BLTC Press Titles

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The Worm Ouroboros

E. R. Eddison

Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu, James Legge (trans.)

The Diplomatic Background of the War

Charles Seymour

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian

Lincoln in the Telegraph Office

by David Homer Bates


In October, 1861, the telegraph office was moved to the first floor room west of the rear entrance, opposite the Navy Department. The final change was made soon after the MonitorMerrimac fight in March, 1862, when Secretary of War Stanton directed the office to be located in the old library room, on the second floor front, adjoining his own quarters, which consisted of three rooms, each having two win dows. The library room had five windows, and about one half of the floor space was taken up with alcoves containing many rare volumes of great value including among others a perfect elephant folio edition—of Audubon's1 "Birds of America." The alcove doors were securely locked, but the telegraph operators managed to obtain access to the books, from which we made selections for reading and study. It was in this old library—which Librarian Cheney tells me was founded in 1800—that I first came across a copy of Roget's "Thesaurus," to which we thereafter made frequent reference, especially during the time when Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, was at Grant's and Rosecrans's headquarters, from each of which he sent long cipher-despatches containing words with meanings new and obscure to the telegraph boys.

Not long after the instruments had been moved to the library room, Secretary Stanton gave up the adjoining room for the use of the cipheroperators. We remained in these quarters until after the close of the war.

From January, 1862, when Stanton entered the cabinet, until the war ended, the telegraphic reins of the Government were held by a firm and skilful hand. Nicolay and Hay, in their "Abraham Lincoln," x say that Stanton "centered the telegraph in the War Department, where the publication of military news, which might prematurely reach the enemy, could be supervised, and, if necessary, delayed," and that it was Lincoln's practice to go informally to Stanton's office in times of great suspense during impending or actual battles, and "spend hour after hour with his War Secretary, where he could read the telegrams as fast as they were received and handed in from the adjoining room." He did not always wait for them to be handed in, but made the cipher-room his rendezvous, keeping in close touch with the cipher-operators, often looking over our shoulders when he knew some specially important message was in course of translation.

1Four volumes, sire 25 x 39 inches, London imprint, 1887-18S0.

When in the telegraph office, Lincoln was most easy of access. He often talked with the cipheroperators, 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.

1Vol. V, pp. 141-142. See also Vol. VI, p. 114: "His thoughts by day and anxiety by night fed upon the intelligence which the telegraph brought. ... It is safe to say that no general in the army studied his maps and scanned his telegrams with half the industry—and it may be added with half the intelligence—which Mr. Lincoln gave to his."

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. When this point was reached he almost always said, "Well, boys, I am down to raisins." After we had heard this curious remark a number of times, one of us ventured to ask him what it meant. He thereupon told us the story of the little girl who celebrated her birthday by eating very freely of many good things, topping off with raisins for dessert. During the night she was taken violently ill, and when the doctor arrived she was busy casting up her accounts. The genial doctor, scrutinizing the contents of the vessel, noticed some small black objects that had just appeared, and remarked to the anxious parent that all danger was past, as the child was "down to raisins." "So," Lincoln said, "when I reach the message in this pile which I saw on my last visit, I know that I need go no further."

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