LIGHTNING LINE ON THE PRAIRIE: LINCOLN’S USE OF TELEGRAPHY
A reminiscence of Charles A. Tinker, first published in
David Homer Bates’s Lincoln and the Telegraph
Office in 1907 and repeated as recently as 2006 in Tom
Wheeler’s Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails, suggests that Abraham
Lincoln’s first encounter with telegraphy came in 1857, more
than a decade after its introduction. As the story goes, while
on the legal circuit in Pekin, Illinois, Lincoln wandered into
the telegraph office housed in the Tazewell House hotel and
asked Tinker, the young telegraph operator, how the new
technology worked. Tinker observed that Lincoln “seemed
to be greatly interested in his explanation, and asked pertinent
questions showing an observing mind already well furnished
with knowledge of collateral facts and natural phenomena;
and that he comprehended quite readily the operation of the
telegraph, which at that time was a comparatively new feature
in business and social intercourse; for it should be
remembered that before that time wires had been extended
west of the Allegheny Mountains only five or six years.”1
Actually, Lincoln’s comprehension of telegraphy
came from what was, by 1857, eight years of firsthand
experience. The telegraph reached Springfield, Illinois, by
1848, and correspondence assembled by the Papers of
London Sept 4, 1864.
Editor of the Leader enclose copy of letter of Prof. Newman to Mr
answd—Oct. 7. 649
1 Donaldson Jordan and Edwin J. Pratt, Europe and the American
Civil War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931), 94.
2 George Jacob Holyoake, b. 13 April 1817 in Birmingham, England;
d. 22 January 1906, in Brighton, England. Finding Aid of the George
Jacob Holyoake Papers, located at Bishopsgate Institute, London,
3 Francis William Newman, b. 27 June 1805, in London, England; d.
7 October 1897, in Weston-super-Mare, England. Newman was a
scholar and writer who taught at several British universities from
1830 to 1863. He was a prolific writer on religion and the classics
and was the brother of the famous English Cardinal John Henry
Newman. Newman watched the American Civil War with interest
and, in 1863, gave a lecture entitled “The Good Cause of President
Lincoln” and published The Character of the Southern States of
America. John Clark Ridpath, ed., The Ridpath Library of Universal
Literature (New York: The Globe Publishing Co., 1898); “Francis
William Newman,” Encyclopedia Britannica (New York: Britannica,
4 Jordan and Pratt, Europe and the American Civil War, 154, 180.
On October 7, 1864, John Hay responded to
Holyoake’s letter to Lincoln, writing: “The President directs
me to acknowledge the receipt of your kind letter of the 4th
of September and to assure you of his grateful appreciation
of the generous terms in which you have been pleased to
speak of him.”10
Stacy Pratt McDermott, Assistant Editor
5 Francis William Newman to George Jacob Holyoake, published in
the English Leader, c. September 1864; clipping enclosed with
George Jacob Holyoake to Abraham Lincoln, 4 September 1864,
Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library
of Congress, Washington, DC.
6 Jay Monaghan, Diplomat in Carpet Slippers: Abraham Lincoln
Deals with Foreign Affairs (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company,
1945), 280; Jordan and Pratt, Europe and the American Civil War,
94, 141-42; Francis William Newman, “The Good Cause of President
Lincoln,” (London: Emancipation Society, ).
7 George Jacob Holyoake to Abraham Lincoln, 4 September 1864.
8 John Bright, b. 16 November 1811, in Rochdale, Lancashire,
England; d. 27 March 1889, in Rochdale, Lancashire, England. Bright
was a Quaker and liberal member of Parliament from 1843 until his
death in 1889. C. A. Vince, John Bright (Chicago: Herbert S. Stone
& Co., 1898), 9, 12-13, 204.
9 This endorsement is in the hand of John Hay.
10 John Hay to George Jacob Holyoake, 7 October 1864, Robert
Todd Lincoln Collection of Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of
Congress, Washington, DC.
Abraham Lincoln shows that Lincoln commenced receiving
and sending telegrams within a year.
Samuel Morse sent the first telegraphic message in
the United States on May 24, 1844. Between 1844 and
1846, the only forty miles of wire in the country ran between
Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. After 1848, however,
telegraph mileage exploded in the United States, largely in
concert with the expansion of railroad lines. By 1848, the
country had more than 2,000 miles of telegraph wire; by
1850, 12,000; and by 1852 almost 24,000.2
In a letter printed in the Illinois State Journal in
January 1848, Elihu Washburne wrote from St. Louis, “The
line from the Atlantic seaboard to this place…has already
been completed, and they are now setting the posts up to
Alton, on the line between this and Chicago, via Springfield
and Peoria.”3 Springfield was connected to the growing
telegraphic network by June 1848. David Davis wrote his
wife from that city on June 9: “The wonder workings of the
Telegraph are past comprehension. The wires are in
communication from this place direct with Phild & New York,
and two or three hours after anything is done in those cities,
it is known here. These old succers who go into the Telegraph
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