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1860s Telegraph and Codes

Instant Text Messages of the 1860's:

President Lincoln's Telegraph Office

And the Origins of Modern War Signals Communication

National Cryptology Conference at Johns Hopkins University Advanced Physics Laboratory: Laurel, Maryland: October 6th and 7th 2011.

Proposal Abstract:

The American Civil War is often considered the first modern war. Technology such as breech-loading rifles, railroads, iron-clad ships and canned foods were part of the modern war effort in the 1860's, but the revolution in communications technology is the clinching proof that the Civil War was indeed the first modern conflict. Abraham Lincoln spent a great deal of time in the U.S. War Department's telegraph hub near the White House and he eagerly read dispatches as they were de-ciphered by Union Military Telegraph officers. Able to respond to battlefield reports immediately, Lincoln embraced the first electronic instantaneous communications technology to exert command and control over his Union forces.  Many original Presidential telegraph orders survive and the primary documents also include first-hand accounts published after the Civil War by telegraph officers.  Signals were encoded in the Stager cipher and whole word codes were used.  The existing telegraph networks in the loyal states were nationalized by the Union government in 1862, as were the parallel railroad lines. Time sensitive messages were often slowed by down lines and enemy sabotage.  Lincoln was able to by-pass the chain of command and address regional campaign theater commanders and other officers directly and took a great personal interest in telegraph communications. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis had a more limited telegraph network, but Lee also used the telegraph as the war progressed, culminating in the fascinating Richmond-Petersburg telegraph exchanges with his field commander P.T. Beauregard. Using primary documents, archival orders, autobiographies from the period and rare collections, this paper sheds light on the beginnings of modern warfare communications, signals security, and the origins of information assurance.


     On March 29th 1907, one hundred and sixteen men gathered for a reunion banquet at the Hotel Manhattan in New York City.  These men had known one another in the service of the Union during the Civil War and represented the surviving Military Telegraph service corps.  Colonel Clowery, president of Western Union Telegraph Company, sat between Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Alva Edison, and the military historian William Plum was the guest of honor.  Miss Morse, the granddaughter of Samuel F. B. Morse, sang patriotic songs and then David Homer Bates, one of the "first four" Union military telegraphers in the War Department of Abraham Lincoln made a special announcement.  He proclaimed that Mr. Carnegie had "instituted an honor pension for the needy survivors of the 1860s military telegraph service at the same rate as private Union soldiers, or thirteen dollars a month, and 69 of the operators had already enrolled for the long-overdue military pension."

       Although Congress had recognized the civilian Military Telegraph corps in 1897, no military pensions had been paid.  During the Civil War, there had been over three hundred casualties-from disease, capture and enemy fire.  But 1907 was a festive reunion of survivors and much was made of Mr. Andrew Carnegie's age, 73, since "73" was the telegraphers' own private shorthand for "best wishes" or "warmest regards" when they sent telegraphic messages.The Federal government had never considered the telegraph service a true military corps and the operators were never given pensions until the philanthropic Carnegie stepped in forty-two years after the surrender at Appomattox. 

       Those present at the Hotel Manhattan in 1907 all knew that Simon Cameron, the Secretary of War in April 1861, had requisitioned "the first four" telegraph operators; Samuel Brown, David Strouse, Richard O'Brien and David Homer Bates from the Pennsylvania Railroad and they had traveled to Washington for duty on the orders of Andrew Carnegie.  David Homer Bates wrote the most notable autobiography of the period and is the subject of a conference paper here today, but I have investigated the privately published memoirs of his contemporaries Richard O'Brien, whose photographic collection you see here, Elbridge J. Copp and their contemporary author William Bender Wilson. 

       Wilson recounts that "on the afternoon of the 17th of April 1861, I ran telegraph wires into the Executive Chamber and there with a key and a relay, established on a window sill the first electric telegraph offices for military purposes on this continent." Five days later, Andrew Carnegie arrived in Washington, bleeding from lacerations received repairing a telegraph line, and called for the ‘first four' (in addition to Wilson) to report from his Pennsylvania Railroad office. 

In Washington, Carnegie immediately extended the Baltimore and Ohio railroad into Virginia across the Potomac River along with their parallel telegraph cables.  Wilson, Charles Tinker and the ‘first four' Penn Railroad telegraphers eventually became a Military Telegraph corps of over 1500 men.  However, as the 1907 pension situation makes clear, the U.S. Military Telegraph service was an irregular corps, that is to say it was a civilian organization responsible to the civilian military leaders in the Cabinet, the Secretary and Undersecretary of War, and technically the U.S.M.T. was a civilian bureau of the Quartermaster's Department. 

Here I see parallels with and precursors to the current dichotomy between civilian and military agencies.  The Military Telegraph corps was not under the control of theater commanders, Generals or field officers, but took their orders directly from the civilian Department of War. They did not usually share their codes with the theater commanders (although Exhibit Seven does seem to show General Joseph Hooker's code book and the Stager routing code), and their military associates, and it has been written that officers "frequently regarded them with a certain contempt or hostility...operators suffered from the natural impatience of military commanders, who resented the abnormal relations which inevitably led to distrust and contention." (But his was in the days before we had a Director of National Intelligence to mediate those issues.)            

       William Wilson's lesser-known memoirs include moments that match the anecdotes of O'Brien and Bates's books.  On page 47 Wilson describes "the battle of Bull Run ... while the action was progressing I was on duty in the War Department in Washington as military telegraph operator, and around me was gathered one of the most illustrious groups brought together during the war ... President Lincoln, William H. Seward, Simon Cameron, Salmon P. Chase, Gideon Welles and Edward Bates, of the Cabinet; Colonels Townsend, Van Rensalaer, Hamilton and Wright of General Scott's staff, General Mansfield, commanding the defenses of Washington and [Undersecretary of War] Thomas A. Scott of Pennsylvania [but] the military telegraph extended only to Fairfax Court House." On a similar occasion he wrote, "with almost breathless impatience they hung over the little instrument, drinking in with avidity every word relating to the movement of the command."  This War Department telegraph office was located in the War Department Headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House and David Homer Bates says that "Lincoln spent more time in the War Department telegraph office than in any other place, except the White House.  He came to the telegraph offices in a gray plaid shawl" many evenings and often spent the night there where he "regaled the cipher operators with stories."  Lincoln read the entire military telegraph file on a regular basis, marking his place as he left and waiting as the clerks de-coded the incoming signals traffic. By 1862 and early 1863 he was energetically dictating and writing telegrams to his top Union generals and colonels in the field.  He interacted with "ten or twelve day and two or three night operators" in a "large suite of library and rare book rooms adjacent to the Secretary of War's office" (Bates).             

       Tom Wheeler, a top communications and finance executive and Chairman of the National Archives Foundation, in his book "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails," says Lincoln was successful and worthy of emulation because he practiced ‘management by walking around,' the MWA method - I quote "It is hard to overemphasize the stunning breakthrough represented by Lincoln's adoption of the telegraph as a bridge between civilian and military leadership." By 1861, "Lincoln's early adopter instincts must have been turning, (he had) a growing awareness that the telegraph was more than a passive instrument; that Lincoln was awakening to how he might apply the technology to his own leadership purposes."  Wheeler supports this theme in his 2006 book and so my emphasis today will be on other issues, like the military telegraph services' leadership and the encryption processes they used.  In our correspondence, Mr. Wheeler suggested I focus on the struggle between the Army Signals group and the civilian Military Telegraph corps for control of the wartime telegraph communications network. While I found references to such an attempted military coup, they were fragmentary and too limited to become today's thesis.  Suffice to say that in March 1864 the Army Signals Corps transferred its field trains to this civilian Military Telegraph service. The Secretary of War also issued orders forbidding commanding generals to interfere with their telegraph operators and restricted the use of cipher books to civilian telegraph operators "approved and appointed by the Secretary of War."         

       While Andrew Carnegie was working in Washington with William Wilson, A.B. Chandler, William Tinker and the "first four;" Bates, Strouse, Brown and O'Brien, other characters who would shape wartime signals were active elsewhere.  Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott, a former executive of the Pennsylvania Railroad had overall control of the telegraph corps, and he enlisted E.S. Sanford of the American Telegraph Company as chief censor of the private telegraph services, which were in fact nationalized in 1862.  Sanford is remembered for privately financing the Union telegraphs for six months and connecting the Navy Yard and Arsenal to the War Department on his own initiative.  Major Thomas Eckhart became chief of the War Department's telegraph office.  Sanford and Eckert would both be disciplined in the course of the war for occasionally "editing" military messages; Sanford dropped some inflammatory phrases from a McClellan dispatch during the Seven Days campaign, and Eckert withheld news from Lincoln about the Federal loss at Ball's Bluff.  But the "mutilation" scandals passed and these individuals almost all became high executives in the telegraph and railroad industries after the war, as seen in these O'Brien photo captions.           

But there was one Union telegraph strategist more important than Carnegie, Wilson, the First Four, Undersecretary Scott or Major Eckert, and that was Anson Stager.  For our purposes here today he was the crucial player.   Anson Stager developed his unique routing code originally for Ohio Governor William Dennison.  Stager then worked with General McClellan during the West Virginia campaign in 1861 and then became overall head of the U.S. Military Telegraph corps.  Stager was based in Cleveland, Ohio throughout the Civil War and gave "particular attention to the West and Southwest" (Bates) and Stager's communications work was crucial for Union victory in the logistically difficult Cumberland and Kentucky River campaign theaters.         

       Anson Stager was commissioned a Captain (later a Colonel and brevet Brigadier General) in the Quartermaster's Department, and War Department Special Order 313 made Stager the "general manager of military telegraph lines" on November 25th, 1861.  One year later he was "Military Superintendant of all telegraph lines and Offices" and came into conflict with General U.S. Grant-for ordering that civilian operators were to retain the original copy of every telegram sent by any military officer.  Grant responded to the War Department: "Colonel Stager has no authority to demand the original of military dispatches and cannot have them." Anson Stager backed down, apparently fearful for his own career prospects. Tactically, the Signals Corps and the civilian Military Telegraph had to cooperate because in many cases, according to the C.I.A. historian, "field telegraph units linked commands and were connected to hilltop signalers who sent messages by flags in daylight and by torches at night."          

       Anson Stager is best known for his route code and it remained unbroken for the duration of the war.  (If time allows we can go over the specifics as illustrated on the handout).  But Stager is recognized as a true U.S. cryptology pioneer, an untrained telegraph officer who devised a cunning word matrix which survived all Confederate attempts to solve it.  Technically it was a symmetrical cipher, encrypted but not super-encrypted.  Many of our colleagues here today could break it in a week, if not an afternoon.  Anson Stager was the first general manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and his code had a huge advantage over the typical Confederate wire cipher. 

       The Confederate telegraph operators used the Vegenere system, it resembles an alphabetical multiplication table. The problem was that the resulting encryptions were random streams of letters, while the Union system was a puzzling stream of whole words. Southern telegraph operators had great difficulty sending and receiving the streams of random letters, but Northern clerks were much more accurate with the whole word ‘Stager routing code' method.  With the use of null words and arbitrary synonyms for nouns, the Stager cipher was unbroken.  Cipher discs were commonly used by both sides for flag and torch communications; these "wig-wag" signals were often intercepted visually and occasionally decrypted.  Also significant is the revelation by D.H. Bates that Union telegraph clerks routinely broke Confederate coded telegrams when presented with them.  "They were generally ordinary letter ciphers, the letters of the alphabet being transposed in various ways."  Bates also broke a hieroglyphic code from J.H. Cammack, a Confederate agent in New York and thus broke up a scheme to counterfeit Union currency and burn New York City hotels.  Northern telegraphers also sent "all sorts of bogus information for the purpose of misleading the enemy" -such was the birth of electronic psychological operations!         

       Stager's ten related ciphers were in four groups and they were initiated and later extinguished regularly throughout the war, and all were fully de-commissioned in June 1865.  Mary Sundell reports that "6,500,000 messages were sent via telegraph and paper transmission using the Stager system during the war."  The C.I.A. historian states, "on a typical day, USMT operators handled 4,500 telegrams, some more than 1,000 words long."  William Plum reported that Confederate officials published the Stager messages in southern newspapers seeking public code-breaking assistance, but never solved one; and no Federal telegraph officer "proved recreant to his sacred trust."  This despite the fact that the War Department staff "issued successive printed editions of the cipher code, numbering twelve in all, containing at first 16 printed pages and in the last edition 48 pages" with key words, decryption routes, and arbitrary words paired to their strategic synonyms. 

        In 1907 Bates related an anecdote about a physical wiretap south of Washington, "he had made the secret connection by means of fine silk-covered magnet wire, in such a way to conceal the joint almost entirely ... our wire had been tapped."  In another very unusual operation, a telegraph line was tethered to an airborne balloon piloted by Thaddeus Lowe and Lowe's cable to Lincoln became the first war-time air to ground communication in the United States and the first real time aerial reconnaissance. (C.I.A.)         

       Physically, the telegraph systems were weighty, expensive and delicate all at the same time.  Major Eckert provided General Meade in Virginia in 1864 multiple construction carts, wire-reels for cables and over thirty battery wagons. U.S.M.T. operators were usually proximate to the commander's tents and often under enemy fire.  In at least one instance, telegraph cable was diverted into an offensive weapon.  Elbridge J. Copp, in his privately published memoirs, relates that "telegraph wires that had been taken from the poles along the railroad that we had destroyed had been strung along from tree to tree in front of our lines in a way that when the charge of the enemy was made, the men were thrown to the ground, piling one upon another in great confusion, where they were slaughtered like sheep, from the terrific fire of our guns."          

       In what I believe is a fairly rare book, William Bender Wilson states that the telegraph corps had over twelve hundred young men whose ages ranged from 16-22 (and Thomas Clarke, a drummer boy, was active in the telegraph service by age 14) and "the boys constructed and operated within the lines of the Army 15,389 miles of telegraph lines and transmitted over 6,000,000 military telegrams...a large proportion were in the secret cipher of the government."  The opposing General Robert E. Lee was very wary of sending sensitive messages across the wires and the Confederacy used the telegraph much less than the Union did; although Douglas Southall Freeman did publish a crucial telegraphic exchange between Lee and Beauregard from the battle of Petersburg that shows that Lee did employ electronic communications effectively to co-ordinate defenses between Richmond and Petersburg as Grant executed his end game.         

       The history of the American telegraph commenced on May 24, 1844 when the Book of Numbers chapter 23, verse 23; "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT" was transmitted by Samuel Morse from the U.S. Capitol Building to an Army Depot in Baltimore.  Morse had patented the device in 1837 and his Assistant Alfred Vail had developed the Morse Code.  Despite the growth of commercial telegraph, Lincoln's predecessor, the pitiable James Buchanan, had sent only one telegram, and it was a symbolic message to Queen Victoria over the original trans-Atlantic cable in 1858 (interestingly, this cable was later re-cycled by the Union to run underwater in the Chesapeake Bay from Washington to Fort Monroe).  But Abraham Lincoln is known to have been present in a telegraph office by 1857, and his approach revolutionized military and civilian signals.  After the war, Edison, Stearns and others developed the duplex, the quadruplex, the contraplex, the sextuplex and the phantoplex methods of sending multiple signals in both directions along a single wire.  Then the telegraph was replaced by the telephone and the cellular phone replaced the landline, and we have seen fiber-optic and wireless data system revolutions in our lifetime.  But the innovative President Abraham Lincoln and his cryptologically talented United States Military Telegraph corps of General Anson Stager, Undersecretary of War Thomas Scott, William Bender Wilson, Major Eckert, Andrew Carnegie, William Plum, Tinker, Chandler and the Penn Railroad "first four" still stand at the center of the overall American electronic communications revolution.   


Sources and References:

Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War by Tom Wheeler; New York: Collins, 2006.

Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps During the Civil War by David Homer Bates; New York: Century, 1907.

A Glimpse of the United States Military Telegraph Corps, and of Abraham Lincoln by William Bender Wilson, 1889. 

A Few Acts and Actors in the Tragedy of the Civil War in the United States by William Bender Wilson; Philadelphia, 1892.  (Privately published: Allan Nevins's copy; Lincoln Room, University of Illinois).

Telegraphing in Battle: Reminiscences of the Civil War by John Emmet O'Brien, M.D., (Operator and Cipher Operator of United States Military Telegraph 1862-1866); Pennsylvania: Raeder Press, 1910.

The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States; an exposition of ancient and modern means of communication and of the Federal and Confederate cipher systems by William R. Plum, 1882.

Reminiscences of the War of Rebellion 1861-1865 by Col. Elbridge J. Copp; New Hampshire, 1911.

Larrabee's Cipher and Secret Letter and Telegraph Code with Hogg's Improvements by Charles S. Larrabee; New York: Van Nostrand, 1884.

The Stager Cipher in the American Civil War by Mary Sundell: MLAS; July 13, 2009.

Route Ciphers in the Civil War by Jim Sauerberg; Mathematics Awareness Month, April 2006.

Intelligence in the Civil War by Central Intelligence Agency (Public Affairs) ISBN #1929667124.

Codes and Ciphers: An A to Z of Covert Communication, from the Clay Tablet to the Microdot by Fred B. Wrixton, 1992. 

Masters of the Intelligence Art: George H. Sharpe, Grant's Intelligence Chief in the East by the Huachuca History Program.

Code-Cracker by Michael Antonucci in Civil War Times Illustrated, August 1995.

The Stager Cipher: Secret Codes in the Civil War  The Robert H. Milroy Collection: Jasper County Indiana Public Library.

"Encoded Telegram" by General J.D. Cox; December 3, 1862, Charleston, SC: Robert H. Milroy Collection, Jasper County Library.

Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing by David Kahn, 1967.

All Other Nights: A Note on Ciphers and Codes by Dara Horn:  http://www.darahorn.com/ciphers.htm

Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War by Donald E. Markle: Hippocrene Books, 1994.

Spies, Scouts and Raiders, Irregular Operations; Civil War Series: Time-Life, 1985.

Fighting for the Confederacy: The personal recollections of General Porter Alexander by Gary Gallagher, UNC Press, 1998.

Masked Dispatches: Cryptograms and Cryptology in American History 1775-1900  By Ralph E. Weber; Ft. Meade MD. Center for Military History: NSA, 1993.

Codes and Ciphers During the Civil War; Historical Background of the Signal Security Agency vol. I & Codes and Ciphers Prior to World War One:

Army Security Agency, Washington DC, 1945-1946.

The Civil War Military Telegraph Service (2002) http://www.civilwarhome.com/telegraph.htm

Personal Remembrances of Abraham Lincoln by Charles Tinker. (Cited by Bates, 1907).

Annual Report to Congress by Abraham Lincoln, December 5, 1863.

Duplex and Quadruplex Telegraphy by the International Textbook: Scranton PA, 1913.

Bulletin by the Navy Department Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Dec. 1934.  


David Shanet Clark, M.Ed.  is a public high school history teacher in DeKalb County (Atlanta) Georgia. He graduated summa cum laude in history from Georgia State University and has spoken on West Virginia history at numerous academic conferences. He is immediate past chairman of the DeKalb County Historic Preservation Commission, and was a keynote speaker for the DeKalb County Bar Association. He has done original archival research and published his work on West Virginia Statehood and John Brown's trial on his popular website.  With a background in radio and television, Mr. Clark reaches his students and professional audiences with a personal and entertaining style that complements his knowledge of the historically significant facts and theories.