The Huntington Library, owner of perhaps the best collection of Civil War regimental histories in existence, announced this week that it has acquired a sizable collection of Civil War telegrams thought to have been lost or destroyed decades ago. The World Wide Web has changed the way we have lived over the past twenty years. Hard as it is to imagine however, the telegraph transformed the lives of mid-nineteenth century Americans even more extensively. When Samuel Morse sent the first ever telegraphic message, from Washington, DC to Baltimore in May 1844, he altered people’s concepts of time and space. News that previously took months to arrive by ship or horse now travelled in real time. If Morse’s code had existed during the War of 1812 General Andrew Jackson would not have fought the British at New Orleans in January 1815, two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent ended the conflict.
The U.S. Army was quick to understand the signifiance of telegraphy and embraced the new technology quickly. (Not coincidentally, the military also understood the signifance of the internet after the Second World War and quickly embraced that technology as well.) Unfortunately the various presidential administrations of the 1840s and 50s were less quick to adapt. When Lincoln was inaugurated and the war came he was reduced to leaving the White House and venturing to the War Department and elsewhere for war news. That would be the equivalent today of the president and White House staff having no internet access and leaving the grounds to get their news from sources who are better plugged in.
The telegrams are in several dozen leather binders and once belonged to Thomas T. Eckert, assistant general superintendent of the United States Military Telegraph. Prior to serving in this capacity Eckert served on McClellan’s staff. After the war he worked for railroad magnate Jay Gould. Gould also went on to acquire Western Union. Only a fraction of the correspondance has been previously published. Over 100 telegrams in the Eckert collection are by Lincoln himself. The Huntington will display a portion of the material in two exhibits later in the year. Hopefully they will digitize at least some of this material in the future as well.
(image/War Department, Office of the Military Telegraph; NARA)