The Many Messages of Abraham Lincoln
NEAL CONAN, host:
And now the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. As we celebrate Abraham Lincoln's birthday today, it's often his famous writings that come to mind, his house divided speech, the Emancipation Proclamation, and of course the Gettysburg Address, all very carefully planned and presented. But where Lincoln really comes alive, argues Tom Wheeler, is through technology.
In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, he argues that the telegraph was the 19th century version of e-mail and that it gives us an intimate look at the thoughts and feelings of the commander in chief.
Tom Wheeler is the author of "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War." He's president of the Foundation for the National Archives and joins us now by phone from Barcelona in Spain. Nice of you to take time out to speak with us today.
Mr. TOM WHEELER (Author, "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War"): Hello, Neal, how are you?
CONAN: And if any of you have questions about Lincoln's telegrams or what they tell us about him or his presidency, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK; e-mail us, email@example.com.
And Tom, President Lincoln was the first president to use any kind of real-time electronic communications. Were they as off-the-cuff as an e-mail message might be today?
Mr. WHEELER: You're absolutely right, Neal, that he was the first president to have access to a technology that we take for granted. I don't think that he was as off-the-cuff as we are today, and that in itself may be a lesson.
You know, one of the problems we have today is that the way we write e-mails, it's the written equivalent, the electronic equivalent, of casual Friday. But Abraham Lincoln was the first national leader to ever be able to use electronic communications in the course of his job.
And the fascinating thing when we look back on the Lincoln presidency is we say, okay, the marble man that we know is someone from his famous speeches, like you've said, from letters and other writings. But those were all set pieces. Those were all things where he agonized over what he should be saying and how it would be interpreted.
And in the telegrams, we see his off-the-top-of-the-head, spur-of-the-moment, quick responses, and since Lincoln didn't keep a diary or anything like that, it's the closest thing we can get to a transcript of a conversation with Abraham Lincoln.
CONAN: And one of the messages you cite is a message between the president and his wife.
Mr. WHEELER: It was a wonderful thing that - Mary Lincoln used to travel a lot, and in April, 1864, she was in New York City with their 11-year-old son, Tad, and she sent the president a telegram that said: Arrived here safely; hope you are well. And then got down to business: Please send a draft today for $50. And then she gave the delivery instructions.
And then in a run-on at the end of that, she says: Tad asks, are the goats well? Because he was keeping pet goats at the White House. And Abraham Lincoln may have been president of the United States, he may have been in the midst of preparing for Grant's new spring offensive, but he dropped everything. He sent a telegram back that in essence said the check is in the mail. He said a draft will go to you, a check is in the mail. And then he says: Tell Tad the goats and father are very well, dash, especially the goats.
And I just always thought that was a terrific insight into Abraham Lincoln, because there off the top of his head was an expression not only of the pressure that he was under but also how he found refuge in wit.
CONAN: The room where Washington - excuse me, where Lincoln did a lot of his telegraphy, really sort of the modern equivalent of the White House situation room, he would go over there, sometimes at night, and wait for messages to come in from his generals.
Mr. WHEELER: You're absolutely right. And where the old executive office building is today was the War Department, and the telegraph office was in there, and he actually at one point in time had a cot installed in the telegraph office so that he could be close to his messenger, if you will, and when things were really hot out in the various campaigns, he would sleep there.
CONAN: We're speaking with Tom Wheeler, the author of "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War," and the author of an op-ed that appeared in today's Washington Post. If you'd like to read that op-ed, you can go to our Web site at npr.org/talk and also find out how you can download as podcasts our TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page segment.
If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, and again e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get a caller on the line. This is Don with us, Don calling from Cincinnati.
DON (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Go ahead, Don.
DON: Yeah, I just had a quick question. How did Abe Lincoln back then deal with the notion of spam and foofing(ph). He had to be worried that his message was going out but not necessarily going to the right people or…
CONAN: That it would arrive in the form in which he sent it. Were these coded messages, Tom Wheeler?
Mr. WHEELER: Yes, they were. There was a very sophisticated cipher system that was never broken during the war. But Don raises a very good point, because often Confederate raiders would cut the lines, or they would intercept and put their own telegraph key and sit there and read the messages. But the cipher that the Union had developed was so good that the South would frequently publish the ciphered messages in the newspapers and offer cash rewards if anybody could break them, and they never were broken.
CONAN: Interesting. Thanks for the call, Don.
DON: You're welcome.
CONAN: And most of the messages were, of course, about military affairs, and in your op-ed you cite a couple to his most annoying general, that being General McClellan, one during the Peninsula Campaign, when President Lincoln decided not to be as harsh as he might have been, and one after the Battle of Antietam, where he sort of let his demons go.
Mr. WHEELER: Well, you know, Neal, that's a very interesting story, because George McClellan, who was commanding the largest army ever assembled in the United States, in 1862, was down outside of Richmond, and he sent a telegram to the president of the United States in which he had the temerity to say to him it is the policy and duty of the government to send me all the well-drilled troops available.
McClellan had a huge numerical advantage, but he was forever saying the other guy was bigger and that's why he couldn't attack. And Lincoln gets this - I mean this insulting telegram. He gets it and he sits there and he writes a response, and he responds to some of the other points in it, and then he gets down to this point, and he says - he says that I'll be very sensitive to what is going on, but you have to understand, in essence, he says, that I have to look at the broader scope of things. And then he adds: And last, I must be the judge as to the duty, underlined, of the government.
And then as you look at his handwritten telegram, you can actually see his mind at work, because he scratches through that last line. He scratches through that rebuke, and you can see the struggle going on between Abraham Lincoln's frustration and his saying to himself, is this really the best way to deliver this kind of message?
A couple of years later, McClellan, still in command after the Battle of Antietam that he should have won - he had two to one numerical superiority and he had Robert E. Lee's plans in his hand - the best he got there was a draw, and then for five weeks he did nothing. He didn't pursue Lee. He didn't do anything. And when Lincoln saw that - a telegram coming in to another general in which McClellan complained of sore-tongued and fatigued horses that were keeping his army from moving, Lincoln snapped, and he sat down and he dashed off a telegram to McClellan, saying: Will you pardon me for asking, what have the horses of your army done since the Battle of Antietam that would fatigue anything?
CONAN: And of course, McClellan would find himself out of work a couple of weeks later, when the commander in chief decided he needed a new general.
Mr. WHEELER: You're exactly right. And so what that little what have they done to fatigue anything outburst of Lincoln's is also an insight into the fact that clearly he was already over the precipice and he was saying this guy's got to go.
CONAN: And as you note, very different kinds of messages to his commanding general when he got one who would actually fight. This to General Grant: Hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible.
Mr. WHEELER: And the great thing about that telegram is that when Grant received it, he was handed it by his telegraph clerk, and he started chuckling as he read it, and he turned to those around him and he said the president has more nerve than any of his advisors. And that was the truth. He did. But the interesting thing here is that he was using this new electronic technology that no other leader in history had ever been able to use and that he had to invent how to use himself in order to reach out and deliver that kind of message to a general in the field.
CONAN: Tom Wheeler, thanks very much.
Mr. WHEELER: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Tom Wheeler is the author of "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War." You can read his op-ed and download our Opinion Page podcast at our Web site. It's at npr.org/talk. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.