Legends of the "Talking Wire"

       From the very onset of the telegraph, legends and superstitions about its prowess developed, eventually becoming established folklore. When the Military Telegraph's wires entered formerly virgin territory, the local inhabitants were introduced to its mysterious aura, with predictable and often humerous results. Sometimes the operators, themselves, helped to perpetuate these "Legends of the Talking Wires."

       In March of 1862, William G. Fuller was line building through rural Kentucky, a woman rushed from her home to confront the workmen. Don't build past my house!" she pleaded. "Why, I can't even spank my children without the whole world knowing about it!"

       Another rustic, seeing a pole hit by lightning, rushed to General Boyle to report a message had leaked down the pole and been lost.

       Near Mount Vernon, an old resident refuted the operator's assertions as to the telegraph's lightning speed. "That's a damnd lie!" he retorted. "Why, a humming bird is the fastest thing on earth, and it can't begin to make the time you say this metal contraption you're talkin' about!"

       At Danvil, a repairman, who had become rather expert with his pole- climbing irons, was high in a tree, trimming branches. Below, watching him suspiciously, an elderly woman later reported: "Whatever can't these damn Yankees do! One of them was walking up and down the trees just like the Devil!"

       While fighting around Bethesda Church, Warren's corps had been driven back and some of the field telegraph wire was captured. The enemy coiled up portion, loaded into a cannon and shot it, screaming through the air, at the Federal camp, eventually entangling in the trees and underbrush. Unperturbed by this novel psychological-warfare expedient, the telegraphers joked about the incident, asking why the Confederates didn't also send an operator along with the wire.

"The Battery Juice"

       During Halleck's protracted seige of Corinth, Mississippi, his provost marshal banned the landing of any liquors and even closed the bars of the Tennessee River steamers. Feeling the need for "spiritual refreshment," the operators conspired together, and at length, one of them called upon the provost, stating that the field telegraph was in danger from lack of battery acid.

       "By the way, sir," he informed the marshal, "alcohol would do in a pinch, until proper supplies can come down from St. Louis."

       The marshal regretted a lack of this article, but then suggested the possible use of several confiscated barrels of whisky.

       With a poker face, the operator allowed that while whisky was not nearly as good a substitute as pure alcohol, but if the product was of high quality, it just might do for the moment.

       Accordingly, the officer sent over a barrel of his best contraband, which was quickly buried beneath the office tent, a hollow reed stem communicating with the occupants above. The substitute battery acid was then given a quality check by the operators who pronounced to be of "superior working quality" and thanks were rendered to the dutiful provost officer.

       That afternoon, however, an operator was laying prone on the earthen floor, drawing up through the improvised straw a draught of "battery acid," when General Halleck, himself arrived at the tent. As "Old Brains" was not noted for a sense of humor, the operator wilted quickly under the stern questioning and soon confessed every detail. Uncharacteristically, Halleck was amused, and merely observed that his provost marshall should be better posted on the technical requirements of so vital a service.

       At length, the battery acid's reputation "leaked out" and the tent became unusually popular in the camp for much of Halleck's stay before the gates of Corinth. Interestingly, Confederate operators in the vicinity of Columbus, Kentucky were also reported to have adopted the same ruse.

       On his way to inspect the extensive network of telegraph lines erected during the seige of Petersburg, Eckert had included with a shipment of quinine, a barrel of whisky for the often feverish operators. On nearing Jamestown Island, the ship's captain mentioned having a demijohn of battery acid for operator Cowan. Inspecting the contents, Eckert decided that the detour was unnecessary. Relief operators Conway, Henderson and Tinney scrutinized the container even more thoroughly and announced that the barrel need not be landed. It was said that upon his return to the War Department, Eckert avowed that his operators at the front were all in excellent spirits....

Bogus Connections..

Plum relates the following incidents:

       A young Jesse Bunnell perpetrated a teen-age joke on the Wheeling newspapers to the effect that a Union naval disaster had occurred off Fort Monroe. He was properly dismissed, but so valuable were his services that re-employment was speedily made.

       A Selma, Alabama operator reported that Chattanooga had fallen, causing Confederate spirits and currency to first soar, then plummet, as the cold truth emerged. Superintendent Flanery had the culprit debarred from the "courtesies of the profession."

       Brigadier general Merrill, stationed at Macon, Missouri, learned the telegraph code in his spare time and occasionally practiced on the line, pretending to be a rebel operator. While no great harm ensued, the legitimate operators, headed by Charles York, conspired to pay Merrill back in kind. Working from several offices, they convinced him a large enemy force was moving on Macon from several directions. Alarmed, the general assembled his staff, ordered reinforcements out from Brookfield and prepared to do battle. In due time all arrived on the scene, except the grey-coats. York used to laugh "in his sleeve" over the hoax, but never dared to know anything at an official level.

     Humor on the Lines    

       Amid the formal, official and often tragic telegrams of the War, occasional snatches of unintended humor have come down, illuminating the human side of the great conflict.

Printing and Morse Lines
Dated: PhilaSept 3, 1861
To: E. S. Sanford 

       "Miller has horse, dark roan. Will stand without hitching. Not very fast. One hundred sixty dollars. Will he do?
Answer. Jno. Bingham.
(written in at bottom)

       "Yes, sir. Anything that Miller has will be satisfactory.
 E.S. Sanford"

Printing and Morse Lines
Dated: Zanesville, OhioSept 16, 1861
To: A. H. Caldwell, Care War Dept. 

       "Did you receive box forwarded last Thursday? James Caldwell.

(written in at bottom)

       "Yes--minus the cigars. A.H.C."

The Phelps Multiplication Table:

       Some time in March, 1862, operator (George) Phelps was bored to the point of taking up a U. S. Military Telegraph telegram form, crossing out the "United States" part and retitling it as the:

"Gen(eral) Phelps Multiplication Table"

               9 pounds (of) brass make one Key

               8 Keys make one Sounder

               6 Sounders make one Register

               2 Registers make a Brass Cannon.

Going by the above, 9 x 8 x 6 x 2 = 864 pounds.

About what size of gun tube would that cannon would be?