Civil war telegraph and the United States Military Telegraph (USMT):
Sergeant Mike Callahan. (trained in Artillery, Infantry and Signal Corps and USMT)
operates the vintage Tillotson telegraph key and sounder connected to another vintage Camelback key
located in a barn a few telegraph poles away at Huddleson House, Cambridge City, Indiana. While
Sergeant Mike is a military operator, Ted Wagner operates as a civilian at higher pay. Operating
in the civilian station at the distant end are Liz, Susan and Christine. They represent the many
operators who replaced the men on the telegraph key at civilian stations during the war. Some
women even ran United States Military Telegraph (Civil War) stations at large fixed headquarters such as Saint
The USMT and the Signal Corps were, at the upper echelon's, often in bitter dispute over control
of the communications during the war. As with all Armies, at the lower operational level the men
and women of the USMT and the Signal Corps most often got along and co-operated well. It is a credit
to both services that the individuals who performed the work did so under very adverse military and
political pressures. Although the members of the USMT were often paid much more than the
members of the Signal Corps (and yet considered themselves underpaid and even "struck" for higher wages)
, they were never considered members of the military organization and
as such were denied the benefits of a pension and the considerable political power at the local "at home"
level. Conversely, the members of the Signal Corps were often derided by the political powers
running the USMT as being inferior in both ability and actual function.
In truth, the functions were very often different. The USMT handled logistical and strategic communications
at the Grand Tactical and Strategic level. The Signal Corps operated at the Tactical and Grand Tactical
level with the latter very evident at Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville. The former was obvious at
at Gettysburg, to name but one instance. It was when claim was made to blend the functions that the
conflicts flared up. In the end, each service bled and died and whether it was by direct or indirect fires
In the west these functions were sharper and clearer over the vast distances. One can clearly see
the telegraph stretching forward and backward in the Grand Tactical movement of Sherman (who had his own
pocket telegraph set) as he executed
the first and, perhaps, best example of the Indirect Strategic Approach on the American continent. Across that forty mile wide
front were the flags and torches of the Signal Corps performing much as did the Confederate Signal Service
gathering information and co-ordinating the widespread units. In the east, during this same time frame,
the Signal Corps was relegated to observation while the United States Military Telegraph operated, perhaps,
right down to the Brigade level. This was the time of Petersburg and trench warfare.
In a twist of irony, when the war ended, the civilian's who ran the USMT decided that they wanted
nothing to do with the telegraph lines needed by the military out west and the service was turned
over to the Signal Corps. Much of this had to do with the lack of the ability of the USMT "brass" to make money
speculating on events in the west. This venal trait of the upper echelon of the USMT was never more in evidence than the
close relationship of Thomas T. Eckert with the extremely sharp speculator Jay Gould.
Eckert routinely provided Gould
with information passed over the "secure" USMT circuits to aid him in his speculations in railroads
in the occupied areas, in gold by betting against the dollar with advanced knowledge of a Union defeat
or for the dollar by using advance knowledge of a Union victory. The failure of the USMT to pass this
infomation to Gould during the battle of Gettysburg was infurating to him
and he demanded that Eckert correct the situation. The movement to take over the Signal Telegraph system of
deploying wire was given a strong boost with Gould money. Soon the Signal Telegraph would cease to exist and
the control of the content over the lines would pass to Eckert and thus to Gould.
By 1865, Gould had parlyed $50,000 into
several million dollars. Of course, none of these transactions were known to the brave and
talented individuals who made
up the bulk of the United States Military Telegraph. To them are due much honor and fame. They represent a critical
chapter in the history of the telegraph.
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civilwarsignal.org and beardsleetelegraph.org are wholly owned and operated by the Ohio Valley Civil War Association
and the 2nd Michigan Signal/Telegraph Detachment who are
solely responsible for it's content.