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An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them… Duke of Wellington

Gentlemen,  Whilst marching to Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests, which have been sent to HM ship from London to Lisbon and then by despatch rider to our headquarters.  

 We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have despatched reports on the character, wit and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions of which I beg your indulgence.  Unfortunately, the sum of one shilling and nine pence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalions petty cash, and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain.  

 This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.  

 This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below.  

 I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both to train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountant and copy boys in London or, perchance, to see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.  I have the honour,  Wellington.

The letter quoted above may be apocryphal but it dates from 1812 which was prior to the telegraph. Although Wheeler gushes about the technology that allowed Lincoln to meddle in almost every decision of his field commanders he fails to understand that Lincoln had no real appreciation of their needs. That coupled with a need to surround himself with “yes” men contributed to the stark contrast between the leadership abilities evidenced by the South that were only crushed by exhausting the blood and treasure of the north. Wheeler is correct in concluding that his book teaches a lesson but he fails to understand exactly what lesson it teaches!

Mr. Lincoln’s T-mails : the untold story of how Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph to win the Civil War    New York : Collins, c 2006  006112978x Tom Wheeler Telegraph United States History 19th century,  Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865 Military leadership Hardcover. First edition, later printing. xxi, 227 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 207-213) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

The Civil War was the first “modern war” in large part because of the speed of communication. Among the many modern tools that gave the North an advantage was the telegraph, which Lincoln used to stay connected to the forces in the field in almost real-time.

No leader in history had ever possessed such a powerful tool to gain control over a fractious situation. An eager student of technology, Lincoln had to learn to use the power of electronic messages. Without precedent to guide him, Lincoln began by reading the telegraph traffic among his generals. Then he used the telegraph to supplement his preferred form of communication —meetings and letters. He did not replace those face-to-face interactions. Through this experience, Lincoln crafted the way he would guide, reprimand, praise, reward, and encourage his commanders in the field.

Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails tells a big story within a small compass. By paying close attention to Lincoln’s “lightning messages,” we see a leader adapt to a new medium. No reader of this work of history will be able to miss the contemporary parallels. Watching Lincoln carefully word his messages — and follow-up on those words with actions — offers a striking example for those who spend their days tapping out notes on computers and cell phones.


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