I have just started reading Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War by Tom Wheeler and one of its contentions is that Lincoln came into the office shortly after the development of this modern technology and used his skills and instincts as an "early adopter"1 to implement this new tool in his struggle to lead the Union to victory. Wheeler writes that Lincoln's "use of the telegraph is a journey of discovery. During his first year in office the president infrequently availed himself of the electronic messenger. As times grew darker, however, Lincoln turned to the telegraph to project his leadership"2 and this line of thought struck me as being a prime example of what I had previously posted about regarding how Lincoln's life was more one long journey of "internal improvements" rather than just what he believed in politically and economically.
The first few chapters, all I have read so far, continue to make this point – that the telegraph's potential had not been recognized for government or military use and that Lincoln was the one discovering how useful it could be if used properly. Wheeler asserts "Here is the amazing fact: Abraham Lincoln applied the telegraph's technology to create advantages for the Northern war effort entirely on his own. Because no national leader had ever had this technology, there was no guidance the president could rely upon in the experiences of historical figures." 3
By May and June of 1862, this effort had paid off with what Wheeler calls Lincoln's "electronic breakout" in his communications with generals in the Shenandoah Valley chasing Stonewall Jackson as well as George McClellan down on Virginia's Peninsula, approaching Richmond. Whether it was arguing with McClellan over the number of troops, Confederate and Union, in the area, or trying to impose a military strategy and sense of urgency on Generals Nathaniel Banks, James Shields and James C. Fremont in the valley, Lincoln had adapted to this new technology instead of waiting around for news of the battle like American leaders had done in past wars and he himself had done during the battle of First Bull Run. "what is more important is that Lincoln acted:"that he turned to the new telecommunications technology to help him take command."4
I have found this to be a fascinating read so far given the perspective it provides on just how new the technology was, both to the government and to Lincoln, who had seen telegraph machinery for the first time only 3 years earlier. Despite this newness, however, as Wheeler points out, he found a way to use this to send and receive vital communications much faster than any American leader ever had before, and it only took him about a year in office to start taking full advantage of it. (Actually, he possibly could have taken better advantage by having the equipment installed in the White House instead of in the War Department building, but maybe getting away from the Executive Mansion for a few hours served him some good.)
Perhaps this instance of "internal improvement" is not much more different than how many people would adapt to such new technology (though Wheeler points out that Jefferson Davis used his telegraph more for purely strategic ideas and not as much for understanding his generals. "Lincoln grew into his relationship with his generals and the telegraph played a major part in that growth. Davis, characterized by the editor of one newspaper as treating 'all men as if they were idiotic insects,' used the telegraph to tell his commanders how smart he was."5 but it still shows that Lincoln was ready, willing and able to learn something new that would improve himself and his ability to do his job. Some of this learning of the telegraph may have been different than mere "internal improvements" but the confidence Lincoln developed from being able to send orders or request or receive information so quickly certainly added to his ability to act as commander-in-chief, a role no president before him had ever fulfilled so completely.
1 Page 6
2 Pages xviii – xix
3 Page xix
4 Page 67
5 Page 43