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Lincoln And The Telegrapher

July 2024
9min read

Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph, when the Civil War came, proved to be an essential weapon—permitting the commander in chief personally to direct his armies. No one was more aware of its importance than Abraham Lincoln, who came each morning to the War Department telegraph office across the street from the White House; and jew men had a more intimate picture of the wartime President than the telegrapher Albert Chandler, whose recollections appeared forty years later in the noiu-dejunct Sunday Magazine. We are obliged to E. B. Long of Chicago, a Civil War authority, for rediscovering them.

I have always considered that I was fortunate in being one of the three cipher operators in MiIitary Telegraph service in the old War Department building, and to be often with Mr. Lincoln during the time of his greatest burden and anxiety. My immediate associates were Charles Tinker and Homer Kates. Our duties were equal and co-ordinate in the performance of the important and confidential service that we were called upon to render. Mr. Stanton’s secretary used to refer to us as the “Sacred Three.” Much of the time I alone occupied the room adjoining the private office of the Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton. This was often spoken of as the President’s room, for it was to it that he came nearly every day in his anxiety to learn the latest news of the various armies, and the talks he had there with the telegraph boys and Major Eckert, their superintendent, seemed to afford him genuine diversion. Frequently, too, he had interviews there with the Secretary of War, the Secretary of State, and of the Treasury, with the Judge Advocate General, the General in chief, and the other chief officers of the Government.

I first saw Mr. Lincoln at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, when he was on his way to Washington to assume the task of reconciling a great nation to itself. … As both telegraph operator and railway agent, I was among the few who were privileged to enter the private car in which he and his family were making their journey, and I shall never folget the deep impression which his towering form and his already sad and always kindly face made on me as he took my hand.…

The next time 1 remember his speaking to me was early one morning, perhaps six o’clock, soon after I went to Washington. I had been on duty all night. He had left the office as late as ten or eleven o’clock the night before, but so anxious was he for news from the armies that he often came over from the White House soon after daylight to see the despatches which had come in during the night. He seemed amused at finding me in exactly the same position, writing at my desk, in which he had seen me the night before, and as he came in he said: “Have you been sitting there all night?” Then he read over the new messages addressed to the various officers of the Government, both civil and military, carbon copies of which we made on letter-size tissue-paper and placed without folding in a little drawer in what we called the cipher desk. The contents of this drawer were for his special information. The messages were placed in it in the order of their reception, and he was careful to keep them so.

It was his habit to read from the top down, and when he came to those which he had already read, with a smile he said: “Well, I guess I have got down to the raisins.” As I seemed in doubt as to what that might mean, he explained that a little girl, having eaten improperly both in quantity and quality, beginning with a lot of raisins, was made quite ill, and could find relief only in the process which a sick stomach is likely to compel. After an exhausting siege she gave an exclamation of satisfaction that the end of her trouble was near, for she had “got down to the raisins.”

One day soon after this, hearing a newsboy on Pennsylvania Avenue calling out in a singsong way, “Here’s yer Philadelphia Inquiry!” he mimicked him, and then said: “Did 1 ever tell you the joke the Chicago newsboys had on me? A short time before my nomination I was at Chicago attending a lawsuit. A photographer asked me to sit for a picture. This coarse rough hair of mine was in a particularly bad tousle, and the picture presented me in all its fright. After my nomination, this being about the only picture of me there was, copies were struck to show those who had never seen me how I looked. The newsboys carried them around to sell, and had for their cry, ‘Here’s yer Old Abe! He’ll look better when he gets his hair combed,’” and he laughed over it as heartily as if it were a good joke on somebody else.…

The President was much in the habit of sitting with his feet on a table, or desk, or chair. In cold weather, during all my observation of him, he wore a large gray shawl, and never an overcoat. This shawl he usually hung over the top of the inner door of the office as he came in, a position in which a man of ordinary height could not place it.

You may like to know, as probably most of you do not, that his composition, in writing, was slow and apparently somewhat labored, and his writing itself was a comparatively slow process. While writing, as I have often seen him, sitting directly opposite me and at the same table, he was accustomed to look out of the window between his sentences, scratch his head, usually his right temple, for his sentences in his mind, often moving his lips in actual whisper of the words, and then write them out, rarely erasing, interlining, or correcting; and when he had finished, what simple and perfect diction it was! His style of composition was as peculiar and novel as himself, and always in simple, terse, and clear language. He sometimes read aloud, and in doing so would occasionally purposely mispronounce words and misplace inflection and accent, as if musing as he read.

His keen sense of the ridiculous extended to little things, and he was as perfect a mimic as his large frame would permit. A good example was this: Albert Johnson, Mr. Stanton’s private secretary and personal accountant, was a man of unusually small stature, weighing perhaps a hundred and ten pounds, and his deportment was extremely polite. On one occasion Mr. Lincoln wanted to refer to the Bible, and he asked Johnson to bring it. Johnson danced out of the room to get it; but not finding it quickly, and fearing that the President might become impatient, he ran back to explain that he had not found it yet, but would have it presently. He finally brought it, with an apology for the delay, and, with low repeated bows, retired. Alter Mr. Lincoln had made the desired use of the book, he ran nimbly into the adjoining room, just as Johnson had done, reappeared, then made his delivery of the book in the same fashion, greatly to his own and our amusement. This may not strike anybody as funny; but the extreme contrast in the size and movements of the two men, and the close imitation of the mimicry, made it decidedly appear so to us, for whose benefit he performed the bit of acting.

He came to our office, as he said, to “get rid of his persecutors,” most of whom wanted to see him “just a minute,” which meant that if he could hear their whole case arid decide just as they wanted him to do in a minute, then that was all the time they wanted; but that it did not often happen that way.

Peculiar names and alliterations seemed to have a charm tor him, and he would repeat them over and over to himself. He was in the habit of talking to himself, as I several times observed when he was walking between the White House and the department.

The Battle of Dranesville was, I believe, the first engagement of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan, and occurred after weeks of spirited picket firing. It, however, accomplished nothing of practical results, and it seemed that both armies were afraid to make a serious attack. After reading the reports, Mr. Lincoln said it reminded him of two puppy dogs he had seen barking furiously at each other through a paling fence. They kept up the most savage snarling as they ran along, until they came to an open gate, when each snapped its jaws at the other, turned quickly around, and ran away. The first news of the battle was to the effect that our forces had whipped the rebels, and among other things had captured fifty Colt’s revolvers. Mr. Lincoln read the message aloud, and asked the office messenger who handed it to him if he could tell when those Colt’s revolvers would grow to be horse pistols.

One morning after General Grierson’s celebrated raid, Mr. Lincoln came in, and as the raid was the most important recent military event, it was made the subject of conversation. Mr. Lincoln remarked that it was a most extraordinary movement. Grierson started into the rebel lines at Memphis, and nothing was heard of him for nearly three weeks, when he arrived safely at Baton Rouge with his command, having done serious damage to the Confederate railroads, machine-shops, mills, etc., along his route. The President said it reminded him of a story he once heard, of a person who had nui a needle into his hand and never knew anything of it again till it came out of one of his feet, fifteen years afterward.

When he finished reading the telegrams announcing the result of Sheridan’s last fight with Early in the Shenandoah Valley, he said he thought Early’s army was in about the same condition as the dog he once heard a man say he had killed. The hateful cur ran fiercely at him, snapping at his heels and annoying him provokingly every time he passed his owner’s house, and [the man] determined to be rid of him. So he one day filled a piece of punk with powder, set it on fire as he was about to pass his neighbor’s house, clapped it inside a biscuit, and when the dog rushed at him as usual, tossed the biscuit to him. In an instant the dog snapped it up and swallowed it. Presently the fire touched the powder and away went the dog, his head in one place, a leg here and another there, and the different parts of him scattered about; “but, said the man, “as for the dog, as a dog, I was never able to find him.” After this last fight, Early’s army, as an army, the President said he thought would be hard to find.

On June 14, 1863, information of the extensive movement of the Confederate army toward Maryland and Pennsylvania was received. This proved to be an attempt to transfer the battleground of the war from southern to northern soil, and culminated in the great Battle of Gettysburg. From the beginning of this movement until the recrossing of the Potomac by General Lee, with all that remained of his army, Mr. Lincoln spent much of his life in the War Department telegraph office. During this time General Hooker was relieved from the command of the army, and General Meade was made his successor.

On July 12, upon receiving a message from General Meade explaining somewhat in detail the movements of his army, and of the enemy as far as he could ascertain them, [Mr. Lincoln] called me to a large map hanging near my desk, which he frequently consulted, and pointed out that it seemed to him that the enemy were surely being driven to cross the river, instead of being prevented from doing so. General Meade’s message closed with these words: “It is my intention to attack the enemy to-morrow, unless something intervenes to prevent it; for delay will strengthen the enemy and will not increase my force.” Calling me again to the map, and pointing out the position of the various portions of the army as he understood them, and reading General Meade’s message over again, [Mr. Lincoln] paced the room, wringing his hands and saying: “They will be ready to fight a magnificent battle when there is no enemy there to fight.” His apprehensions were proved to be justifiable; for the next morning, when the attack was proposed to be made, the enemy had indeed escaped across the river. …

On the seventh of the following August, while I was alone in my office, Mr. Lincoln came in, bringing a long message which he had written with his own hand, addressed to Governor Seymour of New York, who, you may remember, was opposed to the war. He sat down at a desk and carefully reviewed it, so that I might see that it was properly transmitted. He explained to me something of the occasion of it, a special messenger having come over from New York with a long argument urging, among other things, that the draft should be suspended until the Supreme Court had decided as to the constitutionality of the draft law; and he told me a funny story about a Boston minister who had been drafted, and the criticism he made upon that method of recruiting the army.

Perhaps as popular a story as any that have been attributed to Lincoln is that referring to an alleged delegation who appealed to him to remove General Grant from command because of his indulgence of strong drink. The story has it that, after listening to the appeal, the President inquired if any of them could tell him where General Grant got his whisky; “because,” he is reported to have said, “if I could find out I would send a barrel of it to each of the other Generals.” 1 heard a gentleman inquire of him soon after this story became current whether it was true. He replied: “That would have been very good if I had said it; but I reckon it was charged to me to give it currency.” He said the origin of that story was in King George’s time. Bitter complaint had been made to the King that General Wolfe, then operating against Quebec, was mad. “Mad, is he?” said the King. “Then I wish he’d bite some of my other Generals.”

I wish to make special and grateful mention of the deep and genuine sympathy which Mr. Lincoln manifested for the soldiers in the field. He did not fail to realize the necessity for the exercise of strict discipline, and yet no soldier boy was ever executed for sleeping on his post or other like offenses, when Lincoln could prevent it. I think f have known him to come over to our offices himself, alone, at least half a dozen times, in the night, with a message of reprieve for some poor fellow who was under the sentence of death which nothing but the President’s power could stay, and his solicitude would not allow him to intrust his message to an orderly or other messenger, when a human life depended upon his direct action, and execution might take place unless the official stay was hurried to its destination.

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