President Abraham Lincoln Appoints the First – and Only – Head of the War Department Telegraph Service in the Civil War

The telegraph was the only quick link between Lincoln and the events in the field, and he spent untold hours in the telegraph office waiting for news from the front.

Anson Stager would also create the most widely used – and most effective – secret code of the war; An appointment of the highest importance

The War Department Telegraph Office was the scene of many momentous events in the Civil War.  Located next to the Secretary of War’s office, it hosted an...

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President Abraham Lincoln Appoints the First – and Only – Head of the War Department Telegraph Service in the Civil War

The telegraph was the only quick link between Lincoln and the events in the field, and he spent untold hours in the telegraph office waiting for news from the front.

Anson Stager would also create the most widely used – and most effective – secret code of the war; An appointment of the highest importance

The War Department Telegraph Office was the scene of many momentous events in the Civil War.  Located next to the Secretary of War’s office, it hosted an anxious President Lincoln on many occasions, as he would read the telegrams as they came in, waiting news from the front.  During great battles, he would sit and wait for messages to come in one after another.  It was also a place of debate and cabinet meetings, where Lincoln was accessible.  He met Congressmen there, who went to the telegraph office to see him when he could not be found at the White House. All military dispatches necessarily passed through this office.

The U.S. Military Telegraph Corps was formed in 1861, prior to which no such organization existed. The scale of the war required rapid communication, and the telegraph was the only practical method.  The corps trained some 1,200 operators of the military telegraph throughout the war, and they served under the anomalous status of quartermaster’s employees. Their work was of the most vital importance to the army in particular and to the country in general, and the exigencies and experiences of the war demonstrated the utility and indispensable importance of the telegraph, both as an administrative agent and as a tactical factor in military operations.

In 1861, Anson Stager was a civilian with a knowledge of telegraph lines.  He was the co-founder of Western Union, and the first president of Western Electric Manufacturing Company.  After the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Stager was requested by Ohio governor William Dennison to manage the telegraphs in southern Ohio and along the Virginia Line. Stager obliged and immediately prepared a cipher by which he could securely communicate with those who had the key (notably the governors of Illinois and Indiana).  He is the author of the first telegraphic cipher used for military purposes. When the cipher came to the attention of General George B. McClellan, he asked Stager to prepare a cipher for use in the field, which he did; it was later adopted as the official cipher of the War Department. Stager was acting as a patriotic volunteer at this time, without rank or compensation.

He soon came to the attention of the right people in Washington.  On October 28, 1861, Thomas A. Scott, Assistant Secretary of War, wrote to President Lincoln, referring to Stager as a man who had a plan for managing the military telegraph.  Lincoln responded, “…If the Secretary of War has confidence in it, and is satisfied to adopt it, I have no objections.”  Cameron summoned Stager to Washington, where Stager submitted a plan of organization for the new telegraphic operations.  Cameron approved the plan, and, on November 11, Stager was appointed Captain and Quartermaster, so that he could assume his role as head of the War Department Telegraph Service.

Special orders 313, dated November 25, 1861, read: “Capt Anson Stager, assistant quartermaster, is assigned to duty as general manager of the Government telegraph lines…. Commanding officers will also give such aid as may be necessary in the construction and repair of telegraph lines in the country in which troops are operating.” Thomas Eckert was named Stager’s assistant.

Upon taking over as Secretary of War in early 1862, one of the first acts of Edwin M. Stanton was a recognition of the importance of the telegraph. He moved the telegraph office adjacent to his own, and brought all telegraphic operations under his control at the War Department. This brought Stager’s operation closer to him and to the President.

Document signed, March 26, 1862, effective retroactively to November 11, 1861, an ornate, vignetted commission, with an eagle, cannons and flags, appointing Anson Stager to the rank of “Assistant Quartermaster of Volunteers with the rank of Captain.” The document is countersigned by new Secretary of War Stanton.

This document is the very document giving Stager command of the telegraph office, and, along with the general orders issued nationwide, were his credentials and authority to create the first large-scale military telegraph service in the United States. He remained in his post until the war ended.

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