- Historic Sites
Lincoln And The Telegrapher
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph, when the Civil War came, proved to be an essential weapon—permitting the commander in chief personally to direct his armies. No one was more aware of its importance than Abraham Lincoln, who came each morning to the War Department telegraph office across the street from the White House; and jew men had a more intimate picture of the wartime President than the telegrapher Albert Chandler, whose recollections appeared forty years later in the noiu-dejunct Sunday Magazine. We are obliged to E. B. Long of Chicago, a Civil War authority, for rediscovering them.
I have always considered that I was fortunate in being one of the three cipher operators in MiIitary Telegraph service in the old War Department building, and to be often with Mr. Lincoln during the time of his greatest burden and anxiety. My immediate associates were Charles Tinker and Homer Kates. Our duties were equal and co-ordinate in the performance of the important and confidential service that we were called upon to render. Mr. Stanton’s secretary used to refer to us as the “Sacred Three.” Much of the time I alone occupied the room adjoining the private office of the Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton. This was often spoken of as the President’s room, for it was to it that he came nearly every day in his anxiety to learn the latest news of the various armies, and the talks he had there with the telegraph boys and Major Eckert, their superintendent, seemed to afford him genuine diversion. Frequently, too, he had interviews there with the Secretary of War, the Secretary of State, and of the Treasury, with the Judge Advocate General, the General in chief, and the other chief officers of the Government.
I first saw Mr. Lincoln at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, when he was on his way to Washington to assume the task of reconciling a great nation to itself. … As both telegraph operator and railway agent, I was among the few who were privileged to enter the private car in which he and his family were making their journey, and I shall never folget the deep impression which his towering form and his already sad and always kindly face made on me as he took my hand.…
The next time 1 remember his speaking to me was early one morning, perhaps six o’clock, soon after I went to Washington. I had been on duty all night. He had left the office as late as ten or eleven o’clock the night before, but so anxious was he for news from the armies that he often came over from the White House soon after daylight to see the despatches which had come in during the night. He seemed amused at finding me in exactly the same position, writing at my desk, in which he had seen me the night before, and as he came in he said: “Have you been sitting there all night?” Then he read over the new messages addressed to the various officers of the Government, both civil and military, carbon copies of which we made on letter-size tissue-paper and placed without folding in a little drawer in what we called the cipher desk. The contents of this drawer were for his special information. The messages were placed in it in the order of their reception, and he was careful to keep them so.
It was his habit to read from the top down, and when he came to those which he had already read, with a smile he said: “Well, I guess I have got down to the raisins.” As I seemed in doubt as to what that might mean, he explained that a little girl, having eaten improperly both in quantity and quality, beginning with a lot of raisins, was made quite ill, and could find relief only in the process which a sick stomach is likely to compel. After an exhausting siege she gave an exclamation of satisfaction that the end of her trouble was near, for she had “got down to the raisins.”
One day soon after this, hearing a newsboy on Pennsylvania Avenue calling out in a singsong way, “Here’s yer Philadelphia Inquiry!” he mimicked him, and then said: “Did 1 ever tell you the joke the Chicago newsboys had on me? A short time before my nomination I was at Chicago attending a lawsuit. A photographer asked me to sit for a picture. This coarse rough hair of mine was in a particularly bad tousle, and the picture presented me in all its fright. After my nomination, this being about the only picture of me there was, copies were struck to show those who had never seen me how I looked. The newsboys carried them around to sell, and had for their cry, ‘Here’s yer Old Abe! He’ll look better when he gets his hair combed,’” and he laughed over it as heartily as if it were a good joke on somebody else.…
The President was much in the habit of sitting with his feet on a table, or desk, or chair. In cold weather, during all my observation of him, he wore a large gray shawl, and never an overcoat. This shawl he usually hung over the top of the inner door of the office as he came in, a position in which a man of ordinary height could not place it.