“If I Stop a Shell, Send My Things Home”

Guest post by David Hochfelder

During the Civil War, the War Department operated a U.S. Military Telegraph (USMT) network that handled 6.5 million messages between Washington, D.C., and commanders in the field. At its peak in 1865, the USMT managed 8,000 miles of military lines it had built and another 5,000 miles of commercial lines in occupied Southern states. About 1,200 operators and linemen ran this far-flung system. Union generals were unanimous in their praise, universally claiming that it was a major key to a Northern victory. Just as importantly, the military telegraph enabled political leaders to maintain civilian authority over military operations and to control the flow of news. President Lincoln, as is well known, spent countless hours in the War Department telegraph office.

This Matthew Brady photograph, "US Military Telegraph Operators, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac," captured both the youth of military telegraphers and their living and working conditions.  National Archives NWDNS-111-B-7208, July 1863.

This Matthew Brady photograph, “U.S. Military Telegraph Operators, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac,” captured both the youth of military telegraphers and their living and working conditions. National Archives NWDNS-111-B-7208, July 1863.

Of the 1,200 who staffed the USMT, about 200 were killed, wounded, or captured by the enemy. Many operators occupied front-line positions. Consider the experiences of Luther Rose, a USMT operator assigned to the headquarters of General Winfield Scott Hancock of the Army of the Potomac. Rose’s papers (held at the Library of Congress) describe the dangers many USMT operators faced, as well as the value of the telegraph as a military tool. Take, for example, the May 1864 battle of Spotsylvania, a major part of Ulysses Grant’s Wilderness campaign.

Rose set up his sending and receiving instruments at 3:30 AM, an hour before Hancock began a pre-dawn attack on the Confederate lines. This allowed Hancock to coordinate the attack with other corps commanders. Favored with a heavy early-morning fog, Hancock’s advance was successful. Later in the day, however, the Confederates desperately counterattacked. Hancock telegraphed to his superior, General George Gordon Meade, that he was unable to hold his gains unless the 6th Corps on his right came to his support. Ten minutes later, as Rose recorded in his diary, “the 6th Corps was thundering away & Hancock held his own . . .  Here the Telegraph came forcibly into play, showing to what great benefit it could be used.”

Rose later described his telegraph instrument as “the principal channel” through which passed the orders determining the movements of Hancock’s corps during the Wilderness campaign. Similarly, Meade later recalled that, on July 30, 1864, he had sent or received over 100 telegrams during the ill-fated, five-hour Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, or one every three minutes. Rose himself operated from an artillery battery during the engagement, demonstrating the utility of the telegraph for real-time battlefield use.

Such positions exposed Rose and other operators to the same enemy fire experienced by front-line troops. Although Rose came through the war unscathed, he endured artillery fire on several occasions. He and a companion operator were so close to the front at Spotsylvania that heavy shelling frequently broke their wire. The two took turns splicing the breaks, remarking, before setting out, “If I stop a shell, send my things home.” At Cold Harbor in June 1864, he nearly did stop a shell. Confederate barrages killed a nearby mule and took off the camp provost marshal’s leg. Rose was especially exposed to enemy fire because when the headquarters moved, telegraphers were the last to move out.

Despite the dangers and hardships USMT operators faced, both the Grand Army of the Republic (the largest organization of Civil War veterans) and the Federal government denied them recognition. The GAR continually denied telegraphers admission into their ranks because USMT personnel were civilians with no military rank. For the same reason, Congress refused to offer veterans’ pensions to USMT operators. Only after the turn of the century did wealthy steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie (himself a former telegrapher) set up a pension fund for them.

hochfelderDavid Hochfelder is an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York, Albany, and author of the recently published The Telegraph in America, 1832–1920.

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