right, taken Stedman, and were moving on City Point.” Parke ordered Warren up with the Fifth Corps, the Ninth assaulted, and the fort was recaptured by eight o’clock. Promptly the telegraph was repaired and flashed the news to Grant and Meade, who as quickly projected the Second and the Ninth Corps against the enemy, capturing his intrenched picket line, a position of immense subsequent advantage, inflicting a loss of 4000 men, and losing 2000 in the whole operation. Thus the cutting of the wire by Gordon removed Meade from control, placed Parke in command, gave him three corps and empowered him to assault, while its repair restored Meade, regulated the assault, enabling Grant to use his whole force as a unit, and secured an advance by our forces, all within the space of a few hours. Thus were forts lost and retaken, and thus were battles won by the aid of the telegraph! Its success in this emergency was due to the field system. But for the portable batteries the cutting of the City Point current would have rendered the rest of the circuit useless.

       In the final pursuit and capture of Lee’s army all authorities unite in attesting the efficiency of the telegraph corps. In the rush of fifty miles from Petersburg to Appomattox, Grant, Meade, and all the corps of both the Potomac and James armies, except Sheridan’s, were kept connected. Our men found poles standing on the South-side road, which materially facilitated our advance with the army. Where the retreat of the Confederates had been too rapid to destroy wires these were spliced to ours and used, turning the enemy’s telegraph against himself, an operation which we were able to make on an extended scale in the North Carolina campaign.

       The President at this time was at City Point, and later in Petersburg and Richmond, and to him Grant telegraphed the phases of the conflict, beginning with Sheridan’s victory at Five Forks and ending with Lee’s surrender. Meantime, over the wire pushed forward north of the James sped the message, “Richmond is fallen.”

       Sherman had reached Goldsboro’; and Schofield, advancing by two routes from the coast, overcoming all obstacles, had built railroads and telegraphs to meet and supply him, and now he was advancing to Raleigh. Johnston surrendered, and at last over the military line which has been traced began to flow a tide of commercial dispatches, transmitted by the military telegraphers, Schofield’s operators at Raleigh taking the business from Columbia and the south, rushing it over the Raleigh and Gaston wire, sixty messages an hour to Petersburg, whence northward flew the silent harbingers of peace. It was the first link to bind the North and the South together again.

       It may surprise the reader to learn that, beyond the commendation of Lincoln, Stanton, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and all the higher officers, the military telegraphers — except a few heads of departments, who were commissioned and promoted from captains up to brigadier- generals — have never received any recognition for their great services. Though suffering captivity, wounds, and all of the hardships of the troops, the members of the corps cannot tell their children that they were soldiers, nor hail their brother veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic as comrades. They were merely “civilians “ who faithfully performed dangerous and harassing military duty with boyish enthusiasm, and some of whom have survived to learn that republics are ungrateful, or at least forgetful. Uncle Sam, who has been more generous to his veterans than any potentate of history, has forgotten them. Their widows and orphans receive no pensions.

       Once a year the survivors of the corps from all parts of the Union meet to renew old acquaintance, cemented by the electric spark over leagues of wire. Many of them never met in the field, but they knew each other well by telegraph, and can still recognize the touch of a comrade’s hand on the “key” a thousand miles away.

       The experience of this country, which demonstrated the value of a military telegraph, induced the immediate organization of such corps, but on a more strictly military basis, in all European armies.

~ J. Emmet O’Brien.