Friday, January 27, 2012

The Wired Mr. Lincoln and The Secret Civil War

One of the treasures of the New York State Library’s collection is Abraham Lincoln’s own handwritten first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. How it got there [hint: it was a gift from Lincoln himself] is a story for another time; today, it’s all about where this draft document was likely written.  

While some say that Lincoln began writing the first draft of this proclamation on a steamboat while returning to Washington after a military tour, David Homer Bates, author of Lincoln In The Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War, published in 1907, told a different story. 

He related the story of Major Thomas Thompson Eckert, superintendent of the War Department’s Telegraph Office, who observed that Lincoln came to his office nearly every day and worked at Eckert’s desk in the cipher-room, writing and reading despatches from the war front.  One day, he asked Eckert for a quire of paper and, for several days, labored over the wording of some special document.   

Whenever Lincoln left the cipher-room, he either took the document with him or asked Eckert to lock the document away, knowing that it would be safe from prying eyes in the hands of the man responsible for the military’s secret messages.  After a while, he revealed to Eckert that he was “…writing an order giving freedom to the slaves in the South, for the purpose of hastening the end of the war.”   According to Eckert, that first draft of what was to become known as the Emancipation Proclamation was written with one of the small Gillott barrel-pens that were issued to the telegraph cipher-operators by the War Department.

Thomas T. Eckert himself was a telegraph man before and after the Civil War, having built the first telegraph line on the Fort Wayne railroad in the 1850s and later serving as president and board chairman of Western Union after the war.

During the war, Eckert ran the War Department’s telegraph operation.  At the time the telegraph was a new technology, but was eagerly embraced by President Lincoln and his high command, who found it to be an effective way to speedily communicate in code with the commanders in the field.   

Here’s a photo of Eckert and some of his men in the field from the Library of Congress collection.  Eckert is seated in the chair on the left. Notice the civilian – not military – clothes.  It looks rather like a men’s sports outing or class reunion, not a military operation.

The Telegraph Office handled the war's secrets, all contained in thousands of coded messages.  Messages on wires to Washington from field commanders.  Messages on wires from Washington to the generals. Thousands of messages, most in cipher, transmitted over miles of wires by operators in Morse code.  In other words, secret messages, written in one kind of code and transmitted in yet another kind of code.

For many years, it was assumed that much of this secret telegraphic correspondence had been either lost or destroyed. Turns out, however, that it was not.  Rather, it left Washington with Major Eckert, and when he died in 1910, it stayed with members of his family.

And earlier this week, the folks at the Huntington Library in California announced that they had purchased the entire collection – all 76 volumes of messages and cipher books - for an undisclosed sum. The collection – which hasn’t been seen by historians since the Civil War itself - had been in the possession of Eckert’s descendants for almost a century and had been sold en bloc at auction in 2009.  Seth Kaller, the dealer who purchased it and later offered it for sale stipulated that it would only be sold to an institution, or to a private buyer who would permit “scholarly and public access.”

The Huntington stepped up to the plate and added it to their already massive Civil War manuscript collection.  The opening of this collection to researcher is huge news in the Civil War history field.

Naturally, this raises an interesting question or two:  if these documents came from the War Department’s Telegraph Office, aren’t they “public documents” and therefore, shouldn’t they be part of NARA’s collection?

Short answers:  No and no. In fact, NARA declined them.

There’s some information about these questions in the LA Times story, but it will be a good opportunity for me to talk more about the idea of “public documents”, a legal thingie called replevin and just who “owns” what sometime real soon. 

Stay tuned.  There’s more to come. 

Today, however, it’s all about the Eckert Collection going to the Huntington.

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