Abraham Lincoln did not invent Facebook. But he did rely on the Internet to win the Civil War.
Just ask Tom Wheeler, a civil war historian who also happens to be the President and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, the industry’s leading trade association (the LA Times called him “the rock star of telecom”). His most recent book is a blend of both sides of his brain. Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War makes the case that Lincoln was not only tall, not only honest, but also a master of this radical new technology. Many have claimed the title before, but Lincoln, Wheeler says, was the first “technology president.”
The argument is elegant and compelling and crazy-sounding and completely reasonable: Lincoln’s adoption of technology – he received the country’s first transcontinental telegraph, from Stephen J. Field, chief justice of California, 151 years ago – was crucial in organizing his generals, and eventually for beating the Confederate army.
A “Dutch Uncle” telegram reminding General Grant that he needs to exercise vigilance if he’s going to win
The First Great Communicator
Over the course of the nearly 1,000 telegrams he sent, Lincoln re-defined a leader’s relationship with his forces in the field, and with information in general. While the other side slept, Lincoln checked the nearly instantaneous updates that were trickling in from the South, and turned the White House telegraph office into what historian Eliot Cohen has called “the first White House Situation Room.”
Throughout the entire history of warfare, a virtually instantaneous exchange between a national leader at the seat of government and his forces in the field had been impossible. Unlike any leader before – think Henry V or Napoleon Bonaparte – Lincoln could be in almost real time communication with his generals while at the same time holding strategic discussions with his advisors.
Lincoln wasn’t just a geek for near instant communication. His nerd credentials were bolstered by his obsession with surveying, geometry and astronomy (he had a telescope in his office), and his fascination with weapons tech (he once tested an early version of a hand-cranked machine gun on the White House lawn). Lincoln is also the only U.S. president to hold a patent (No. 6469, granted May 22, 1849), for a device to lift riverboats over shoals.
Despite being one of the earliest adopters of cutting-edge communication technology, Lincoln handled his telegrams with the same aplomb and will he brought to all of his writing. When Lincoln read a telegraph between General Grant and his chief of staff expressing concern that quelling the draft riots of 1864 might impact efforts on the war front, Lincoln fired off a classic T-mail to Grant, succinct and clear:
“I have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold on where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible. – A. Lincoln, President”
As Wheeler writes, “It was as good as walking into Grant’s headquarters, sizing up the general’s state of mind, and responding through conversation… [Grant] held in his hands the tool Lincoln used for reinforcing his resolve and making sure that neither distance nor intermediaries diffused his leadership.” It’s a style that every President since, especially Obama, has had to master.
Lincoln used the more informal communication medium to manage and receive updates about the tense election of 1864, and, in some cases, to be humorous too.
During the spring of 1864, while Lincoln’s wife and son Tad were in New York, she sent a telegram that “perfunctorily inquired as to how he was, asked for $50 to be sent immediately, and in an afterthought added Tad’s inquiry about his pet goats.” Lincoln, under significant wartime pressure, responded that the check was in the mail, and that she should tell Tad, “the goats and father are well—especially the goats.”
In the spring of 1865, when Lincoln was stationed outside Richmond with Gen. Grant, he telegraphed Secretary Edwin Stanton with news that the city would soon fall into Union hands. Stanton immediately wired back his congratulations, but expressed concern for the President’s safety. Lincoln quickly wrote back, “I will take care of myself.”
Twelve days later, news of his assassination in Washington would spread across the country and around the world, by telegram of course.
Image from LINCOLN IN THE TELEGRAPH OFFICE by David Bates published 1907.