The War Effort: Telegraph Office
In March 1862 Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton insisted in centralizing all telegraph communication for the war at the War Department's old library next to his office. The President therefore had to go to the telegraph office there to read war despatches and send his own. (The telegraph office had previously been located in two other locations in the same building, but General George McClellan had his own telegraph service at his headquarters in 1861-1862.) The office gave Mr. Lincoln an opportunity to write and think in peace as he waited for telegrams to arrive and be deciphered - as well to socialize in a way that was impossible elsewhere in Washington. Telegraph operator Albert B. Chandler reported the President said: "I come here to escape my persecutors. Hundreds of people come in and say they want to see me for only a minute. That means if I can hear their story and great their request in a minute, it will be enough."1 One telegraph operator, Homer Bates, later recorded Mr. Lincoln's routine:
When in the telegraph office, Lincoln was most easy of access. He often talked with the cipher-operators, asking questions regarding the despatches which we were translating from or into cipher, or which were filed in the order of receipt in the little drawer in our cipher-desk.
Early in the Civil War, President Lincoln's visits to the War Department and the Winder Building could pass virtually without notice. Just before the First Battle of Bull Run, Benjamin Brown French recorded in his diary: "I staid about the War Department perhaps an hour, saw President Lincoln pass through the lower passage, which was crowded with people. He was dressed in a common linen coat, had on a straw hat, & pushed along through the crowd without looking to the right or left, and no one seemed to know who he was. He entered the East door, passed entirely through & out at the West door, & across the street to Gen. Scott's quarters. I was somewhat amused to see with what earnestness he pushed his way along & to observe his exceedingly ordinary appearance."3
On his nocturnal walks to the War Department, Mr. Lincoln was sometimes accompanied by a secretary or friend. When he went alone, he was supposed to carry a stick as protection -- and to assuage the worries of his wife.4 Once he arrived, his usual routine at the War Department was reported by Major Thomas J. Eckert - a routine which led to the completion of the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation:
"As you know, the President came to the office every day and invariably sat at my desk while there. Upon his arrival early one morning in June, 1862, shortly after McClellan's 'Seven Days' Fight,' he asked me for some paper, as he wanted to write something special. I procured some foolscap and handed it to him. He then sat down and began to write. I do not recall whether the sheets were loose or had been made into a pad. There must have been at least a quire. He would look out of the window a while and then put his pen to paper, but he did not write much at once. He would study between times and when he had made up his mind he would put down a line or two, and then sit quiet for a few minutes. After a time he would resume his writing, only to stop again at intervals to make some remark to me or to one of the cipher operators as a fresh despatch from the front was handed to him.
Another army officer, Major A.E.H. Johnson, recalled: "He came over from the White House several times a day, and, thrusting his long arm down among the messages fished them out one by one and read them. When he had secured the last one he invariably made some characteristic remark - generally something that caused laughter - and then proceeded to consult with Secretary Stanton."6 Earlier in the war, Secretary Stanton had barred even the President from seeing telegrams from the front. One dispatch never reached either Stanton or Mr. Lincoln although it was received in the telegraph office. At the conclusion of the Seven days Battles in July 1862, General McClellan telegraphed: "If I save this Army I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington - you have done your best to sacrifice this Army." The statement scandalized Colonel Edward S. Sanford and he censored the line before the rest of the telegram was given to Stanton.7
On July 5, 1865, the operators learned of the capture of Vicksburg by General Ulysses S. Grant. Although strict rules prohibited their consumption of liquor while on duty, they decided to celebrate the victory and mitigate the city's heat wave by ordered up a can of bear. "We were passing the bucket around when, to our astonishment and alarm, in strode the President, who had to come to look over our despatches at first hand. You can imagine our embarrassment," recalled head telegraph operator Edward Rosewater. "We had been caught by the Chief Executive. He had seen the tell-tale can, and although this was now practically empty, Lincoln was too shrewd a man not to know that were all guilty of violating one of the strictest orders of the War Department. But he affected at first not to notice. Coming over to my instrument he asked to see the latest despatch. He read it slowly, handed it back, and, turning to the messenger, who had been hoping for a favorable moment to make his escape with the can, Lincoln asked: 'What have you in that bucket?'" Once Rosewater made the appropriate confessions, the President ordered the messenger to go get more beer and provided the twenty-five cent coin to do so. When the beer was delivered, the President declined the offer of a glass and picked up the bucket to take a drink while stilling holding Grant's victory telegram." 8
Although the President was permitted to walk alone to the War Department at night, his return to the White House was usually with an army guard, according to Henry W. Knight, a convalescing soldier who participated in such duties. "I seem to see him now, as - his tall, ungainly form wrapped in an old gray shawl, wearing usually a 'shockingly bad hat,' and carrying a worse umbrella - he came up the steps into the building," wrote Knight three decades later. "When Mr. Lincoln was ready to return we would take up a position near him, and accompany him safely to the White House. I presume I performed this duty fifty times. On the way to the White House, Mr. Lincoln would converse with us on various topics. I remember one night when it was raining very hard that he came over, and about one o'clock he started back. As he saw us at the door, ready to escort him, he addressed us in these words: 'Don't come out in the storm with me tonight, boys. I have my umbrella, and can get home safely without you.' 'But,' I replied, 'Mr. President, we have positive orders from Mr. Stanton not to allow you to return alone; and you know we dare not disobey his orders.' 'No,' replied Mr. Lincoln, 'I suppose not; for if Stanton should learn that you had let me return alone, he would have you court-martialed and shot inside of twenty-four hours."9
Sometimes, the President was accompanied by an aide on these rambles. According to Lincoln's Assistant Secretary, John Hay, writing his diary on September 1, 1862: "This morning I walked with the President over to the War Department to ascertain the truth of the report that Jackson had crossed the Potomac. We went to the telegraph office and found it true. On the way over the President said, "McClellan is working like a beaver. He seems to be aroused to doing something, by the sort of snubbing he got last week. I am of the opinion that this public feeling against him will make it expedient to take important command from him. The Cabinet yesterday were unanimous against him. They were all ready to denounce me for it, except Blair. He has acted badly in this matter, but we must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he.' I spoke of the general feeling against McClellan as evinced by the Prests mail. He rejoined, "Unquestionably he has acted badly toward Pope! He wanted him to fail. That is unpardonable, but he is too useful just now to sacrifice.' At another time he said of McClellan, 'If he can't fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.'"10
Two years later, Hay wrote in a letter on October 11, 1864: "At eight o'clock the President went over to the War Department to watch for despatches. I went with him. We found the building in a state of preparation for siege. Stanton had locked the doors and taken the keys upstairs, so that it was impossible even to send a card to him. A shivering messenger was pacing to and fro in the moonlight over the withered leaves, who, catching sight of the President, took us around by the Navy Department & conducted us into the War Office by a side door."11
On Election Night on November 8, 1864, the War Department's telegraph office gave President Lincoln an opportunity to learn the latest election returns, starting shortly after 7 P.M. By the time his election had been assured several hours later, the President had been employed in dispensing fried oysters. Journalist Noah Brooks reported that night's events:
"Election day was dull, gloomy and rainy; and, as if by common consent, the White House was deserted, only two members [Gideon Welles and Edward Bates] of the Cabinet attending the regular meeting of that body....The President took no pains to conceal his anxious interest in the result of the election then going on all over the country, but just before the hour for Cabinet meeting he said: 'I am just enough of a politician to know that there was not much doubt about the result of the Baltimore Convention, but about this thing I am far from being certain; I wish I were certain.' Very few Union men here would have been unwilling to be as certain of a great good for themselves as they were of Lincoln's re-election.
John Hay's recollections of Election Night on November 8, 1864 were more extensive than his notes on the October elections:
Eckert came in shaking the rain from his cloak, with trousers very disreputably muddy. We sternly demanded an explanation. He had slipped, he said, & tumbled prone, crossing the street. He had done it, watching a fellow-being ahead and chuckling at his uncertain footing. Which reminded the Tycoon, of course. The President said, 'For such an awkward fellow, I am pretty sure-footed. It used to take a pretty dextrous man to throw me. I remember, the evening of the day in 1858, that decided the contest for the Senate between Mr Douglas and myself, was something like this, dark, rainy & gloomy. I had been reading the returns, and had ascertained that we had lost the Legislature and started to go home. The path had been worn hog-back was slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other one out of the way, but I recovered myself & lit square, and I said to myself, 'It's a slip and not a fall.'
According to Hay, "The President in a lull of despatches took from his pocket the Nasby Papers and read several chapters of the experience of the saint & martyr, Petroleum V. They were immensely amusing, Stanton and Dana enjoyed them scarcely less than the President, who read, con amore, until 9 o'clock."14 Dana later recalled that Stanton's real reaction was quite negative, calling Dana aside, cursing and complaining, "Here is the fate of this whole republic at stake, and here is the man around whom it all centers, on whom it all depends, turning aside from this monumental issue to read the God damned trash of a silly mountebank!"15
Six months later on April 3, 1865, a presidential telegram "From Richmond" sent War Department telegraph operators to the windows to shout "Richmond has fallen!" - spreading the news across Washington. "In four minutes there were thousands of people around the Department," reported the 16-year-old youth who took down the telegram. "The streets filled from every direction. Horse cars had no show; steam fire-engines came out on the avenue, bunched themselves, and commenced whistling; cannon planted in the park close by began firing; and men, women, and children yelled themselves hoarse and acted ridiculous."16
Ten days later, President Lincoln visited the War Department before he went to the theater. He had been unable to prevail on either Edwin Stanton or Ulysses S. Grant to go to Ford's Theater with Mrs. Lincoln and their wives. Grant had initially agreed to go but his wife convinced him to reconsider because her last experience with Mrs. Lincoln had been highly unpleasant. Telegraph operator Homer Bates later recorded the events of the President's last day of life:
On the morning of the 14th, Lincoln made his usual visit to the War Department and told Stanton that Grant had cancelled his engagement for that evening. The stern and cautious Secretary again urged the President to give up the theater-party, and, when he found he was set on going, told him he ought to have a competent guard. Lincoln said: "Stanton, do you know that Eckert can break a poker over his arm?"