Home / American Civil War / What Lincoln’s Telegraph Can Teach Us about Wartime Adaptation
What Lincoln’s Telegraph Can Teach Us about Wartime Adaptation
By Richard Tilley


The American Civil War was nearly over before it really began. When Union General McDowell and his 35,000 soldiers strode from Washington, D.C. southward in July 1861, they seemed destined to take Richmond. Fortunately for the Confederacy, the Virginia Central Railroad allowed last-second reinforcements to rush from the Shenandoah Valley and turn back McDowell at the First Battle of Bull Run. Two years later, another seminal invention took center stage as the rifled musket decimated Confederate General Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, setting the stage for Confederate surrender at Appomattox by 1865. For many historians, railroads to and rifles on American battlefields fashioned modern warfare.

Yet, the enduring legacy of these innovations has faded with time. The railroad was a modest improvement on the horse as a means of soldier transportation and was quickly supplanted by internal combustion and jet engines for ground and air maneuver, respectively. Similarly, rifling improved the effective range of the infantryman but no more significantly than the pike, the arrow, or the smoothbore musket and its impact pales in comparison to breach-loading and the machine gun. Upon deeper reflection, the most significant advancement of the American Civil War was President Lincoln’s use of the telegraph – an adaptation that introduced electronic command and control and forever altered the relationship between commander-in-chief and army in the field.

Though the United States possessed significant matériel advantage over the Confederacy, Lincoln faced several major obstacles to adapting his Union forces to the telecommunications revolution. First, armies of the day were largely institutionalized and resistant to changes in technology; only Lincoln’s strength of character and innovative personality could overcome the dogma of the military men around him. Second, the telegraph allowed Lincoln access to information directly from the front, bypassing territorial commanders resistant to civilian control. Third, during the first years of the war, the Union Army was plagued with ineffective, indecisive generals. The telegraph allowed Lincoln to circumvent the milquetoast and directly issue operational orders. Fourth, Civil War clashes took place on battlefields separated by immense distances, Lincoln’s access to telecommunications allowed him to overcome this tyranny of distance and coordinate his forces. Lastly, lack of United States progress during the early years of the war necessitated shifts in strategy that could only be directed by the commander-in-chief. The telegraph enabled Lincoln to transition from a limited war against the enemy’s capital, to one against the enemy’s army, to finally a total war against the Confederate warfighting capacity. These wartime telegraphic adaptations allowed Lincoln to overcome his disadvantages, defeat the Confederacy, and upend the military’s command and control architectures permanently.

Lincoln’s Adaptive Spirit

The Civil War is often remembered for furthering the tradition and esteem of the American military pantheon. But the man atop the victors, Abraham Lincoln, was no general, no slave to military tradition, and certainly no doctrinaire.[1] Even in contrast to his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, Lincoln had no formal military training, never led troops into battle, and owes much of his tactical successes during the Civil War to the military genius of his subordinates, most notably Ulysses S. Grant. But Lincoln possessed a comfort with technology that was perhaps antithetical to West Point graduates and their adherence to Napoleonic strategies. In contrast to their stoicism, Lincoln was a technical-tinkerer; he even remains the first and only president to hold a patent.[2] This innovative-streak set the conditions for his adoption of telecommunications far more quickly and completely than if left to military men alone.

Lincoln owed a large part of his presidency to the telegraph. As a political outsider and westerner, Lincoln built his 1860 presidential campaign on the telegraph wire. Lincoln needed the new technology to carry his message nationwide. During his famous “RIGHT MAKES MIGHT (capitalization original)” speech at Cooper Union, Lincoln trusted the newsmen’s telegraph to “magnify [his] impact and increase [his] influence.”[3] Lincoln learned of his electoral victory in New York, thereby capturing the electoral college – by telegraph. In many ways, Lincoln was the first modern communicator in the White House, distributing press releases and holding interviews at an unprecedented rate compared to his predecessors. And when the Confederates ordered the shelling of Fort Sumter in 1861, Lincoln would take his telegraph-familiarity with him to the war room.

Stiff-Arming a President

While President Lincoln was poised to use the telegraph to administer his forces in the field, the military bureaucracy resisted such a move by a civilian head of state. The Napoleonic-era armies of the war were led by military men in the field with little strategic, much less operational, guidance from their political overlords. These generals commanded their domains and had no interest in sharing that power with their civilian counterparts.

Lincoln encountered this institutional obstacle during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff early in the war. Following defeat at Bull Run, the Union’s general-in-chief, George McClellan, ordered troops to cross the Potomac River near Leesburg and reconnoiter enemy forces. Mistakenly believing they were surprising an enemy encampment, Union soldiers were surprised themselves by massed Confederate infantry. As the battle raged and Federal casualties swelled, telegraph reports poured into McClellan’s headquarters telling of yet another disaster. Yet rather than White House. When aides handed the General notes describing the carnage, he declined to share the news with the President. Later that day, Lincoln inquired with U.S. Army Headquarters as to the status of the Ball’s Bluff operation. The telegraph operators, under strict orders from McClellan, lied to the commander-in-chief and reported there were no updates from the field. Not until Lincoln spotted a telegram on McClellan’s desk that evening did he learn of the catastrophe.

Lincoln was justifiably irate at the dishonesty of his soldiers and immediately looked to the telegraph to solve his informational needs. In this moment, the President learned he could not rely on his generals to provide him honest feedback, and he needed the telegraph to understand and control his war. He fired off a message to the local Union commanders to reinforce his authority: “I want the particulars as to result of engagement and the relative position of the forces for the night, their numbers, and such other information as will give me a correct understanding of affairs.”[4]

The Telegraphic Commander-in-Chief

From Ball’s Bluff on, Lincoln became an invigorated wartime president empowered by the command and control wrought by the telegraph. The President ordered the electronic communications center moved from U.S. Army Headquarters to the War Department, conveniently adjacent to the White House. The President signed legislation giving the army control of all telegraphs and he ordered 15,000 miles of new wires strung.[5] For the duration of the war, Lincoln spent more time in the War Department’s telegraph office than any other location, save the White House. During particularly important engagements, aides installed a cot and Lincoln spent days in his war room in order to receive updates from the front in near real time. As Tom Wheeler notes, Lincoln’s access to the telegraph was historic; “A national leader electronically engaged in monitoring the activities of a battle at which he was not present.”[6] No longer would the President allow his generals to direct the war, the commander-in-chief now took charge of wartime strategy and used the telegraph to enforce his plans.

Roiled by the insolence of the Ball’s Bluff affair, Lincoln sacked Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, and replaced him with Edwin Stanton. Prior to the war, Stanton directed a telegraph company and, like Lincoln, recognized the power of the new technology to administer wartime strategy. While McClellan’s political affiliations likely spared him relief, Lincoln effectively banished the General to command the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and did not appoint a general-in-chief in his place. Lincoln no longer wanted a general between himself and his forces in the field.

Setting the Shenandoah Snare

Lincoln’s communications breakout is most clearly revealed during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. With McClellan dithering about on the peninsula, the forces of Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson threatened to march northeast from the breadbasket of Virginia and attack Washington. Rather than leaving it to his generals to devise a counteraction, Lincoln took to the telegraph to coordinate the defense. First, the commander-in-chief rescinded McClellan’s orders and directed General McDowell position his forces just outside the District of Columbia to protect from a Confederate approach from the southeast. But his sense of security did not last long, as then Lincoln “swung around to find the Shenandoah shotgun loaded and levelled at his head,” following Jackson victories at McDowell, Front Royal, and Winchester.[7]

With Confederate forces just 40 miles from the White House, Lincoln grasped the telegraph to administer his strategy. He telegrammed to General Frémont in the Mountain Department, “You are therefore directed by the President to move against Jackson at Harrisonberg.”[8] To General McDowell he transmitted, “You are instructed to put 20,000 men in motion at once for Shenandoah…You object will be to capture the forces of Jackson & Ewell.”[9] From the White House, Lincoln had seized control of his forces at the operational level, attempting to trap Jackson in the Valley.

Just as Lincoln’s noose tightened, Union generals faltered. Frémont hesitated in the mountains; Shields delayed at Front Royal; McDowell arrived too late. Stonewall Jackson slipped through the snare and moved east to support Richmond. Arguably the best tactician of the war narrowly evaded a President with no military training. Despite this setback, Lincoln had demonstrated the power of the telegraph to administer his strategies. The telegraph’s weakness rested in the commanders on the other end of the line. Lincoln would need to further adapt his army and its structure to the communication age to be successful.

West Meets East

While in the East McClellan had failed to take Richmond and Lincoln’s campaign failed to entrap Jackson in the Valley, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had emerged as a hero at the Battle of Shiloh. Able to monitor Grant’s subsequent victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga by telegraph, Lincoln had finally found a dynamic leader capable of receiving strategic guidance from the White House and acting. In Grant, Lincoln hoped he could take the fight to the Confederate heartland.

To meet this vision, Lincoln evolved his military chain of command. Lincoln canned McClellan and a host of generals-in-chief successors before arriving at General Henry Halleck. Enabled by the telegraph, Lincoln no longer needed a general-in-chief to administer strategy, he would do so himself – Halleck effectively became an administrator in uniform. Having monitored telegrams from the front daily, President Lincoln also evaluated the generals on their merits, promoting and demoting as he saw fit from the White House. Atop this restructure, Lincoln placed Grant as commander of all Union field armies. Though Grant would be on the battlefields as theatre commander in the east, he, too, could use the telegraph to also wage the campaign in the west.

With the appropriate structure and leader in place, Lincoln launched Grant on the Overland Campaign of 1864. As the Union Army stalled around Petersburg, Lincoln quickly pivoted to a new strategy; “Get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all damage you can against their war resources.”[10] With that guidance, Grant unleashed General Sherman on a total war campaign in the Deep South, while General Meade harassed the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the mid-Atlantic. Slowly the Confederacy’s war-making capacity withered leading General Lee to surrender to Grant at Appomattox.

Abraham Lincoln will best be remembered for his political and social achievements. Through his prosecution of the Civil War, he preserved the Union. Through his delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation, he freed the slaves. And in 1865, he created the precursor to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. But Lincoln’s assimilation to the telegraph and the evolution in command and control he created continue to have far-reaching effects on warfighting today.

Lincoln remains a uniquely suited individual to bring warfare into the telecommunication age. A wartime president, Lincoln’s combination of determination and adaptability allowed his White House to maintain control of cantankerous commanders unwelcoming to civilian control. The telegraph allowed unfiltered situational awareness to flow directly to the commander-in-chief, giving the President better insight as to the prosecution of his campaigns. Using this knowledge, Lincoln could administer strategy and direction near instantaneously across the disparate battlefields of the Civil War as no other head of state was able before. But the telegraph was not a war-making panacea as its tactical limitations demonstrated in the Valley Campaign. This, too, Lincoln was able to overcome by finding Grant and allowing him to tactically administer his strategy over the telegraph wires of both east and west.

National security leaders today, civilian and military, rely heavily on electronic command, control, and communication to prosecute wars. A quick Google search can produce photos of Presidents Obama and Trump in the White House Situation Room monitoring the tactical operations targeting Osama bin Laden and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, respectively. In the years since Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff, the electronic medium has evolved from dots and dashes to data and video that give the most senior military leaders instant situational awareness of the tactical battlefield. These wartime leaders today all owe their command and control to the adaptation of Abraham Lincoln and his telegraph 160 years ago.

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Show Notes

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© 2024 Richard Tilly

Published online: 06/21/2022.

Written by Richard Tilley.

About the author:
Richard Tilley is the Director of the Office of Irregular Warfare and Competition on the Joint Staff. He is also a doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and previously served as a U.S. Army Special Forces Officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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