Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“So simple that any man able to read and write can work it”

Posted in Technology by Andy Hall on March 13, 2011

Above, “the signal telegraph train as used at the battle of Fredericksburg,” by Alfred R. Waud. Below, the image as it appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in January 1863.The engravers have made the figures larger relative to the overall scene, making the image more compact, without changing its basic elements.

The paper noted that

on this page Mr. Waud has illustrated for us the Army telegraph. Of this important institution he says: “The army signal-telegraph has been so far perfected that in a few hours quite a large force can be in constant connection with head-quarters. This, while a battle is progressing, is a great convenience. The wire used is a copper one insulated, raised on light poles, made expressly for the purpose, on convenient trees, or trailed along fences. The wire and the instrument can be easily carried in a cart, which as it proceeds unwinds the wire, and, when a connection is made, becomes the telegraph-office. Where the cart can not go the men carry the drum of wire by hand. In the picture the cart has come to a halt, and the signal-men are hastening along—some with the drum, while others with crow-bars make the holes for the poles, upon which it is rapidly raised.

The machine is a simple one, worked by a handle, which is passed around a dial-plate marked with numerals and the alphabet. By stopping at the necessary letters a message is easily spelled out upon the instrument at the other end of the line, which repeats by a pointer every move on the dial-plate. The whole thing is so simple that any man able to read and write can work it with facility.”

This is a technology I didn’t think came until later — telegraphy without telegraphers having to know Morse. The device in question is a Beardslee Telegraph Machine, introduced in 1862. It was apparently not quite so simple to operate as Leslie’s claimed it to be, and had other disadvantages including a slow transmission rate compared to a traditional key, and a lack of power.

Nonetheless: remarkable!


Waud illustration, Library of Congress. Leslie’s Illustrated News images via SonoftheSouth.


3 Responses

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  1. corkingiron said, on March 14, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Similar devices were used by Canadian troops – a primitive field radio system – in WW1. They had limited utility, and rarely lasted more than 10 minutes, but that’s somehow beside the point. The fact that they felt the need for such devices suggests the problem created by modern warfare – which, I think, the ACW qualifies as the first. Masses of men, a fluid front too large for those in command to comprehend and respond to in a timely fashion – all demanding some new and secure means of communication. I’m reminded of Lee berating Stuart (do I have that right?)at Gettysburg – the absence of his Cavalry had left Lee effectively blind.

    IIRC, General Currie did make use of primitive sound recording devices, surreptitiously planted, to help direct artillery fire in a “creeping barrage” which enabled the Canadian Corps to effectively overwhelm the German troops at Vimy Ridge in 1917.

  2. Mark said, on March 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    I never heard of this either. Very interesting bit of research, and shows how important technology was in the Civil War.

    In fact, the whole “telegraph thing” is something like our internet — only the telegraph was newer, to them, than the internet is to us. The North apparently made better us of it than the South?

    You could argue that “Yankee ingeniuity” played a role in the outcome.

    The telegraph backfired, on Davis. He gave a speech September of 64 in Macon, where he said 2/3 of his soldiers had deserted. It somehow got in the telegraph, and was picked up in the North, where Sherman read it. I wish I could find the article, but this comment by Davis played a role in Sherman’s plan.

    Davis, of course, was not accustomed to saying things one day to a group at a rail depot in Macon, and then have his words read by Union generals the next day or two.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 15, 2011 at 10:16 pm

      I don’t think the North necessarily made better use of the telegraph than the South, but as with most things technological, they simply had easier access to more of it.

      Some years ago I was doing research on a blockade runner that was bringing supplies into Mobile from Havana in 1864. The Official Records includes a message, dated in Richmond the day after the ship’s arrival in Mobile, diverting part of the ship’s cargo to a different destination within the Confederacy. The. Next. Day. That seemed, and still seems, remarkable to me for the time period, that arriving cargoes in Mobile were being reported by telegraph to Richmond, which then made decisions about where those materials were to be sent. That suggests a centralization of logistical command that I hadn’t expected, and one only achievable by close reliance on the telegraph.

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