Empowering the Civil War through Telegraphy

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The American Civil War is the bloodiest and deadliest war the United States ever encountered. It is said that there were more American casualties in the Civil War than all other wars that the United States have fought in combined. Although deadly, the Civil War was also one of the most significant wars that brought about change and sparked the forthcoming of a new age of technology. The desire to produce more advanced systems and weaponry lead to the beginnings of modern technology and war tactics. However, this advancing age was not fully supported on both fronts of the war, which ultimately became the downfall for either side in major battles. Yet, the most influential forms of technology that transformed the United States was the advent of improved communication systems across the country. The Civil War exemplifies the impact that these communication networks had on military strategy, general politics and human rights, and regulations on communications.

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One of the main communications networks that revolutionized the American Civil War was telegraphy. Due to the development of the battery by Italian physicist, Alessandro Volta in 1800 and the connection between electricity and magnetism by Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted in 1820, long-distance communication via telegraphy was first developed during the 1840s and 1850s by Samuel Morse, Leonard Gale, and Alfred Vail. Morses single-circuit telegraph functioned by pushing the operator key down to complete the electric circuit of the battery, allowing for an electric signal to be transmitted across a wire to a receiver at the other end. However, these are just signals that are being transmitted, not words or letters.

Therefore, Samuel Morse developed the Morse code that translates letters in the alphabet with a number of dots and dashes. Originally, the first telegraph rendered the signals as marks on a paper, where short marks are dots and long marks are dashes, but operators soon became in tune with the code that the telegraph was innovated to produce beeping sounds to correlate with the dots and dashes. In turn, these messages can reach hundreds of miles and still be received within a matter of seconds. From Samuel Morses first telegraph message in 1844 from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland, the telegraph lines were able to stretch across the Atlantic Ocean to communicate between the United States and Europe in 1866.

Although telegraph lines were strewn across the nation to communicate over long distances, the incorporation of the telegraph lines was not entirely utilized to its full potential until a year after the war started. The scope that telegraphy can have on military strategy was discovered and both sides of the war began setting up their own telegraph lines in order to provide secure networks to communicate between generals and Washington. These lines became a valuable resource for commanders as it allowed the spread of supplies, manpower, and information at speeds unimaginable prior to the war. If these lines were damaged or cut off, then other means of communication were required such as mail.

However, there were only a few modes of transportation to deliver these messages. The quickest form of transportation would have been by railroad, but what a message that could be sent in a matter of minutes by telegraph would take hours if delivered by train. Yet, these networks of transportation became unreliable later in the war when rail networks became damaged and derailed, leading to deliver by carriage or on foot, which took exponentially more time to send information. However, this form of targeting communication outlets was a strategic move in launching a siege on communication networks that helped put a lid on isolated enemy encampments from calling out for support. Therefore, it was overall essential to protect the telegraph lines to ensure that these delays did not bring about major implications for battle plans and resourcing commanders and their troops.

Moreover, who were those that manned these telegraphy stations? One would be surprised that it was civilians who manned and operated the telegraphs for the Union Army. These civilians made up the United States Military Telegraph Corps. The Telegraph Corps was initiated during the first couple days of the Civil War by Secretary of War Simon Cameron who sought the help of Thomas A. Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad to gather men who will begin to establish an official network of telegraph lines for military purposes. Scott appointed Andrew Carnegie to extend rail networks to allow for the construction of telegraph lines to the Virginia territory. Additionally, Scott sought out telegraph operators David Strouse, D.H. Bates, Samuel M. Brown, and Richard OBrien to manage the telegraph networks at the War Department, Navy Yard, and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad depot, all locations of critical army headquarters. With these men lead to the incorporation of over 1500 men into the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps, which became a crucial force for the Union army. Many stories account the heroic and valiant efforts that these operators went through in order to ensure that messages were sent. Some operators were still sending one final order by telegraph while there were fighting and gunfire exploding just outside the telegraph office. Some of these operators understood the impact that their job had on the outcome of the war and was courageous enough to risk their lives to get the job done. These civilians are the sole resource that the Union Army can attribute its success in the war as the importance of information was a critical point in battles yet to come.

Conversely, there were many issues that hindered the Union army due to the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps. Since the Telegraph Corps was solely run by civilians, the military commanders had no authority to discipline these civilians if they became cowardly, which occurred quite often. Many great generals, like General Ulysses S. Grant, had to deal with their operators abandoning their proximity to the main army encampment to remain safe a couple of miles away, where they are practically useless. This poses a great disadvantage if these generals needed to send a vital message immediately in order to receive supplies or manpower during a decisive battle. Instead, messengers had to be sent on horseback to these operator stations, wasting precious minutes for the general. This caused many of the generals to distrust many of the operators that they were assigned with.

Additionally, since there was no government organization for telegraphs prior to the Civil War, there were no funds to cover the costs of constructing telegraph poles or the salaries of operators. Therefore, Edward S. Sanford of the American Telegraph Company had to pay for all these expenses for the first six months of the war. However, many of the telegraph operators were not receiving high enough salaries and would not receive a pension for their services since they were not members of the military, so they used their position as telegraph operators to run separate operations of transmitting private messages for people that were willing to pay for a certain price. This lead to many of the operators prioritizing the private messages instead of sending commands and intel for the military. This became a major threat to military generals as sometimes their messages were later sent out of order or sent a couple a days after they were initially inscribed, deepening the distrust generals had for telegraph operators throughout the war. Overall, telegraph operators played a crucial role in the development of the war but were not always trusted as a functional branch of the war due to the lack of discipline that existed within the United States Military Telegraph Corps. Additionally, telegraphy sparked the beginnings of the modern era of cryptography.

During the Civil War, the telegraph lines were a vital instrument of communication that needed to be constantly extended further or retreated depending on the advances of each front. Due to the constant back and forth, both sides went through throughout the war, many of these lines were out in plain sight for the opposing side to hijack. After hijacking these communication networks, the enemy may intercept important intel on the opponents resources, encampment locations, and possibly battle plans. This access to information becomes a major threat for the other side, so to combat this vulnerability, both the Union and Confederacy developed their own ciphers for telegraphic communication. With these cipher patterns, both sides can mask their messages with unintelligible text. However, if one is able to come up with a cipher, another can easily decipher the message as well. Therefore, both sides consistently updated and complicated various texts to prevent the opposing side from having a chance at deciphering the messages.

For example, the Union Army encoded their telegrams by laying out the message on a grid of a ledger book and scrambling the words in a particular order. The encryption was separated into three parts: arbitraries, null words, and routing instructions. Arbitraries were words or punctuations that were commonly replaced with other words in a message, where there were hundreds of different arbitraries, making the code practically undecipherable. Then null words are random words added to the ends of lines of the message just to confuse anyone that may try to intercept the telegram. Finally, routing instructions explained how to rewrite the message in the correct order for the telegraph operator. These three parts combined helped protect the secrecy of Union information from the hands of the Confederate Army.

Furthermore, the military was not the only source that utilized telegraphs, but the public also caught on to the advantages that telegraphs had in contacting people or spreading information. This lead to the spread of telegraph stations popping all over the United States, preferably near public newspaper publications to update citizens on important news during the war. These stations became an essential source of informing the public, causing large crowds to congregate these places in order to be informed of these important events. Therefore, a wave of people began moving closer to these major cities, causing an influx in urban population. Furthermore, the Civil War became to be a hot topic in many communities where previously people had nothing to really discuss other than business and politics.

With the war, now societies had a chance to voice their opinions on the cruelty of war, the death count that begins to pile up as the war continue, and various morbid topics regarding the war. Personally, I believe that American society on both sides of the war enjoyed discussing these cynical topics in order to mask the dark nature when themselves. In turn, that is why rumors began to spring up across the nation about certain battles or leaders during the war. Once full of to brim of all sorts of rumors about the war, people felt inclined to report them to newspaper companies or people across the nation, leading to the use of telegraphs to spread such information.

Consequently, both sides of the war now have different sources of true and false information coming from military commanders and from public news stations, causing conflicting views of major events that occurred. Both Lincoln and Davis were infuriated over such implications and developed methods of controlling the public to prevent such information from escaping out to the opposing side. Lincoln begins a war on telegraphy and sets up rules and regulations to monitor the network in the North to bring an end to misinformation or the spreading of information that the public is not ready to witness. Lincoln firsts initialize a censorship on any mention of military movements from public outlets, such as newspapers and telegraphy offices, unless otherwise permitted. This attempt to censor the public is effective by ensuring that the opposing side does not discover battle plans of northern generals, which may cause a major defeat for the North. The Confederacy had a strict censorship program throughout the beginning of the war, consequently allowing them to be quite successful in many of the early battles of the Civil War.

However, as the war came close to an end, the Confederate government began to lose control of its censorship program and lead to its ultimate demise in 1865. Moreover, the censor deters panic and chaos to occur depending on what material is presented for the public. However, the censorship also poses a question on whether the government should put limitations on speech and the press. The Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution protects all of its citizens to the freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but during times of war, the president can limit these freedoms to protect its country from certain threats. Yet, there was no strict enforcer in ensuring newspaper and telegraph companies abide by these censorship laws and guidelines in the Union, so many companies continued to issue reports that went against the censorship. Therefore, Lincoln enacted the Military Telegraphy Department in order to tap into telegraph lines and prevent any messages that may threaten the United States military in some shape or fashion.

Accordingly, many telegraph stations and news companies opposed the new department as they struggled to publish material that would gather the publics attention. Every attempt these companies took to send out these stories via telegraphy would immediately be stopped by those in the department and were forced to give up the material. This lead to two options for the news organizations, either produce more objective and factual reports about the war or send reports via railroads and carriage. Railroads option could be ideal, but delivering could take from a couple hours to a couple days, which becomes an obstacle when various news companies compete to publish up to date news stories to gather more of the publics attention.

Therefore, the term of reporters and reporting news becomes relevant for the first time where news companies disregarded highly opinionated pieces and focused on the objective takes of certain stories. With this new objective perspective in reporting brought about the denial of revealing a reporters source to their material. This allows for some privacy and protection to the source and guarantees some freedom to their right of free speech. As a result, we see the coming of a new age in news reporting and the beginning of discussions regarding freedom of speech and the press.

Overall, the development of telegraph systems and telegraphy during the American Civil War performed a major role as a syndicate for technological and social change throughout American society. The desire for fast and reliable communication networks revolutionized military strategy and the governments role in warfare. The reach that telegraphs are able to extend to allows for the widespread of news and information across the nation, keeping citizens informed and updated on important events around the United States. The beginnings of regulatory practices on national systems lead to future endeavors for the establishment of the Federal Communications Commission and the limitations of free speech and freedom of the press. And most importantly, telegraphy exemplifies the impact that electricity can have on the American society and the unique and vast possibilities that electricity can provide to light up the globe.

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Empowering The Civil War Through Telegraphy. (2019, May 23). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from

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