The War Effort: Telegraph Office

Telegraph Office

In March 1862 Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton insisted in centralizing all telegraph communication for the war at the War Department’s old library next to his office. The President therefore had to go to the telegraph office there to read war despatches and send his own. (The telegraph office had previously been located in two other locations in the same building, but General George McClellan had his own telegraph service at his headquarters in 1861-1862.) The office gave Mr. Lincoln an opportunity to write and think in peace as he waited for telegrams to arrive and be deciphered – as well to socialize in a way that was impossible elsewhere in Washington. Telegraph operator Albert B. Chandler reported the President said: “I come here to escape my persecutors. Hundreds of people come in and say they want to see me for only a minute. That means if I can hear their story and great their request in a minute, it will be enough.”1 One telegraph operator, Homer Bates, later recorded Mr. Lincoln’s routine:

When in the telegraph office, Lincoln was most easy of access. He often talked with the cipher-operators, asking questions regarding the despatches which we were translating from or into cipher, or which were filed in the order of receipt in the little drawer in our cipher-desk.
Lincoln’s habit was to go immediately to the drawer each time he came into our room, and read over the telegrams, beginning at the top, until he came to the one he had seen at his last previous visit. When this point was reached he almost always said, “Well, boys, I am down to raisins.” After we had heard this curious remark a number of times, one of us ventured to ask him what it meant. He thereupon told us the story of the little girl who celebrated her birthday by eating very freely of many good things, topping off with raisins for desert. During the night she was taken violently ill, and when the doctor arrived she was busy casting up her accounts. The genial doctor, scrutinizing the contents of the vessel, noticed some small black objects that had just appeared, and remarked to the anxious parent that all danger was past, as the child was ‘down to raisins.’ ‘So,’ Lincoln said, ‘when I reach the message in this pile which I saw on my last visit, I know that I need go no further.”2

Early in the Civil War, President Lincoln’s visits to the War Department and the Winder Building could pass virtually without notice. Just before the First Battle of Bull Run, Benjamin Brown French recorded in his diary: “I staid about the War Department perhaps an hour, saw President Lincoln pass through the lower passage, which was crowded with people. He was dressed in a common linen coat, had on a straw hat, & pushed along through the crowd without looking to the right or left, and no one seemed to know who he was. He entered the East door, passed entirely through & out at the West door, & across the street to Gen. Scott’s quarters. I was somewhat amused to see with what earnestness he pushed his way along & to observe his exceedingly ordinary appearance.”3

On his nocturnal walks to the War Department, Mr. Lincoln was sometimes accompanied by a secretary or friend. When he went alone, he was supposed to carry a stick as protection — and to assuage the worries of his wife.4 Once he arrived, his usual routine at the War Department was reported by Major Thomas J. Eckert – a routine which led to the completion of the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation:

“As you know, the President came to the office every day and invariably sat at my desk while there. Upon his arrival early one morning in June, 1862, shortly after McClellan’s ‘Seven Days’ Fight,’ he asked me for some paper, as he wanted to write something special. I procured some foolscap and handed it to him. He then sat down and began to write. I do not recall whether the sheets were loose or had been made into a pad. There must have been at least a quire. He would look out of the window a while and then put his pen to paper, but he did not write much at once. He would study between times and when he had made up his mind he would put down a line or two, and then sit quiet for a few minutes. After a time he would resume his writing, only to stop again at intervals to make some remark to me or to one of the cipher operators as a fresh despatch from the front was handed to him.
“Once his eye was arrested by the sight of a large spider-web stretched from the lintel of the portico to the side of the outer window-sill. This spider-web was an institution of the cipher-room and harbored a large colony of exceptionally big ones. We frequently watched their antics, and Assistant Secretary Watson dubbed them “Major Eckert’s lieutenants.” Lincoln commented on the web, and I told him that my lieutenants would soon report and pay their respects to the President. Not long after a big spider appeared at the cross-roads and tapped several times on the strands, whereupon five or six others came out from different directions. Then what seemed to be a great confab took place, after which they separated, each on a different strand of the web. Lincoln was much interested in the performance and thereafter, while working at the desk, would often watch for the appearance of his visitors.
“On the first day Lincoln did not cover one sheet of his special writing paper (nor indeed on any subsequent day). When ready to leave, he asked me to take charge of what he had written and not allow any one to see it. I told him I would do this with pleasure and would not read it myself. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I should be glad to know that no one will see it, although there is no objection to your looking at it; but please keep it locked up until I call for it to-morrow.’ I said his wishes would be strictly complied with.
“When he came to the office on the following day he asked for the papers, and I unlocked my desk and handed them to him and he again sat down to write. This he did nearly every day for several weeks, always handing me what he had written when ready to leave the office each day. Sometimes he would not write more than a line or two, and once I observed that he had put question-marks on the margin of what he had written. He would read over each day all the matter he had previously written and revise it, studying carefully each sentence.
“On one occasion he took the papers away with him, but he brought them back a day or two later. I became much interested in the matter and was impressed with the idea that he was engaged upon something of great importance, but did not know what it was until he had finished the document and then for the first time he told me that he had been writing an order giving freedom to the slaves in the South, for the purpose of hastening the end of the war. He said he had been able to work at my desk more quietly and command his thoughts better than at the White House, where he was frequently interrupted. I still have in my possession the ink-stand which he used at that time and which, as you know, stood on my desk until after Lee’s surrender. The pen he used was a small barrel-pen by Gillott-such as were supplied to the cipher-operators.”5

Another army officer, Major A.E.H. Johnson, recalled: “He came over from the White House several times a day, and, thrusting his long arm down among the messages fished them out one by one and read them. When he had secured the last one he invariably made some characteristic remark – generally something that caused laughter – and then proceeded to consult with Secretary Stanton.”6 Earlier in the war, Secretary Stanton had barred even the President from seeing telegrams from the front. One dispatch never reached either Stanton or Mr. Lincoln although it was received in the telegraph office. At the conclusion of the Seven days Battles in July 1862, General McClellan telegraphed: “If I save this Army I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington – you have done your best to sacrifice this Army.” The statement scandalized Colonel Edward S. Sanford and he censored the line before the rest of the telegram was given to Stanton.7

On July 5, 1865, the operators learned of the capture of Vicksburg by General Ulysses S. Grant. Although strict rules prohibited their consumption of liquor while on duty, they decided to celebrate the victory and mitigate the city’s heat wave by ordered up a can of bear. “We were passing the bucket around when, to our astonishment and alarm, in strode the President, who had to come to look over our despatches at first hand. You can imagine our embarrassment,” recalled head telegraph operator Edward Rosewater. “We had been caught by the Chief Executive. He had seen the tell-tale can, and although this was now practically empty, Lincoln was too shrewd a man not to know that were all guilty of violating one of the strictest orders of the War Department. But he affected at first not to notice. Coming over to my instrument he asked to see the latest despatch. He read it slowly, handed it back, and, turning to the messenger, who had been hoping for a favorable moment to make his escape with the can, Lincoln asked: ‘What have you in that bucket?'” Once Rosewater made the appropriate confessions, the President ordered the messenger to go get more beer and provided the twenty-five cent coin to do so. When the beer was delivered, the President declined the offer of a glass and picked up the bucket to take a drink while stilling holding Grant’s victory telegram.” 8

Although the President was permitted to walk alone to the War Department at night, his return to the White House was usually with an army guard, according to Henry W. Knight, a convalescing soldier who participated in such duties. “I seem to see him now, as – his tall, ungainly form wrapped in an old gray shawl, wearing usually a ‘shockingly bad hat,’ and carrying a worse umbrella – he came up the steps into the building,” wrote Knight three decades later. “When Mr. Lincoln was ready to return we would take up a position near him, and accompany him safely to the White House. I presume I performed this duty fifty times. On the way to the White House, Mr. Lincoln would converse with us on various topics. I remember one night when it was raining very hard that he came over, and about one o’clock he started back. As he saw us at the door, ready to escort him, he addressed us in these words: ‘Don’t come out in the storm with me tonight, boys. I have my umbrella, and can get home safely without you.’ ‘But,’ I replied, ‘Mr. President, we have positive orders from Mr. Stanton not to allow you to return alone; and you know we dare not disobey his orders.’ ‘No,’ replied Mr. Lincoln, ‘I suppose not; for if Stanton should learn that you had let me return alone, he would have you court-martialed and shot inside of twenty-four hours.”9

Sometimes, the President was accompanied by an aide on these rambles. According to Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary, John Hay, writing his diary on September 1, 1862: “This morning I walked with the President over to the War Department to ascertain the truth of the report that Jackson had crossed the Potomac. We went to the telegraph office and found it true. On the way over the President said, “McClellan is working like a beaver. He seems to be aroused to doing something, by the sort of snubbing he got last week. I am of the opinion that this public feeling against him will make it expedient to take important command from him. The Cabinet yesterday were unanimous against him. They were all ready to denounce me for it, except Blair. He has acted badly in this matter, but we must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he.’ I spoke of the general feeling against McClellan as evinced by the Prests mail. He rejoined, “Unquestionably he has acted badly toward Pope! He wanted him to fail. That is unpardonable, but he is too useful just now to sacrifice.’ At another time he said of McClellan, ‘If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.'”10

Two years later, Hay wrote in a letter on October 11, 1864: “At eight o’clock the President went over to the War Department to watch for despatches. I went with him. We found the building in a state of preparation for siege. Stanton had locked the doors and taken the keys upstairs, so that it was impossible even to send a card to him. A shivering messenger was pacing to and fro in the moonlight over the withered leaves, who, catching sight of the President, took us around by the Navy Department & conducted us into the War Office by a side door.”11

On Election Night on November 8, 1864, the War Department’s telegraph office gave President Lincoln an opportunity to learn the latest election returns, starting shortly after 7 P.M. By the time his election had been assured several hours later, the President had been employed in dispensing fried oysters. Journalist Noah Brooks reported that night’s events:

“Election day was dull, gloomy and rainy; and, as if by common consent, the White House was deserted, only two members [Gideon Welles and Edward Bates] of the Cabinet attending the regular meeting of that body….The President took no pains to conceal his anxious interest in the result of the election then going on all over the country, but just before the hour for Cabinet meeting he said: ‘I am just enough of a politician to know that there was not much doubt about the result of the Baltimore Convention, but about this thing I am far from being certain; I wish I were certain.’ Very few Union men here would have been unwilling to be as certain of a great good for themselves as they were of Lincoln’s re-election.
The first gun came from Indiana, Indianapolis sending word about half-past six in the evening that a gain of fifteen hundred in that city had been made for Lincoln. At seven o’clock, accompanied only by a friend, the President went over the War Department to hear the telegraphic dispatches, as they brought in the returns, but it was nearly nine o’clock before anything definite came in, and then Baltimore sent up her splendid majority of ten thousand plus. The President only smiled good-naturedly and said that was a fair beginning. Next Massachusetts send word that she was good for 75,000 majority (since much increased), and hard upon her came glorious old Pennsylvania, [John W. Forney] telegraphing that the State was sure for Lincoln. ‘As goes Pennsylvania, so goes the Union, they say,’ remarked Father Abraham, and he looked solemn, as he seemed to see another term of office looming before him. There was a long lull, and nothing heard from New York, the chosen battle ground of the Democracy, about which all were so anxious. New Jersey broke the calm by announcing a gain of one Congressman for the Union, but with a fair prospect of the State going for McClellan; then the President had to tell a story about the successful New Jersey Union Congressman, Dr. Newell, a family friend of the Lincolns, which was interrupted by a dispatch from New York City, claiming the State by 10,000. ‘I don’t believe that,’ remarked the incredulous Chief Magistrate, and when Greeley telegraphed at midnight that we should have the state by about four thousand, he thought that more reasonable. So the night wore on, and by midnight we were sure of Pennsylvania, the New England States, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and it then appeared that we should have Delaware. Still no word came from Illinois, or Iowa, or any of the trans-Mississippi States, and the President was specially concerned to hear from his own State, which sent a despatch from Chicago about one o’clock in the morning, claiming the State for Lincoln by 20,000 and Chicago by 2,500 majority. The wires worked badly on account of the storm, which increased, and nothing more was heard from the West until last night, the 10th, when the President received two days’ despatches from Springfield, claiming the state by 17,000 and the Capital by 20 majority, Springfield having been heretofore Democratic. By midnight the few gentlemen in the office had had the pleasure of congratulating the President on his re-election. He took it very calmly – said that he was free to confess that he felt relieved of suspense, and was glad that the verdict of the people was so likely to be clear, full and unmistakable, for it them appeared that his majority in the electoral college would be immense. About two o’clock in the morning a messenger came over from the White House with the intelligence that a crowd of Pennsylvanians were serenading his empty chamber, whereupon he went home, and in answer to repeated calls came forward and made one of the happiest and noblest little speeches of his life…”12

John Hay’s recollections of Election Night on November 8, 1864 were more extensive than his notes on the October elections:

Eckert came in shaking the rain from his cloak, with trousers very disreputably muddy. We sternly demanded an explanation. He had slipped, he said, & tumbled prone, crossing the street. He had done it, watching a fellow-being ahead and chuckling at his uncertain footing. Which reminded the Tycoon, of course. The President said, ‘For such an awkward fellow, I am pretty sure-footed. It used to take a pretty dextrous man to throw me. I remember, the evening of the day in 1858, that decided the contest for the Senate between Mr Douglas and myself, was something like this, dark, rainy & gloomy. I had been reading the returns, and had ascertained that we had lost the Legislature and started to go home. The path had been worn hog-back was slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other one out of the way, but I recovered myself & lit square, and I said to myself, ‘It’s a slip and not a fall.’
The President sent over the first fruits to Mrs. Lincoln. He said, ‘She is more anxious than I.’
We went into the Secretary’s room. Mr [Gideon] Wells and [Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus] Fox soon came in. They were especially happy over the election of Rice, regarding it as a great triumph for the Navy Department. Says Fox, ‘There are two fellows that have been especially malignant to us, and retribution has come upon them both, [John P.Hale] and [HenryWinter Davis].’ ‘You have more of that feeling of personal resentment than I,’ said Lincoln. ‘Perhaps I may have too little of it, but I never thought it paid. A man has not time to spend half his life in quarrels. If any man ceases to attack me, I never remember the past against him. It has seemed to me recently that [Henry Winter Davis] was growing more sensible to his own true interests and has ceased wasting his time by attacking me. I hope for his own good he has. He has been very malicious against me but has only injured himself by it. His conduct has been very strange to me. I came here, his friend, wishing to continue so. I had heard nothing but good of him; he was the cousin of my intimate friend Judge [David Davis]. But he had scarcely been elected when I began to learn of his attacking me on all possible occasions. It is very much the same with Hickman. I was much disappointed that he failed to be my friend. But my greatest disappointment of all has been with Grimes. Before I came here, I certainly expected to rely upon Grimes more than any other one man in the Senate. I like him very much. He is a great strong fellow. He is a valuable friend, a dangerous enemy. He carries too many guns not to be respected in any point of view. But he got wrong against me, I do not clearly know how, and has always been cool and almost hostile to me. I am glad he has always been the friend of the Navy and generally of the Administration.
Despatches kept coming in all the evening showing a splendid triumph in Indiana, showing steady, small gains all over Pennsylvania, enough to give a fair majority this time on the home vote. Guesses from New York and Albany which boiled down to about the estimated majority against us in the city, 35,000, and left the result in the State still doubtful.
A despatch from [General Benjamin] Butler was picked up & sent by [Major General C.W.] Sanford, saying that the City had gone 35,000 McC. & the State 40,000. This looked impossible. The State had been carefully canvassed & such a result was impossible except in view of some monstrous and undreamed of frauds. After a while another came from Sanford correcting former one & giving us the 40,000 in the State.
Sanford’s despatches all the evening continued most jubilant: especially when he announced the most startling majority of 80,000 in Massachusetts.
“General Eaton came in and waited for news with us. I had not before known he was with us. His denunciations of [Horatio] Seymour were especially hearty and vigorous.
Towards midnight we had supper, provided by Eckert. The President went awkwardly and hospitably to work shovelling out the fried oysters. He was most agreeable and genial all the evening in fact. Fox was abusing the coffee for being so hot–saying quaintly, it kept hot all the way down to the bottom of the cup as a piece of ice staid cold till you finished eating it.
We got later in the evening a scattering despatch from the West, giving us Michigan, one from Fox promising Missouri certainly, but a loss of the first district from that miserable split of Knox & Johnson, one promising Delaware, and one, too good for ready credence, saying Raymond & Doge & Darling had been elected in New York City.
Capt Thomas came up with a band about half-past two, and made some music and a small hifalute.
The President answered from the window with rather unusual dignity and effect & we came home.13

According to Hay, “The President in a lull of despatches took from his pocket the Nasby Papers and read several chapters of the experience of the saint & martyr, Petroleum V. They were immensely amusing, Stanton and Dana enjoyed them scarcely less than the President, who read, con amore, until 9 o’clock.”14 Dana later recalled that Stanton’s real reaction was quite negative, calling Dana aside, cursing and complaining, “Here is the fate of this whole republic at stake, and here is the man around whom it all centers, on whom it all depends, turning aside from this monumental issue to read the God damned trash of a silly mountebank!”15

Six months later on April 3, 1865, a presidential telegram “From Richmond” sent War Department telegraph operators to the windows to shout “Richmond has fallen!” – spreading the news across Washington. “In four minutes there were thousands of people around the Department,” reported the 16-year-old youth who took down the telegram. “The streets filled from every direction. Horse cars had no show; steam fire-engines came out on the avenue, bunched themselves, and commenced whistling; cannon planted in the park close by began firing; and men, women, and children yelled themselves hoarse and acted ridiculous.”16

Ten days later, President Lincoln visited the War Department before he went to the theater. He had been unable to prevail on either Edwin Stanton or Ulysses S. Grant to go to Ford’s Theater with Mrs. Lincoln and their wives. Grant had initially agreed to go but his wife convinced him to reconsider because her last experience with Mrs. Lincoln had been highly unpleasant. Telegraph operator Homer Bates later recorded the events of the President’s last day of life:

On the morning of the 14th, Lincoln made his usual visit to the War Department and told Stanton that Grant had cancelled his engagement for that evening. The stern and cautious Secretary again urged the President to give up the theater-party, and, when he found he was set on going, told him he ought to have a competent guard. Lincoln said: “Stanton, do you know that Eckert can break a poker over his arm?”
Stanton, not knowing what was coming, looked around in surprise and answered, “No, why do you ask such a question?” Lincoln said: “Well, Stanton, I have seen Eckert break five pokers, one after the other, over his arm, and I am thinking he would be the kind of man to go with me this evening. May I take him?”
Stanton, still unwilling to encourage the theater project, said that he had some important work for Eckert that evening, and could not spare him. Lincoln replied: “Well, I will ask the Major myself, and he can do your work tomorrow.” He then went into the cipher-room, told Eckert of his plans for the evening, and said he wanted him to be one of the party, but that Stanton said he could not spare him. “Now, Major,” he added, “come along. You can do Stanton’s work to-morrow, and Mrs. Lincoln and I want you with us.”
Eckert thanked the President but, knowing Stanton’s views, and that Grant had been induced to decline, [said] to the President he could not accept because the work which the Secretary referred to must be done that evening, and could not be put off.
“Very well,” Lincoln then said, “I shall take Major [Henry] Rathbone along, because Stanton insists upon having some one to protect me; but I should much rather have you, Major, since I know you can break a poker over your arm.”17


    1. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 93.
    2. David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 41.
    3. Benjamin Brown French, Witness to the Young Republic, p. 365.
    4. Helen Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 121.
    5. Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, pp. 138-141.
    6. Frank A. Flower, Edwin McMasters Stanton, p. 217.
    7. Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, p. 251.
    8. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 576.
    9. Harold Holzer, Lincoln as I Knew Him, p. 218.
    10. Tyler Dennett, editor, Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, p. 47.
    11. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay.
    12. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, pp. 143-144.
    13. Burlingame and Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 246.
    14. Burlingame and Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 38.
    15. Benjamin P. Thomas and Harold M. Hyman, Stanton: The Life and Times of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, p. 330.
    16. Frank A. Flower, Edwin McMasters Stanton, p. 262.
    17. Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 366-368.