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 [Earlier this month, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the world’s last telegram would be sent in less than a month (on July 15) from India. People everywhere, myself included, felt a twinge of sadness. However, it turns out this is not the world’s last telegram, and not even India’s. The only thing going away is the Indian national telecommunications company, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited. This article from Ars Technica explains more about it.]

The telegraph exemplified here alongside, the team press, the locomotive and the steamboat as a symbol of nineteenth century progress.

The telegraph, exemplified here alongside, the steam press, the locomotive and the steamboat as a symbol of nineteenth century progress. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On January 6, 1838, the first telegram was successfully sent in the United States over two miles of wire near Morristown, New Jersey. Nearly 25 years later, by the outbreak of the Civil War, telegraph wires criss-crossed the continent, and the telegram had become an integral form of communication. Three commercial telegraph companies operated in the United States at this time: Western Union, American and Southwest. With the eruption of the Civil War, a dire need arose in Washington DC for secure communication lines, and all commercial telegraph lines surrounding the city were seized by the government. In April of 1861, the Military Telegraph Corps was formed with the purpose of keeping officials in Washington abreast of developments on the battlefield.

Of all the jobs in the Military Telegraph Corps, constructing telegraph lines on the battlefield was the most perilous. Teams of 15 to 150 young men–most of the military telegraphers were 16-22 years of age–would work together to construct the lines. First, a receiving station was set up at the army headquarters. A wagon would then head out, towards the action, functioning as a sending station.


Image published in Harper’s Weekly on January 24, 1863 accompanying the story, “The Military Telegraph.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

An article published in Harper’s Weekly from January 24, 1863 titled, “The Army Telegraph,” gives the following description:

The army signal-telegraph has been so far perfected that in a few hours quite a large force can be in constant connection with head-quarters. This, while a battle is progressing, is a great convenience. The wire used is a copper one insulated, raised on light poles, made expressly for the purpose, on convenient trees, or trailed along fences. The wire and the instrument can be easily carried in a cart, which as it proceeds unwinds the wire, and, when a connection is made, becomes the telegraph-office. Where the cart can not go the men carry the drum of wire by hand. In the picture (see above) the cart has come to a halt, and the signal-men are hastening along—some with the drum, while others with crow-bars make the holes for the poles, upon which it is rapidly raised. The machine is a simple one, worked by a handle, which is passed around a dial-plate marked with numerals and the alphabet. By stopping at the necessary letters a message is easily spelled out upon the instrument at the other end of the line, which repeats by a pointer every move on the dial-plate. The whole thing is so simple that any man able to read and write can work it with facility.


Members of the Military Telegraph Corps lay telegraph wires on a Civil War Battle Field in April 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1889, former military telegrapher William B. Wilson gave a speech before the United Service Club of Philadelphia. Although the speech was mostly about his interactions with President Lincoln, Wilson opened with this remembrance of his experience during the war:

A better-natured, more intelligent-looking or harder working band of young men did not exist in the army. They were ready and willing to go anywhere at a moment’s notice, and, if necessary, to work day and night without rest uncomplainingly. Oft times they were sent where the sky was the only protecting roof over their heads, a tree stump their only office, and the ground their downy couch. Provisioned with a handful of hard bread, a canteen of water, pipe, tobacco pouch and matches, they would open and work an office at the picket line, in order to keep the commanding general in instantaneous communication with his most advanced forces, or to herald the first approach of the enemy. When retreat became necessary it was their place to remain behind and to announce that the rear guard had passed the danger line between it and the pursuing foe. 

Constructing telegraph line in the field was a dangerous job. According to Wilson, only 300 of the 1200 boys who served as military telegraphers survived. Some died in battle while most died afterwards from wounds or imprisonment. By the war’s end 15,389 miles of telegraph line had been constructed which were eventually sold back to commercial companies.

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After the war, the young men who served in the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps were excluded from the military glory bestowed upon the enlisted: since those who served as military telegraphers were not soldiers, but rather civilians, they were not considered eligible for military honors or pensions, a fact that greatly disturbed many. “A hundred nameless graves throughout the battle-fields of the Union attest their devotion unto death to the sublime cause in which they were engaged,” Wilson lamented, “and yet the Government they loved and labored for never as much thanked them for their services.” It wasn’t until 1897 that President Cleveland authorized certificates of honorable mention to be bestowed upon the military telegraphers. However, an arrangement to provide the boys with pensions was never made.

“Army Telegraph.” Harper’s Weekly, January 23, 1863, 53-54.
Beatleton, VA. Group of military telegraph operators, headquarters, Army of the Potomac. Photograph. 1863. Selected Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed June 26, 2013. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003000212/PP/.
Campe of Military Telegraph Corps, Bealeton, Va., August 1863. Photograph. August 1863. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed June 26, 2013. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013647871/.
David, Bates Homer. Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps During the Civil War. New York: Century Company, 1907.
Field Telegraph Station. Photograph. 1864. Civil War. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed June 26, 2013. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011661060/.
O’Sullivan, Timothy H. Military Telegraph Construction Corps. Photograph. April 1864. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed June 26, 2013. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649236/.
Progress of the Century. Image. c1876. Popular Graphic Arts. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed June 26, 2013. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/90716345/
Wagon parked near a telegraph pole in foreground with a camp in the background. Photograph. c1865. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Accessed June 26, 2013. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012648030/.
Wilson, William B. A Glimpse of the United States Military Telegraph Corps and of Abraham Lincoln. Harrisburg, PA: Meyers Printing and Publishing House, 1889.