Thursday, January 26, 2012

Large Collection of Union Telegrams

According to The Los Angeles Times, the Huntington Library in California has announced that it has acquired a large collection of materials relating to Union telegraphy during the Civil War.  Reportedly preserved by Thomas Eckert, who ran the War Department Telegraph Office during the last part of the Lincoln presidency (and beyond), it includes 40 large albums of handwritten telegrams in chronological order.  There also are several codebooks that reveal more about the Union telegraph code words used during the war.

This resource, once made available to scholars, has the potential to significantly alter our understanding of the war effort, particularly related to military logistics.  There is also the distinct possibility that previously unknown Lincoln telegrams may be discovered.  James McPherson, award-winning Civil War historian, notes in an interview that "it would have enriched my work" on Lincoln as commander in chief.  It likely means that the recent book by Tom Wheeler, "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mail's," reviewed in November, is already outdated.

Even if no new Lincoln-dictated telegrams are discovered, the collection should impact our knowledge of Lincoln as a war-time leader.  It is well-documented that Lincoln generally read through all recent telegraphic traffic during frequent visits to the War Department Telegraph Office.  At the very least, this should allow great insight into what Lincoln "knew" as he made decisions from 1863-1865.  Of course, it will take some dedicated research, meaning time, before the full value and impact of this material is known.

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