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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.

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