Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War

by Tom Wheeler, HarperCollins, 2006, 240 pages, $24.95.

Other than the time he spent at the Executive Mansion, President Abraham Lincoln spent more hours in the War Department’s telegraph office than at any other place during the Civil War. During major fights such as the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln would rest on a cot in the office, hungrily reading battle updates from his commanders and sending them messages himself.

The manager of the telegraph office became a close associate of the president and described his work routine: “Lincoln’s habit was to go immediately to the drawer each time he came into our room, and read over the telegrams, beginning at the top, until he came to the one he had seen at his last previous visit.” Thus Lincoln, like a modern-day executive, checked his electronic mail every day.

During the Civil War, telegraph technology was cutting edge. Samuel Morse had patented the invention in the early 1840s and received congressional funding. Ironically, Morse was a leading political opponent of Lincoln, often referring to him as “an imbecile.” Yet when it came to the strategic use of telegraph communications, Lincoln was a trailblazer. As Wheeler writes, “Never before had the commander in chief been able to issue orders and dialogue with his generals in almost real time without leaving the capital.”

Early in the war, telegraph messages sent by Lincoln exhorting Maj. Gen. George McClellan to attack were typically ignored. McClellan usually responded with long, whiny and factually inaccurate telegrams about how his troops were outnumbered or tired, or the terrain was an obstacle. When McClellan sent an October 1862 telegraph message about how his horses were exhausted, an exasperated Lincoln replied, “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”

When Confederates led by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson menaced Washington on May 24, 1862, while McClellan’s army was dawdling around Richmond, Lincoln sent nine separate telegraph messages to his generals ordering them to surround Jackson and save the nation’s capital. Again, Lincoln’s strategy was thwarted by overly cautious Union commanders and Jackson escaped. Although Lincoln’s attempt to encircle Jackson failed, he had effectively used the telegraph to put himself on the battlefield. A resentful McClellan would view Lincoln’s telegraph messages as a form of civilian micromanagement.

Wheeler also explores the manner in which Lincoln used the telegraph to control the flow of information reaching the Northern public. He authorized the secretary of war to censor all outgoing telegraph messages sent by newspaper reporters. Moreover, Lincoln used the Associated Press wire service to communicate the administration’s version of war events. The AP, unlike the other news outlets, was not subject to military censorship.

In response to fears of Confederate interception of Union telegraph messages, the Union created an encryption code that the Confederates were unable to break. Wheeler describes how the frustrated Confederates even published encoded Union messages in newspapers, asking readers to help decipher them.

Yet Lincoln never relied solely on the telegraph to get his message across. Lincoln preferred face-to-face meetings whenever possible. He also preferred writing letters to sending telegraph messages. But these slower modes of communication were not always practical. In the middle of a crisis, such as Jackson’s move toward Washington, Lincoln raced to the telegraph office to stay abreast of events and to send instructions to his commanders.

While Lincoln loathed the long, purposefully vague telegraph messages of McClellan, he admired the frank, no-nonsense messages from U.S. Grant. McClellan would spend hours explaining why he couldn’t attack the enemy, Grant would simply telegraph, “I will attack,” and then do so. With his trusty combat general in control late in the war, Lincoln became more hands-off. William T. Sherman and Grant used the telegraph to coordinate a military strategy they had worked out in advance with Lincoln. “The value of the magnetic telegraph in war cannot be exaggerated,” wrote Sherman, “as was illustrated by the perfect concert of action between the armies of Virginia and Georgia during 1864.”

Wheeler’s book skillfully explores a technological innovation that changed the relationship between the president and his military commanders. Lincoln would not be a political leader who simply deferred to the “superior expertise” of his military commanders, and the immediacy of the telegraph allowed Lincoln to firmly make his wishes clear. In the case of McClellan, Lincoln used the telegraph to exhort his commander to fight. When he did not, Lincoln dumped him. As Wheeler shows, Union commanders never had to guess where Lincoln stood. He was at the telegraph office, keeping on top of the war.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here