Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Telegraph at War

Daniel Carroll Toomey
Guest Curator; The War Came by Train

     When the Civil War began, there were 50,000 miles of telegraph lines in the United States. While the commercial side was well established, the United States Army had not yet adopted this new technology. The first tactical use of the telegraph came in July of 1861 when Major General George B. McClellan began his advance into Western Virginia to secure the mail line of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for the Union.

     On May 26, McClellan received a report that Confederate troops had burned two bridges thirty-five miles west of Grafton. Grafton was a major rail center and junction where the main line continued on to Wheeling and the Northwestern Virginia Railroad ran to Parkersburg. He telegraphed orders to Colonel Benjamin F. Kelly in Wheeling to advance with his First Virginia Regiment U.S. by train and drive the Rebels out of Grafton. A second force under Colonel James Steedman of the Eighteenth Ohio Infantry left Parkersburg with the same orders. Outnumbered thanks to McClellan’s skillful use the railroad and the telegraph, the Confederates were forces to fall back to Philippi where there were defeated on June 3 and retreated to Rich Mountain.

     As General McClellan advanced toward Rich Mountain he not only utilized the existing telegraph line along the B&O tracks to keep his superiors in Washington informed of his movements, but ordered a temporary line built along his route of march, a first in the annals of modern warfare. He also had two experienced telegraphers assigned to his headquarters staff to insure the rapid transmission of information. Within one hour of occupying the enemy’s camp, McClellan was notifying his commander, General Winfield Scott, “We are in possession of all the enemy’s works…Our success is complete and almost bloodless.” As a group of Confederate prisoners were marching by one exclaimed, “My God here’s the telegraph!” 


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