Discussion Communication Impact on Civil War Outcome

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CLuckJD

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Lately, I've been wondered how commanders were able to stay in touch with each other amid Civil War combat, when communication was primitive by standards of today. It took days, weeks or months for messages to reach intended recipients. By then, substantive content may have been obsolete. Such lag times seem crucial in active combat that can mean victory or defeat for both sides. One podcast I recently heard mentioned some CW submarine near California's coastline didn't get news of Lee's surrender until SIX MONTHS later. So, that leads me to wonder how many lives were lost and scarce resources wasted all because commanders didn't know the war was over! How, if at all, did they deal with this issue back then?
 

Stone in the wall

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Lately, I've been wondered how commanders were able to stay in touch with each other amid Civil War combat, when communication was primitive by standards of today. It took days, weeks or months for messages to reach intended recipients. By then, substantive content may have been obsolete. Such lag times seem crucial in active combat that can mean victory or defeat for both sides. One podcast I recently heard mentioned some CW submarine near California's coastline didn't get news of Lee's surrender until SIX MONTHS later. So, that leads me to wonder how many lives were lost and scarce resources wasted all because commanders didn't know the war was over! How, if at all, did they deal with this issue back then?
Most likely your thinking of a ship, the CSS Shenandoah (Raider) Surrendered Nov 1865.
 
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I’m currently reading Julia Dent Grant’s memoir. After her husband became general-in-chief, when he traveled to visit her or the children, he traveled with his own personal telegraph operator.

I actually have plans to write a blog post on my own blog about all of the times in JDG’s memoir that telegraph communications affected events. I just haven’t gotten around to writing it yet.
 

redbob

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Once Union armies went into what was to be a major position, telegraph lines would be run from one headquarters to another linking the army together relatively quickly and these lines would be used during battle to transmit orders and information to one area or another. Mounted couriers were often sent out as backup to the telegraph. Also, maps were photographed and distributed so that commanders would have information on the area. Photos Loc of a Union telegraph crew and telegraph wagon. The telegraph crews and operators were often civilian employees.
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civil-war-telegraph-03 (2).jpg
 

DixieRifles

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I’m currently reading Julia Dent Grant’s memoir. After her husband became general-in-chief, when he traveled to visit her or the children, he traveled with his own personal telegraph operator.
Interesting, as I was reading about Grant's early days of his advance towards Vicksburg. I can't find the text but it was while Grant was being directed to support the effort to support the naval advance from New Orleans. Basically the author said General Grant was counting on the delay in the communication so he would have time to carry out his plans. The delay was due to the only telegraph office for him was back at Cairo. Of course, he had quick access via the river traffic but that was a long way to carry a message from Memphis or Pittsburg Landing all the way to Cairo before it being sent out on the "wire".
 
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Carronade

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Primitive by today's standards, but the telegraph was a great leap forward, particularly for the national command authorities keeping up with events and commanders hundreds of miles away.

Can't say I've studied it, but I wouldn't think too many additional deaths resulted from the lack of communications. The bigger problem was that there was no clear cut end to the war. Confederate commanders would hear of events like Lee's surrender or Johnston's but not have any instructions as to what they should do. Legally the military should follow the orders of the government, but President Davis remained determined to carry on fighting.

Captain Waddell of the CSS Shenandoah is an interesting example. He learned of Lee's surrender from a captured newspaper which also included Davis's proclamation that the war would continue. It was another month or so before he received news of Davis's capture and the surrender of the remaining Confederate armies.
 
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But what good was an operator who couldn't stay close by various equipment used to transmit messages?
Who said that Grant and his operator couldn't stay close by various equipment used to transmit messages? I didn't.

Grant and his operator travelled by train from his headquarters to Washington, DC, to Philadelphia, to his wife and children's residence in New Jersey.

From what I understand, at various stops along the journey, the telegraph operator would check in to see if there were any telegraph messages for the general.

For instance, on the night Lincoln was assassinated, Grant and his wife were traveling from Washington to New Jersey. Grant found out in Philadelphia that Lincoln had been shot when he received a telegraph there.
 

CLuckJD

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Who said Grant and his operator couldn't stay close by equipment to transmit messages? I didn't.
No you did not. I thought they had to stay close by equipment that consisted of wires run on poles located far away and thus physical presence was required for one who desired messages communicated telegraphically. But today it's done wirelessly, so there is no need to go anywhere for rapid communication by text or voice. I read a Civil War-era book that described how folks would ride miles on horseback to see most recent dead soldier lists that telegraph offices would post in a window before close of each business day. This led me to think telegraphs involved a physical link for sender or recipient, if not both parties.
 
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jackt62

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Maintaining effective communications was clearly a problem for the CW armies, the lack of which often resulted in properly executing battle plans, no matter how well conceived. Aside from the longstanding use of couriers to transmit orders during field operations, the federal armies in particular were able to employ more effective communications as the war progressed by forming the US Signal Corps, which developed a system of "wig-wag" flag signals, and the US Military Telegraph Corps (a private entity), which constructed and operated numerous lines across the battle fronts.
 
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CLuckJD

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telegraph lines would be run linking the army together relatively quickly and used during battle to transmit orders and information .... Mounted couriers were often sent out as
I presume such lines were much like today's "intra-nets" that limit communication within one organization? Not linked to a larger intERnet-work? Either way, couldn't enemy troops disrupt or dismantle them just as easily and fast as they were strung in the first place? Also, how did one keep them concealed from hostile forces amid battle? I recall one interactive video on Vicksburg that mentioned destruction of confederate telegraph lines was top Union priority and major key to its ultimate victory.
 

Nathanb1

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I presume such lines were much like today's "intra-nets" that limit communication within one organization? Not linked to a larger intERnet-work? Either way, couldn't enemy troops disrupt or dismantle them just as easily and fast as they were strung in the first place? Also, how did one keep them concealed from hostile forces amid battle? I recall one interactive video on Vicksburg that mentioned destruction of confederate telegraph lines was top Union priority and major key to its ultimate victory.
Yes, it was a priority for both sides...and like someone said, mounted couriers and the signal corps of both sides were used. Think about the very successful system the British used for the approach of the Spanish Armada--watchers lit fires along the coast, plus riders bringing info about the approaching Spanish ships....if you have a system where the word is passed along rapidly, it works pretty well. An excellent illustration where it didn't work would be Stuart's second ride around the Union Army to Gettysburg--his messages never made it to Lee for one reason and another, so no one knew where he was (see Eric J. Wittenberg's outstanding book, Plenty of Blame to Go Around). He didn't know they hadn't arrived, and he was following orders--but....
 
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Might also be correct.

What is important is that we are talking many days. A telegraph message would be a few minutes.
Probably closer to a few hours across the Atlantic. Recall the early trans-oceanic cables suffered from weak signal strength so a message would have to be transcribed, transmitted, receipt acknowledged and likely transmitted and acknowledged several times again so the final transcription at the receiving end was as error free as possible. Still an order of magnitude gain in speed of communications.
 
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CLuckJD

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A telegraph message would be a few minutes.
Even in war scenarios where recipient's location nor their live status was known for sure by those who delivered messages? That's the hole in this whole ball of wax that I see. Lack of simultaneous or instantaneous transmissibility. In fact, the more I think on it, the greater mystery seems how any war has ever been fought - much less won - by anyone. At least, not until 1st portable walkie-talkie was born.
 
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thomas aagaard

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Probably closer to a few hours across the Atlantic. Recall the early trans-oceanic cables suffered from weak signal strength so a message would have to be transcribed, transmitted, receipt acknowledged and likely transmitted and acknowledged several times again so the final transcription at the receiving end was as error free as possible. Still an order of magnitude gain in speed of communications.
There where no (working) trans-oceanic cable during the 1861-1865 period.
The first one was in operation before the war, but it broke and not until 1866 was there a new one in operation.

My point is that communication within the north american network was very very quick. (compared to a guy on a horse... or later a train)
The moment you left the network it could easy be days until you go the message.


Obviously having this quick connection between army and the political leadership also gave the generals less freedom to do as they thought best, since it allowed the Guys in the capital to interfere more.


In February 1864 at the start of the 2nd Sleswig war, the leadership of the danish field army decided to pull back from the fortified Dannevirke line. They telegraphed this decision to Copenhagen, then quickly cut the line before the Politicians could countermand them.
Since pulling back was the correct decision militarily, but a political disaster. That is One way of getting around this issue.
(but the decision o pull back did cost the commanding general his post)
 
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