Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review: Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails

Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War by Tom Wheeler (Harper, 2008), paperback, 256 pages

Abraham Lincoln's supreme political skill is an issue, if not the guiding theme, of countless biographies of the 16th president. His deft and usually compact style of language in his speeches and writings is well known, and has been the focus of renewed study in the last several years. All but unknown, and rarely mentioned, is Lincoln's fascination with science and technology throughout his lifetime. These three significant aspects of Lincoln's life overlap in Tom Wheeler's thought-provoking, if cheekily titled, "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War."

The telegraph, invented about a quarter-century before the start of the American Civil War, was just beginning to revolutionize communication in the late 1850s. Particularly useful to coordinate train traffic on railroads, newspapers began using the telegraph to share and print news even faster than railroads allowed. The government was slower to adopt the technology, but the onset of war encouraged its use by the War Department to facilitate troop and supply movements.

Wheeler contends that it was the young commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, who best harnessed the capabilities of the telegraph. In the early months of the war, Lincoln was more prone to read telegraph traffic in the war office than to send and receive his own telegrams. When Stonewall Jackson's 1862 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley threatened Washington, however, Lincoln sent and received messages to ascertain the real threat to the capitol and to direct the military response.

The importance of Lincoln's telegrams in 1862 pales, though, beside what Lincoln learned in those days. After the spring of 1862, he increasingly used the telegraph to keep tabs on the far-flung Union armies. Through his variety of electronic notes -- some simple inquiries, some detailed directives -- he used the communications device to assert his authority as commander-in-chief in a way far beyond previous presidents. Not only were Lincoln's telegrams a persistent reminder to the generals of his desire to be informed about military movements, but also a way to insist that his political and military prerogatives be followed.

While this well-written book may show a different side of Lincoln's political genius to those unaware of his daily trips to the War Department Telegraph Office, the later chapters also offer a reassessment of Lincoln's leadership style. Most historians believe that Lincoln used any necessary means, including the telegraph, to deal with generals who frustrated him by their obstinacy or their lack of movement; once Grant and Sherman emerge as leaders who will act and follow Lincoln's direction, this conventional assessment goes, Lincoln had less need for oversight. Wheeler argues the opposite, showing that Lincoln's telegrams to Grant and Sherman were just as often filled with directives as those to earlier commanding generals. While Lincoln had less reason to attempt to micromanage maneuvers with Grant and Sherman, Lincoln still insisted that they follow his guidance on overall strategy and political matters, frequently using the telegraph to ensure that his wishes were known and followed.

Perhaps Wheeler's argument could have been augmented by a consideration of how Lincoln adapted the new technology and situation to his previous experience in party organizing and leadership in 1850s Illinois -- which would challenge the Marshall McLuhan dictum underlying Wheeler's book, that "the medium is the message." Still, this is a minor quibble with an otherwise strong book that is as informative as it is enjoyable to read. The reader will likely finish the book wondering if Lincoln's use of the telegraph was similar to, and possibly as significant as, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's skillful use of radio as president.

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