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A week in Lincoln’s telegraph office – Part 5

Lincoln-in-the-Telegraph-OfficeIn September of 1863, Union General William Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland lost the Battle of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia to Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee.

Rosecrans retreated to Chattanooga and there feared Bragg, taking the high ground around the city, would starve his army out.

He sent a series of gloomy telegrams to Washington laying out his situation.

Secretary of War William Stanton sent a messenger to Lincoln, then staying at the Soldiers Home a couple miles away, asking him to call a cabinet meeting at the War Department that night to plan a response to save the Army of the Cumberland.

When Lincoln got in, William Halleck, his general of generals, was there. Lincoln asked Halleck how long it would take to get reinforcements from Virginia to Chattanooga. The old general thought three months would be needed.

Too long. The Army of the Cumberland would be lost.

Stanton turned to Thomas Eckert, his commander of the Telegraph Corps and a former railroader, and asked him how fast he could do it.

Forty days, Eckert said.

So Stanton ordered him to develop a plan that night while the cabinet discussed the situation.

Eckert and his telegraphers, including David Bates, pulled together all the railroad maps and schedules they had and, after studying them, found fast freight trains could make the run from Washington to Nashville in seven days, passenger trains – troop trains – in less time.

The cabinet recommended that 19,000 soldiers – the 11th and 12th Corps – be pulled from the Army of Northern Virginia and dispatched to Chattanooga, 1,233 miles away.

At 2:30 a.m., Stanton telegraphed General George Meade, ordering him to get the two units ready to move out to Washington with all their equipment and five days of food.

At 8 a.m., Eckert handed his plan to Stanton’s assistant, a plan that said the 19,000 men could be moved to the battlefront in 15 days.

It called for trains to haul the troops, their battle gear, artillery, and horses to a point in southern Indiana across the Ohio River from Louisville. There they would disembark, walk and haul all their equipment across the river on pontoon bridges, then reload onto new trains for Chattanooga by way of Nashville.

The assistant wanted to know how Eckert proposed to feed such a massive number of men en route without slowing the operation.

Eckert said the Quartermaster Department could set up feeding stations at 50-mile intervals along the route, each station with squads of cooks and waiters who would prepare hot meals, board the trains and serve the troops while the trains rolled on to the next feeding station where the cooks and waiters would jump off and catch a train going in the opposite direction, to get them back to their original station.

The general managers of the railroads that would be involved caught fast trains to Washington. They reviewed Eckert’s plan and said they’d make it work, they’d marshal the railcars, engines, and train crews needed. To guarantee that it would work, Lincoln issued an order giving the War Department control of those railroads for the duration of the operation.

Two days later, troops boarded the first train at Bristol Station south of Washington.

Eleven and a half days later, the last of not 19,000, but 23,000 troops and all their equipment disembarked at Chattanooga . . . the largest and fastest movement of an army over such a long distance ever up to that time, all made possible by high-speed communication . . . the telegraph.

The new troops saved Rosecrans and his army.

A week in Lincoln’s telegraph office – Part 4

Lincoln-in-the-Telegraph-OfficeIt’s amazing the things we learn when we read a book.

For example, I’m reading David Bates’s account of the years he was a telegrapher in the War Department during the Civil War, the book “Lincoln in the Telegraph Office.”

Getting to Washington in the early days of the war was a harrowing experience. Bates and three other telegraph operators caught a train in Pittsburgh on April 24, 1861, and traveled via Harrisburg and Philadelphia to Perryville, Maryland, where their train was stopped. Rebels from Baltimore had blow up the railroad bridges over the Bush and Gunpowder rivers.

Bates and his compatriots abandoned the train for a river steamer and sailed to Annapolis. During the voyage, they slept on coffee sacks.

At Annapolis, they loitered at the railroad station until they could get seats on a train jammed with troops from the Eighth Massachusetts Infantry.

In Washington, the telegraphers found rooms in a boarding house. The Eighth Massachusetts, however, formed up and marched to the White House where Lincoln reviewed the troops. They were then ordered to bivouac in the Capitol Rotunda.

Washington at this time, in the weeks following the fall of Fort Sumter, was so crowded with soldiers ordered in to protect the city and prepare for the assault on Richmond, that even the Capitol building was requisitioned for troop housing.

I didn’t know that . . . and never would have had I not bought Bates’s book . . . and finally sat down to bend a few pages.

Tomorrow: Bates and his colleagues do the impossible

A week in Lincoln’s telegraph office – Part 3

Lincoln-in-the-Telegraph-OfficeWhen David Bates got to Washington in April of 1861, he was ordered to the Navy Yard, to be the telegrapher for a Captain Dahlgren.

Dahlgren didn’t want anyone tampering with his telegrapher, so he told his sergeant of the guard to post a sentry at the door to the telegraphy room with orders to let no one in or out.

Bates found himself a prisoner on the job. His door was opened long enough to slip in meals, and I suppose he was escorted by the sentry to the privy to relieve himself.

After four days, Bates said in his book, “Lincoln in the Telegraph Office,” he locked the door and climbed out the window, to go for a walk.

When he returned, clambering back in through the window, there was the sentry waiting for him. Try this again, the sentry said, and I’ll shoot you.

That ended Bates’s private strolls.

A week later, he was transferred to Annapolis, to be the telegrapher for General Benjamin Butler. He remained there until the end of May when he was assigned permanently to the telegraph office in the War Department.

Tomorrow: Tenting in the Capitol

A week in Lincoln’s telegraph office – Part 2

David Bates, born in Stuebenville, Ohio, was 17 and a telegrapher working for the Pennsylvania Railroad when the Civil War began. His superintendent ordered him to Washington in April of 1861, to work in the War Department’s telegraph office.

A civilian ordering another civilian into the war effort?

Here’s how it happened. Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, appointed Thomas Scott, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s general manager, to run the railroads and telegraph lines needed for the war effort.

Scott tapped Andrew Carnegie, then superintendent of the Pennsy’s Pittsburgh division, to be his field deputy. This is the Andrew Carnegie who, after the war, would find his way into the steel business, become a rich man, and give a big chunk of his fortune away to build public libraries across the nation.

Carnegie needed telegraphers to man the War Department office, so he sent word to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s superintendent of telegraphs at Altoona, PA, ordering him to dispatch his four best men to Washington. The superintendent selected David Strouse, Samuel Brown, Richard O’Brien, and David Bates.

The four would form the core of the new United States Military Telegraph Corps. By war’s end, the unit had more than 1,500 men.

Bates, within a year of being posted to Washington, was named manager of the War Department’s telegraph office. He stayed in that capacity until a year after the war ended.

Bates, Charles Tinker, and Albert Chandler became the principal telegraphers in that office, the trio called by Albert Johnson, the custodian of military telegrams, the Sacred Three.

These were the telegraphers Lincoln worked with most frequently.

Tomorrow: Bates becomes a prisoner

A week in Lincoln’s telegraph office – Part 1

I liked Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” particularly the scenes in the telegraph office where Lincoln is reading dispatches and dictating telegrams.

Those scenes reminded me that I had a book on my shelf that I had never gotten around to reading, David Bates’s “Lincoln in the Telegraph Office.” I had picked up my copy back in 1998, then a three-year-old reprint of Bates’s original book published by The Century Company in 1907.

Bates was one of three telegraphers who worked the key in the War Department’s telegraph office for the duration of the Civil War . . . the office Lincoln visited almost daily when he was in Washington, sometimes three and four times a day, to keep up on the news from his armies.

The telegraph had been invented only 17 years before the War Between the States broke out. Prior to this, news from the front wouldn’t reach war leaders in remote capitals for several weeks . . . or months if an ocean separated a warring nation from its armies.

Lincoln, in February 1862, signed the order giving him control of the nation’s telegraph lines. The Signal Corps took charge but didn’t manage the assignment as well as Lincoln and the generals had wanted, so they pulled the telegraph service away from the Signal Corps and put it under a new branch, the United States Military Telegraph Corps.

This branch was autonomous, answering only to the Secretary of War. It had the authority to go wherever the armies went with no need to wait for orders from commanding generals. The moment troops set up a new camp anywhere, engineers with the Military Telegraph Corps were there, setting poles and stringing wires to connect the new camp with headquarters behind the battle lines.

The Corps built 15,600 miles of telegraph lines during the war, enough to go half way around the globe.

An estimated 6.5 million Union messages passed over those wires during the war at the cost of about 40 cents per message.

Tomorrow: Who is this guy, David Bates?

A week of Florida writers – Part 5

Florida claims Jimmy Buffett, although he was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Now get this, in a concert a bit more than a decade ago, Buffett told the audience his hometown was Fairhope, Alabama.

Whatever, he lived for a time in Key West, and now Palm Beach is home and has been for a long time.

I knew Buffett for his 1977 song “Margaritaville” – like who doesn’t? What I did not know is that his first job after graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi was as a reporter . . . for Billboard magazine. He worked out of Nashville and broke the story of the end of the Flatt and Scruggs musical partnership.

Let’s skip Buffett’s music career and his career as a businessman – among his enterprises, he started and owns the Margaritaville Café chain of restaurants and developed the Cheeseburger in Paradise chain for the company that owns Outback Steakhouse – and get to his career as a writer.

Tales from Margaritaville was Buffett’s first book, a collection of short stories published in 1989.

It hit the New York Times bestseller list as did his second book, the 1992 mystery Where is Joe Merchant?

The novel revolves around Frank Bama and his ex-girlfriend. Bama, a down-on-his-luck seaplane pilot, is about to escape to Alaska when his ex-girlfriend asks for his help in tracking down her brother, rock star Joe Merchant. Among the characters who join in the search are a sleazy tabloid reporter, a rocket scientist, a band of mercenaries, and the Jet Ski Killer.

Here’s a footnote for you. Buffett played Bama in a 2011 episode of Hawaii Five-0.

Buffett’s third book, his 1998 autobiography, A Pirate Looks At Fifty, opened on the NYT’s non-fiction bestseller list at No. 1.

Only seven other writers have had books on both NYT’s fiction and non-fiction bestseller lists – Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Styron, Irving Wallace, Dr. Seuss, Mitch Albom, and Glenn Beck.

Buffett’s other books include his 2004 novel A Salty Piece of Land, his 2008 novel Swine Not?, and two children’s books he co-wrote with his daughter Savannah, The Jolly Mon and Trouble Dolls.

He’s now writing his second autobiography which Buffett says may take a decade to finish.

A week of Florida writers – Part 4

John D. MacDonald was a Pennsylvanian by birth and a Floridian by choice . . .plus he was the best of the modern thriller writers.

His start as a writer, though, was as humble as could be. In World War II, he worked for the OSS in China-India-Burma Theater, perhaps as a spy. He came out of the service as a light colonel.

MacDonald wrote his first short story while still with the OSS. He sent it home to his wife who shopped it to Esquire. No luck. But Story magazine bought it for $25.

With that check, MacDonald saw his career track – sit at a typewriter and churn out short fiction for magazines.

In four months, he banged out a stack of short stories totally 800,000 words, typing furiously 14 hours a day, seven days a week. In the process, he lost 20 pounds.

Only one of those stories sold . . . to Dime Detective, a pulp magazine, for $40.

The pulps then became MacDonald’s market. He would sell close to 500 stories to the detective, mystery, adventure, sports, Western, and sci-fi pulps. In several issues, all the stories were MacDonald’s. Readers didn’t know that because a number of his stories were published under pseudonyms.

MacDonald broke in as a novel writer in 1950 when Fawcett’s Gold Medal Books imprint brought out his book, The Brass Cupcake, as a paperback original novel.

From 1953 to 1964, he specialized in crime thrillers, all 34 – 34 books in 11 years – published as paperback originals, many now considered classics of the hard-boiled detective fiction genre.

Then came Travis McGee.

McGee, MacDonald’s new detective and considered his best, appeared in his 1964 novel The Deep Blue Good-Bye. Twenty-one books in the series, each with a color in the name.

McGee was a salvage consultant, working out his houseboat, The Busted Flush, docked at Slip F-18 in Fort Lauderdale’s Bahia Mar marina. He made his living recovering the loot from thefts and swindles, always keeping half as his share.

It all came to an end in 1986 when MacDonald died. That was a year after the last McGee novel was published.

MacDonald was 70.

The Mystery Writers of America, of which I am a member, honored him in 1972, designating him a grandmaster of our field of literature.

Tomorrow: Jimmy Buffett

A week of Florida writers – Part 3

Someone over on the London Observer staff said Carl Hiaasen is America’s finest satirical novelist, rating him right up there with Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, and S.J. Perelman.

High praise.

Hiaasen graduated from the University of Florida, where he wrote for the Independent Florida Alligator – love that name for a student newspaper – in 1974 with a degree in journalism.

Out of college, he took a reporting job with Cocoa Today, in Cocoa – where else – Florida.

After two years there, an editor at the Miami Herald hired him to work at his paper as a reporter. In time, Hiaasen moved over to the newspaper’s weekly magazine, then to the investigative staff. Now he’s a columnist and has been since 1985.

Hiaasen broke into the book world in the early 1980s, writing three mystery thrillers with fellow Herald reporter Bill Montalbano – Powder Burn, Trap Line, and A Death in China, the three published in ’81, ’82, and ’84 respectively.

Hiaasen then went on his own, writing 13 novels for adults and four environmental mysteries for kids, the first of which, Hoot, won a Newbery Honor award.

His newest novel for you and me, Bad Monkey, comes out in June. It has Hiaasen back doing what he does best, spinning a wickedly funny, fiercely pointed tale in which the greedy, the corrupt, and the degraders of pristine land in Florida get their comeuppance in ingenious and diabolically entertaining fashion. So Hiaasen says on his website.

He wouldn’t lie, would he?

Tomorrow: John D. MacDonald

A week of Florida writers – Part 2

Florida writer Harry Crews led a hard life.

He was born in Alma, Georgia, at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in 1935, the son of a sharecropper. At age 17, he joined the Marines and fought in the Korean War.

After Crews came home, he drifted south to Florida and enrolled in University of Florida on the GI Bill. It didn’t last. He dropped out to travel.

He did eventually get back to UF, graduated with a degree in literature, then trucked over to Jacksonville where he taught junior high English for a year. I said he had a hard life.

Crews went back to the University of Florida for a master’s degree in English. While there, he and his wife divorced.

Crews got his master’s, then went next door, to UF’s creative writing program, and said let me in.

The administrators refused to do so, so Crews trucked down to Miami and taught English at Broward Community College. Here he and his ex-wife re-married.

In 1964, their older son drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool. The tragedy proved too much for Crews and his wife, and they divorced for a second time.

In 1968, Crews moved back to Gainesville where he joined the faculty in the University of Florida’s creative writing program . . . the same program where administrators a decade earlier decided Crews couldn’t be a student.

Life takes strange turns.

He published his first novel, The Gospel Singer, the first year he taught creative writing.

Crews would publish 15 more plus two collections of short stories, a collection or two of his essays, and a memoir before his death last year.

New York Times reporter Margalit Fox says that Crews’s novels and short stories “out-Gothic Southern Gothic by conjuring a world of hard-drinking, punch-throwing, snake-oil-selling characters whose physical, mental, social and sexual deviations render them somehow entirely normal and eminently sympathetic.”

How he wrote was a puzzle even to Crews. Said he in one interview, “I’ve never begun a novel that I knew how it ended. I just start and try to find out what it is I think about whatever it is I am writing about.”

Crews also said in the same interview, “Listen, if you want to write about all sweetness and light and that stuff, go get a job at Hallmark.”

He wrote dark, dark stuff and comic stuff, populating his stories with odd characters, perhaps most famously, a man who eats a Ford Maverick, four ounces at a sitting.

That book, Car, came out in 1972.

Tomorrow: Carl Hiaasen

A week of Florida writers – Part 1

If you live in Florida, where Marge and I have been visiting this past week, you likely know who Edward Bok is, not because he won a Pulitzer almost a century ago or once was the editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, but because he created Bok Gardens with his Singing Tower as its centerpiece.

He had the 205-foot tower built to house what would become the world’s finest carillon . . . and Bok put his Singing Tower atop the highest point on the Florida peninsula so its music could be heard for miles.

All this was back in the late 1920s.

Bok, a Dutchman, came to New York City in 1869 when he was six. Dirt poor we would say.

He learned English, worked through a variety of jobs as a kid, and, at age 19, got on with Henry Holt and Company as a stenographer. Two years later, he jumped to Charles Scribner’s Sons where he sold advertising and rose to the position of advertising manager.

The same year he started with Scribner’s, he and a partner bought the Brooklyn Magazine, a rundown weekly. Working nights and weekends, Bok increased the advertising sales, changed the magazine to a monthly and increased the ad sales even more, then he and his partner sold it to a wealthy man who was looking a magazine his son could run.

Bok next left New York for Philadelphia, to work for Cyrus Curtis who ran a publishing empire that included, among its raft of newspapers and magazines, The Saturday Evening Post.

Curtis had a little farm journal that he wanted to take national, a publication that his wife could edit.

“You’re a lady,” Bok said to Mrs. Curtis. “You want to do this from home. Why don’t you call it the Ladies’ Home Journal.”

And so the Journal was born. Louisa Knapp Curtis ran it for six years. When she stepped down, Bok took over the editorship of the magazine.

He built it to the point that the Journal was the first magazine to have one million subscribers. Bok hit that mark in 1907.

He ran the Journal for 30 years, in the process becoming a wealthy man.

After he retired, he built Bok Tower Gardens up the hill from where he and his wife had their winter home north of Lake Wales . . . built it as a gift to the American people.

Bok collected among his honors a Pulitzer Prize, the prize awarded for his 1920 autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok.

Tomorrow: Harry Crews