The Corps of Telegraphers Under General Anson Stager During the War of the Rebellion.
By W. G. Fuller, Late Captain and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, U.S.V.
“That steed called ‘Lightning,’ say the fates,
Is owned in the United States;
‘Twas Franklin’s hand that caught the horse;
‘Twas harnessed by Professor Morse.”
The art of healing has not taxed human ingenuity more than the art of killing. In war, secrecy and dispatch have ever been prime factors. Very few wars have been conducted with single armies, and wherever there have been different armies under the same general command, intercommunication has ever been necessary.
To this end the first thought is to secure secrecy, even though the bearer of the message fall into the enemy’s hand. In these days of steam and electricity we can not delay, as did Histiaeus, who pricked his message on the shaven head of a slave, and waited until the hair grew long enough to hide it; nor are we content with placing a message between the soles of the bearer’s boots or other hiding, but it must be so written, however carried, that the enemy will be none the wiser though he secure the dispatch; hence, one of the first thoughts of the military telegrapher in our late war, was to disguise the order of information.
To this end, Anson Stager, at the outset of the rebellion, invented a cipher, which he, and some of his subordinates in the military telegraph corps improved and enlarged into what was, undoubtedly, the most perfect system of cryptographic writing that has ever been employed for any purpose.
The unfolding of these devices into their manifold phases and splendid perfection, are scarcely hinted at in the general histories of the war, and I think can only be found in the “History of the Military Telegraph,” in two large volumes, written by William R. Plum, LL.B., of the Chicago bar, who entered the service when but sixteen years of age, as on of my boys, in 1862.
To all students of the war of 1861-65 I commend a perusal of that work, which has received the highest encomiums, not only in this country, but in Europe.
The writer had the honor of placing a set of these valuable books in the library of this commandery last year. To speak generally of our cipher system, it consisted of arbitrary words, which indicated all prominent officers, Federal and Confederate, of the army and navy, including the President, members of the cabinet and governors; also blind words indicating geographical localities and names, military names and expressions, numerals, months, and days.
The real name of the officer sending or receiving the dispatch never appeared in the message, which was so systematically disarranged that no two consecutive words appeared together, and the words that were joined made no sense, and sometimes the most ridiculous nonsense, for the cipher operator was obliged to put in surplus, unmeaning words, which were discarded in translating, and which oftentimes enabled the cipherer to make a frivolous sentence out of the most important and serious dispatches.
Notwithstanding the fact, that substantially all important military dispatches to and from the Secretary of War, the officers of the army, and the Union governors, were transmitted in one of the several telegraph cipher keys, in number about one dozen, some of which were specially held by one cipherer at the four or five principal head-quarters, and at the War Office at Washington, it is a surprising circumstance that, when Colonel Scott undertook the Herculean task of arranging his compilation of the records of the war, which included many thousand original dispatches, for publication by the government, there could not be found a single cipher key in the archives of the war department; and I am informed that he procured the set which Mr. Plum had been fortunate enough to obtain and preserve. The writer of this paper has a set which he preserved also. This surprising condition of affairs was owing to an entire absence of legislative authority for the existence of the military telegraph corps.
The Confederate cipher was a systematic and shifting employment of the alphabet, whereby one letter was made to represent another—the important words only put in the cipher, and by having the connecting words in plain English, we soon formulated a key, by which we could decipher all that fell into our hands. They also had a postal cipher using various symbols for letters. Some of their cipher messages were received through the New York post-office, and were translated by the cipher telegraphers in the War Department, after others had failed to translate them.
Their signal system was mastered by our signal officers early in the war. Thus we possessed the only cipher keys the Confederates ever used, so far as I have ever known.
Notwithstanding the conceded importance of the quickest method of communication for war purposes, it is a surprising fact that old army officers had little faith in the utility of the telegraph, and in the early months of the war the writer was told that some of them actually opposed its introduction.
The telegraph had been in operation some seventeen years, and had scarcely been used for military purposes in Europe, where our military men had ever been accustomed to look for their ideas on the army subjects.
It so happened that, for a few years previous to the war, the writer had been engaged in building and operating telegraph lines along the border, having built the line on the old Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad, in 1856, and a line for Amos Kendall, from Baltimore and Washington City to Cincinnati, in 1858, and was superintending these lines when John Brown threw Virginia into a war panic for a time, and the firing on Sumter fired the patriotic heart of the great loyal North. The enemy had occupied Grafton, Va. The writer was at home, at Marietta, Ohio, watching the course of events, when a telegram from General McClellan invited him to meet Anson Stager at the general’s home, in Cincinnati, by the first train, where he arrived on the evening of May 26, 1861, and was there instructed in the mysteries of Stager’s first army cipher. Stager, having been appointed Superintendent of Military Telegraphs by General McClellan, made me his Assistant Superintendent of Military Telegraphs, and I left the next morning, in company with Colonel Lander, of McClellan’s staff, for Parkersburg, and constructed the first military telegraph lines, for the use of General McClellan, in his advance in Virginia. Simultaneously with these movements in the West, besides the use of the railway wire by the military, a line was projected along the highway in the rear of McDowell’s forces, advancing to the first Bull Run.
About the same time, Geo. H. Smith, with the promised rank of major, was commissioned by General Fremont, in St. Louis, to organize two companies, to be regularly officered, for the sole purpose of constructing and operating military telegraph lines in that department.
The success secured in West Virginia, where, under the writer’s personal superintendence, the old lines were repaired, and new lines constructed, diverging from the railroad, so pleased General McClellan, that he said the efficient working of the wires saved him many weeks of time.
His quartermaster, Captain Sexton, and his commissary, Captain McFeely, openly declared that, but for the telegraph, the army would have been delayed more than a week at Buckhannon.
After the fight at Rich Mountain, as the prisoners were marching past McClellan’s head-quarters, one exclaimed:
“My God, Jim, no wonder they whipped us; they have got the telegraph with them.”
We kept the wires right up with the movements of the commanding general, and his communications with the War Department were prompt, and resulted in the summons of McClellan to Washington; and, from thenceforth to the close of his military career, McClellan was a staunch supporter of this service, and not only had a large complement of operators and line-men actually engaged in the Department of the Potomac, but encouraged like service in all other territorial departments where our armies operated.
There being no warrant in law for the organization of Major Smith’s companies in Missouri, the Secretary of War ordered them disbanded, and Anson Stager was appointed captain in the Quartermaster’s Department, and given charge of all army telegraphs, which rapidly grew to such proportions that the reason for his own commission, viz., the protection of Quartermaster-General Meigs in the handling of government funds, obtained full force as to Stager himself; and hence, his assistant superintendents, some ten in all, were, later in the war, likewise commissioned as captains and assistant quartermasters.
This accounts for the anomaly of a military corps, technically speaking, composed exclusively of officers, for our managers, operators, and line-men were civilians only, although required to perform strictly military duties, frequently at or near the actual lines of battle.
During the war, not less than 1,200 operators were engaged in the military service, a large proportion of them boys under twenty-one, without whose aid it would have been impossible to conduct the war with any thing approaching unity of action, so vast was the field.
I think I am safe in asserting that the rebellion, without the help of the telegraphs, is suppressed at all, could not have been short of an extension of two or more years of fighting, and with an enormous additional cost in lives and treasure to the Union.
The Germans, who, like the other European nations, acting from the lessons taught by our military telegraph service, had engrafted an army military telegraph corps into their regular military system, and, at the close of the Franco-German War, had 1,587 miles of military lines, operated at ninety-one stations centering about Paris, which was surrounded by field wires; but, at the close of our war, counting lines constructed by the government only, for war purposes, I think we had nearly 9,000 miles in operation.
Altogether, our corps constructed nearly 16,000 miles, viz: 3,571 miles, to June 30, 1862; 1,755 miles, to June, 1863; 3,707 miles, to June, 1864; 3,315 miles, to June, 1865; and 2,040 miles, to June, 1866; besides, during the war, over 1,000 miles of field wires, connecting the different divisions of each army and post fortifications.
In the first year of the war, we operated 1,711 miles; in the second, 5,826 miles; in the third, 6,966 miles; in the fourth, 8,623 miles of military lines; and in 1865, ‘66, besides all these lines of our own construction, we took military possession of about 5,000 miles of lines in the rebellious states; and, having control of such a net-work of wires after the surrender of the armies, our government possessed most important facilities for quieting the country.
It is estimated that 6,500,000 military telegrams were transmitted during the war, at a cost of $3,000,000, including material and construction.
If in war time the government can build thousands of miles of telegraph, and equip and operate the same at fifty cents per message, and have the plant left, is it unreasonable to presume that the telegraphing for the people can be done at much less cost, and leave a good margin of profit, or that the government can perform the same, in times of peace, at a low price? Were it not for the corruptions that adhere to the government service, I should freely advocate government telegraphic service for the people.
When we reflect upon the surprising fact that the daily average number of military and government telegrams for the four years of the war was 4,500, we indicate more appreciably the unremitting hourly importance attached to this service, which was never once doubted, though it involved the fate of armies, if not of the cause itself.
In civil life, it has been held that an injunction writ can not be served by a telegraphic copy; but, in the rebellion, the validity of a war order, so forwarded, was not even mooted.
The courier service of all former wars of the wide, wide world dwindles into insignificance, compared with this trusted messenger, on lightning’s wings, o’er the slender wire, through mountainous regions, valleys, woods, morass, day and night, storm and sunshine, heat and cold, with tireless energy—thoughtless of fear.
The telegraphers, nearly all young men of intelligence, were enthusiastic; they worked hard, and suffered much, always ready and willing to take any hazard, go where ordered at a moment’s notice, and, when necessary, work night and day uncomplainingly.
“At times they were sent where the sky was their only protecting roof, a tree stump their office, and the ground their bed.” Thus, the knights of the key, oftentimes without rest for days and nights; or, if asleep, then with orders to a guard to awake them at the first click of the instrument, were as true to their trust as the gallant soldiers at Thermopylae.
In all this force, covering the whole period of the war, not one traitor was ever found.
These guardians of cipher keys—they were intrusted exclusively to the telegraph operators—many of them boys in their teens, were truer to their great trust than the needle to the pole—for there was neither “variableness, nor shadow of turning.”
The field telegraph constituted a most complete innovation in war, for thus the various divisions of the great armies, and military points and ports, were kept in instantaneous communication with the commanding mind.
Corinth, Vicksburg, Washington, Nashville, Port Hudson, Petersburg, and scores of other historic points, were thus guarded and patrolled.
From the Rapidan to Petersburg alone, 150 miles of field lines were constructed and taken up, as Grant’s great army moved from point to point; and even its division head-quarters were kept in constant communication with Meade’s head-quarters, though it took brave men of the corps to do it, and cost some lives.
So important did Hooker regard it in his Chancellorsville fight, that he detailed two regiments to guard the wires. Frequent instances are recorded of operators working their instruments on the field, and in some cases in the very front lines of battle; and thus, I am told, was Fitz John Porter’s command saved by timely succor at Gaines’ Mills.
Every important cavalry expedition was accompanied by expert operators as cipherers, and to tap the enemy’s wires. Here are copies of two dispatches:
“To Pemberton, Vicksburgh: Grierson has arrived at Baton Rouge. How did he get through?
“To Gardner, Port Hudson: I don’t know; do you?
In many instances, information of the greatest importance was taken from the enemy’s wires; thus putting our forces on guard, and enabling them to extend their raids.
How has our government requited the services of this brave corps? Its handful of commissioned officers, about one dozen in all, were promoted, and finally honorably discharged, with pay and increased rank; but the boys themselves were paid off as the mule-driver was, and sent adrift, without, to this day, one single act of grateful remembrance.
Secretary Stanton repeatedly told Congress, substantially as he did in one report, that “the telegraph corps has been of inestimable value to the service, and no corps has surpassed, few have equaled, the telegraph operators in diligence and devotion to their duties.”
An illustration: One of my foremen of telegraph builders, Wm. L. Tidd, whom I took from the town where I resided because I knew him as a faithful man and fearless patriot, in the fall of 1862, was striving to reach Rosecrans, near Stone River, with the wire, when, at La Vergne, but four miles from the general’s head-quarters, Wheeler’s cavalry burst upon the village, and captured Tidd and his whole party. After destroying the supply train, and robbing the men of all valuables, they started to march them off, when Colonel Walker’s forces opened upon them with cannon. The first shot took off Tidd’s right arm, from the effect of which he afterward died, leaving a wife and young children. Who can say that such a man, after a year and a half of hard service, often at the very front of battle, is not entitled to consideration by the government, and his family cared for?
General Sherman has written that “there should have been a regular corps of telegraph operators, with regular muster-rolls, so the wounded and disabled would be entitled to the same pensions as other staff, soldiers, and officers.”
General Sheridan: “In my own experience I found them invariably active, brave, and honorable.”
General Franklin: “I know of no class of men in the army more faithful and energetic.”
General Burnside: “I never knew a body of men who possessed more integrity, industry, and efficiency.”
General McClellan: “I had ample occasion to recognize the devotion to duty which so often kept them at their posts in the midst of danger; the patience, intelligence, and thorough honesty they displayed, and the great debt, still unpaid and too little recognized, due them by the country.”
Other great officers have written in like language, but Congress has never paid a dollar of pension money to any member of the corps, or otherwise recognize its services; though Mr. Plum has tabulated, by names, a loss in killed of twelve; by death from disease while in the service, twenty-three; in wounded, ten; captured, one hundred and fifty-four; and estimates a further loss of not less than three hundred and twenty-two, not of course counting deaths out of the service, but in consequence of it.
When I look back at that great strife, those four to five years of arduous service, and think of the twelve hundred young men, mostly from sixteen to twenty-two years of age, rendering such a service as had never been known before—boys they were, but giants in faithfulness and loyalty—and think of the amount of service they rendered the country, and at the manner in which their desire to be recognized as part of the army of the Union has been treated by Congress, it appears a striking illustration of the saying that “Republics are ungrateful.”
About five years ago a society of surviving army telegraphers was organized to solicit recognition and an honorable discharge, as part of the army of the United States.
The Senate and House Committees on Military Affairs of the last Congress made favorable reports on this, “The Military Telegraphers’ Bill,” and I am informed that the military committees of the present Congress have both agreed to report favorable upon the bill, and I trust that every member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States will feel a personal interest in furthering this action of tardy justice to such a noble band of patriots as were comprised in the military telegraphers of the War of the Rebellion.
I can not close this article without a word for the chief of our force of telegraphers, to whose intelligence, energy, and indomitable will, may be attributed very largely the success we achieved.
Anson Stager is known throughout the land by his works; occupying stations of responsibility and power, he was always equal to the emergency; ever faithful both to the interests entrusted to his hands, and to the interests of the subordinates associated with him in his work always approachable, he was a true and firm friend to all.
Commencing his life as a manipulator of the telegraph key, he became master of his business, and without detriment to others, built himself a fortune and fame, and was thus a good type of the true American gentleman.
[This paper was read to the Ohio MOLLUS Commandery on April 4, 1888.]