The Abraham Lincoln whose birthday we celebrated on Monday was known for his soaring prose. What we remember, however, is Lincoln's planned prose; he kept no diary or other record of his innermost thoughts. Yet insight into our greatest president is possible through the nearly 1,000 messages he sent via the new telegraph technology. These 19th-century versions of e-mail messages preserve his spur-of-the-moment thoughts and are the closest we will come to a transcript of a conversation with Abraham Lincoln. In their unstructured form, Lincoln comes alive.
Consider this glimpse into how Lincoln dealt with the war's grinding pressures. The peripatetic Mary Todd Lincoln had wired from New York seeking cash. Her note's perfunctory "Hope you are well" was followed with instructions on where to send a check. Then she tacked on without punctuation a last-second message from their son, "Tad says are the goats well."
The president promptly responded that the check would go in the mail, then seized on the query about the White House pets to comment on his own well-being: "Tell Tad the goats and father are very well - especially the goats." The few words speak volumes about Lincoln's spirits and the refuge he found in wit.
Since Lincoln wrote his telegrams by hand, their cross-outs and insertions show the president's mind at work. After reading an insubordinate telegram in 1862 in which Gen. George McClellan demanded more troops and lectured the president as to "the policy and duty of the Government," Lincoln scrawled a response: "I shall aid you all I can consistently with my view of due regard to all points." Then his exasperation boiled over: "and last I must be the Judge as to the duty (highlighted) of the government in this respect."
Before handing the message to the clerk for transmission, however, Lincoln reconsidered the outburst that put McClellan in his place and scratched through it. The marks reveal the struggle between the president's great frustration and his better judgment as to when and how to deliver such a rebuke.
Yet Lincoln did not hold back from expressing himself. A few months later, the president saw a wire from McClellan to another general that attributed McClellan's failure to pursue the Confederates after the Battle of Antietam to the poor condition of his horses. There is an almost audible snap in Lincoln's self-control as he fires back (misspellings and all), "I have just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatiegued horses - Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?" It was an insight into a decision the president was in the process of making; less than two weeks later he fired McClellan.
After Lincoln and the nation finally got the general they deserved in Ulysses Grant, the nature of the president's telegrams changed. No longer needing to push and prod electronically, he supported and encouraged. In the dark days of August 1864 - a time of draft riots and Confederates once again marching north - Lincoln reached out to reinforce Grant's resolve.
"Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible," Lincoln wired. His long-distance leadership worked. When Grant received the telegram he chuckled reassuringly to those around him, "The president has more nerve than any of his advisers."
As the spring of 1865 bloomed with the promise that the conflict could soon end, Lincoln joined Grant and the army outside the Confederate capital, Richmond. On April 3 he telegraphed the secretary of war: "This morning Gen. Grant reports Petersburg evacuated; and he is confident Richmond also is." Secretary Edwin Stanton immediately wired his congratulations, then reminded Lincoln that he was in rebel territory and expressed concern for his safety. Lincoln quickly wired back, "I will take care of myself."
It was only 12 days later that the telegraph delivered the news of his assassination in Washington.
- Tom Wheeler is author of "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War"