Leaders Listen

The First Electronic President

No one person holds all wisdom in our complicated, fast-moving world. To succeed, a wise leader needs informed sources, trusted advisors, and judgment to separate the grains of wisdom from foggy reasoning. Facing a myriad of problems daily, President Lincoln was no exception; instead, he established the standard.

Here he is seen in the telegraph office, which may seem a sleepy, solitary source of news compared with today’s worldwide information flowing in full-color pixels across multiple digital screens. Yet the telegraph gave Lincoln almost instantaneous news about what was happening on the Civil War battlefields—his early“internet.” He became the first “electronic president,” curious, forward-looking, and eager to learn and master future technology when he saw his first telegraph key. In 1857 Lincoln rode the legal circuit in Illinois and checked into the Tazewell House Hotel in Pekin, one of the state’s early telegraph offices. While there, Lincoln requested a tutorial from the telegraph operator Charles Tinker.

Then, two years before being elected President, Lincoln gave a series of lectures on “Discoveries and Inventions.” He said: “All creation is a mine, and every man, a miner.” (We’ll take it that he included women here based on his other statements on behalf of women.) He praised technological innovation and its benefits, saying it separated “Young America” from the other “Old Fogey” nations to the advantage of the new republic.

Just five weeks after the fall of Fort Sumner, the American Telegraph Company met on the Long Bridge, then across the Potomac River from the White House to sever the North-South telegraph connection. In hindsight, the North’s lopsided amount of military equipment and greater ability to supply their army across better railroad connections seemed to be critical in the outcome of the Civil War. But perhaps an even greater advantage came from the 1500 miles of telegraph lines quickly installed in the North, which was triple that in the South. Crucial communications between Lincoln and his generals ran across these wires. But, again, the Confederate’s focus on States’ rights and their difficulty obtaining the needed supplies to build and install telegraphic networks hampered their ability to communicate between their leadership and their generals in the field. In comparison, the South’s refusal to establish a robust central authority supporting telegraphic messages led to a communications nightmare.

In Washington, Lincoln demanded the latest information from the battlefields. So, during his first year in office, he learned how to manage the telegraph’s capabilities. Lincoln began to haunt the telegraph office near the White House because he wanted to be the first to know where his generals and troops were and the outcomes of the battles. He wasn’t shy about giving his opinion after reading the West Point curricula, including about the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution.

Three months after the Union’s loss at Bull Run, another defeat came at Balls Bluff, across the Potomac River in Virginia. The Confederates drove the bluecoats back over the bluff into the water. Many were shot as they tried to swim to the opposite shore. Colonel Edward Baker, a former Illinois Congressman and Oregon U.S. Senator, died leading his troops at Balls Bluff. He and Lincoln had served in Congress together and were close friends. When Lincoln went to the telegraph office to inquire about dispatches on the battle’s outcome, the telegraph operator denied anything new “in the file.” He’d placed this dispatch under his desk blotter, knowing the news would upset the President.

Then, Lincoln walked into McClellan’s office around the corner, where he saw the dispatch on his desk. Lincoln returned to the operator and asked why he withheld his message. The operator argued that technically he’d been truthful since the information was under his blotter, not “in the file.” Lincoln was not amused.  

A President Acts

Lincoln could not abide a situation that ceded control of electronic information to the military, to the exclusion of the elected government. A few similar incidents resulted in Lincoln sending the Secretary of War Simon Cameron to Russia as an ambassador. In January 1862, Edwin Stanton became the new Secretary of War. When Congress returned that month, it followed Lincoln’s request and enacted legislation allowing the government to take control of the telegraph lines as necessary for military purposes. The line continued to be owned by private companies and carried civilian traffic. Still, Stanton assumed control of military applications under the restructured U.S. Military Telegraph Corps (USMTC), a civilian operation only answerable to the Secretary of War, who worked for the President of the United States. The civilians were independent and immune to the orders of army officers.

Big Ear

The telegraph office moved from General McClellan’s headquarters to the War Department building next to the White House. Lincoln saw that telegraph operator Charles Tinker, his former tutor, be appointed a telegraph clerk there. So now Lincoln had a new hideout in the telegraph office in a room between the telegraph machines and Secretary Stanton’s office. There Lincoln would remain for hours, sometimes overnight. The President would hunch over the telegraph operator as he decoded the dispatch word for word. Sometimes Lincoln would open the operator’s drawer and read all the dispatches received since his last visit. At this point, the President would remark,” Well, boys, I’m down to the raisins.” (He referred to a doctor’s response treating a child with stomach problems—once the results came up to raisins, they’d hit bottom and were moving forward.)

The dispatches allowed Lincoln to eavesdrop on his generals in the field. By the summer of 1864, the future on the battlefield and the Presidential Campaign looked grim. Draft riots threatened havoc in New York, and General Grant worried about depleting his front-line forces to quell the domestic mayhem. In addition, Grant felt the heat from a Confederate Army marching up the Shenandoah Valley towards Washington while his advance to Richmond stalled. Finally, Lincoln saw his re-election prospects disappearing with the morning mist across the Potomac.

Then He Speaks

Lincoln believed a clear victory in battle would cut through all the confusion. So he sent one clear message to Grant: “I have seen your dispatches expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible.”

Upon reading Lincoln’s dispatch, Grant laughed out loud, reinforced his resolve, and said:” The President has more nerve than any of his advisors.” Knowing what we know of Grant, someone probably polished that sentence for publication! Somehow the weary troops, Grant’s persistence, and Lincoln’s continued support held tight. By March 4, 1865, after many twists and turns, Lincoln stood on the steps of the Capitol to give his Second Inaugural Address. Then, a month later, the President stood on the deck of the River Queen headed up the James River to view the ruins of Richmond, as much the result of the South’s destruction of remaining military supplies to keep them from Yankee hands than active Northern artillery. By April 9, General Lee, his final supply train destroyed before reaching his starving troops, requested a secret meeting to discuss surrender.

We can never know what exactly triggered John Wilkes Booth to take that small derringer pistol to the back of Lincoln’s head that evening at Ford’s Theater. But those who plotted with him later revealed the original plan: to hold the President for ransom. But after Booth heard Lincoln speak from the White House door two days after the Confederate surrender, he changed his mind. Then Lincoln mentioned giving the “elective franchise” (the vote) to “colored men–the very intelligent and those who served our cause as soldiers.” (Lincoln tried to weave a position between those in his party who were uncomfortable with giving the vote to men of color and those who wanted universal suffrage for men.)  Booth became furious and decided the President’s fate: “That is the last speech he will make,” and immediately revised his plan to kill the President instead.

 Within the week of Lincoln’s death, Frederick Douglass gave a eulogy for the President at Cooper Union in New York, the site of one of Lincoln’s speeches, announcing him to Eastern voters: “. . . no man who knew Abraham Lincoln  could hate him; . . . true to his country, and true to the cause of human freedom, taking care of the Constitution and for this reason, he was slain. . . and for this reason he today commands our homage.

“The greatness and grandeur of the American republic never appeared more conspicuously than in connection with the death of Abraham Lincoln: though always great and powerful, we have seemed to need the presence of some great, and widespread calamity, some overwhelming sorrow, to reveal to ourselves and the world, in glorified forms, all the elements of our national strength and greatness.

“While it cannot be affirmed, that our long-torn and distracted country has already reached the desired condition of peace, . . . we have survived the terrible agonies of a fierce and sanguinary rebellion. We have before us a fair prospect of a just and lasting peace, a peace which, if we are wise and just, can never be disturbed or broken by the remains of still insolent and designing slave oligarchy.”

Douglass saw the end of slavery but did not envision the current political division that requires every bit of that wisdom today.

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