In his State of the Union address, President Obama recalled tense moments in the White House situation room as he and his advisors monitored the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The Huntington Library in San Marino has just acquired an earlier president’s closest parallel to that technology — a collection of telegrams from the Civil War.
Many people believe Abraham Lincoln once wrote a friend: “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” But to communicate between the White House and Civil War battlefields, time was of the essence — and telegrams were the instant messages of 150 years ago.
Historians had believed that these telegrams were lost — but it turns out they were in private hands, until the Huntington purchased them.
The telegrams are archived in almost three-dozen ledger books. They include coded messages recorded by Thomas Eckert.
He ran the telegraphic operations for Union General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Later he became head of the Military Telegraph office in the federal War Department, precursor of the present Department of Defense.
The techie and the president became friends; a Huntington statement says Lincoln wrote a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in Eckert’s office.
The museum plans to display some of its new acquisitions in two exhibitions this fall: “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War” (Oct. 13, 2012–Jan. 14, 2013) and “A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War Era” (Sept. 22, 2012–Jan. 7, 2013).