In the summer of 1861 the Confederate States found themselves annoyed by the U.S.S. Pawnee, a gunboat that patrolled the Potomac and made it difficult for the southerners to receive supplies from northern sympathizers. Fortunately for the Confederates, Col. Richard Thomas Zarvona had a plan...
In a previous post, we looked at how Abraham Lincoln utilized the telegraph during the Civil War to supervise his generals in the field and gather intelligence — sometimes by scanning telegrams intended for other Washington recipients. But in addition to working closely with Lincoln, the War Department's team of telegraph operators — who were based at the present-day location of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House — also were pressed into service to perform another critical function in the war effort. They also worked as cryptographers, encoding sensitive communications for the Union side, and as codebreakers, deciphering intercepted letters sent by Confederate officials and spies.
In an age when the federal government and the national security establishment was vastly smaller than it is today, David Homer Bates and three other operators — Thomas T. Eckert, Charles A. Tinker, and Albert B. Chandler — functioned as the 19th Century equivalent of the Fort Meade, Md.-based National Security Agency, which has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 employees and an arsenal of supercomputers and other gadgetry at its disposal.
Today, Washingtonians rely upon Twitter, smart phones, and 24-hour cable news channels to continually fill our craving for information. But a century and a half ago, during the Civil War, the only source of instantaneous news from far away was the telegraph, and in Washington, there was only one place to get it: The Department of War's headquarters building, which stood at the present site of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House.
Before the war, amazingly, the government didn't even have its own telegraph operation, instead relying upon the same commercial telegraph offices that civilians used.
It is generally an accepted practice of militaries around the world to not tell the enemy what you plan to do. It’s also a good idea to avoid passing secrets to enemy spies, especially if you know they are enemy spies. Apparently, however, Union troops stationed in Herndon, Virginia didn’t get the memo. Either that or they were too mesmerized by local belle Laura Ratcliffe to think straight. She was a smooth operator to be sure.
In February 1863, Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby was riding with his soldiers near Ratcliffe’s home scouting the enemy position and hoping to best whatever Union troops came his way. Mosby had wreaked havoc on the Yankees before but this time they were ready for him. They set up a picket on Centreville Road near Frying Pan Church and then hid a much larger force in the woods around it, hoping draw the Gray Ghost into an ambush.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, visited Washington, D.C. in 1862, as the Capital was gearing up for war against the Confederacy. If you remember Hawthorne at all from school, you won’t be surprised to find he had a lot to say.
He was particularly taken by the artist Emmanuel Leutze's painting "Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way" in the U.S. Capitol and lamented what might happen to the work and the nation should the Union lose the war.
At the Battle of Chancellorsville, Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was mortally wounded -- a very significant event during the Civil War. Indeed, historians have long debated the impact of Jackson's death on Confederate performance in subsequent battles such as Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee, for one, felt the loss deeply, likening it to "losing my right arm."
Just as this week’s cold snap sent many people searching for their winter coats, it also reminded some shivering citizens of a particular month-long “celebration” that keeps their cheeks warm, too: “No-Shave November.”
As a person who appreciates history and a good facial hair crop, I couldn’t help but think of certain furry Civil War general who rose to prominence 150 years ago this week.