Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Lincoln and the Telegraphic Civil War

Posted on | November 18, 2012 | No Comments

I’m looking forward to seeing Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) about the 16th president’s efforts to end slavery and win the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was a complex and troubled corporate lawyer and state senator who found his voice and purpose as he confronted the economic, political, and humanitarian challenges of this time. As his drive led him to the White House, he summoned the technological resources of his time to aid his purpose.

Lincoln was the first president to understand the railroad and telegraph as strategic tools to wage both politics and war. As a railroad lawyer in the 1850s, Lincoln became aware of the powerful communication and economic changes brought on by these two converging technologies, particularly as they pushed outward to expand trade and political influence into the western frontier. As president and commander-in-chief, he studied the use of these young technologies by Napoleon III in the 1859 campaign to support the unification of Italy. Lincoln aggressively executed the war and worked with his generals to use the telegraph and railroads to mobilize troops and supplies effectively and conduct successful wartime operations.

Despite its promise, technological infrastructure lagged in the US until the Civil War and Lincoln’s resolve to secure the West. He was elected president in the fall of 1860 and took office the next spring with the southern states threatening to secede. He saw the preservation of the Union not only in North-South terms but also in incorporating the vast expanses of the West. The 1859 discovery of silver in Nevada and the gold rush’s expansion to Colorado’s Pike’s Peak provided additional motivation. He supported the completion of the cross-country telegraphic link that had to traverse hostile Indian territory and rugged mountain ranges. Finally, cables from two private telegraph companies met at Salt Lake City, and President Lincoln received the first message in Washington DC from Sacramento, California on October 24, 1861.[1]

A telegraph room was set up in the War Department next to the White House as one of the first command and control centers using electric technology. Lincoln would often linger there for long periods during the war, awaiting reports from various battlefields and writing memos to be transmitted. The US Military Telegraph (USMT) was created in 1862, taking over from the Union’s Signal Corps. They took over the emerging long distance lines, but rather than militarize all aspects of the telegraphy system, they chose to supervise the private sector’s telegraph operators and required them to make military messages their priority. They also helped subsidize the construction of new lines.[2]

The Union proved more successful with the telegraph than the Confederate South. The telegraph served to coordinate troop movements and critical logistical supply in conjunction with railroads. General Herman Haupt designed the responsibilities of the North’s Department of Military Railroads: inventory the railroads and their distances, assess their condition, and determine the availability and prices of materials and labor for building and maintaining the lines. The railroads were used as crucial supply lines for ammunition, other equipment, and food. They were also used to move and to move large numbers of troops quickly to the battlefield. General Sherman, notorious for the destructive “Sherman’s March” through the south, estimated that to keep an army of 100,000 men and their animals supplied it would take 160 railroad cars of supplies a day or over 36,000 wagons drawn by team of six mules each.[3] The South never garnered the technological sophistication or supply to adequately coordinate its railroads and thus its troops suffered severe strategy and supply problems.


[1] I highly recommend Lubrano’s (1997) book, The Telegraph: How Technology Innovation Caused Social Change. NY: Garland Publishing. p. 10.
[2] Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War is a very old book by David Homer Bates.
[3] Information on the transcontinental link from Eicher, D.J. (2002) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. NY: Simon and Schuster. This is one of the few accounts of the Civil War that addresses the issues of communications and transportation.
[4] Eicher, D.J. (2002) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. NY: Simon and Schuster. One of the few accounts of the Civil War that addresses the issues of communications and transportation.




Anthony J. Pennings, PhD recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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