Telegram for General Grant!
Next week, President Obama and Governor Romney will break from their nonstop travel on the ruthless campaign trail and return to the comfortable confines of their hometowns to await the election results. Surrounded by friends and family, the candidates will receive the latest poll numbers via text, e-mail, phone, maybe even fax. They will watch the same television coverage most of us will be watching as the news unfolds. The most up-to-date information will be at their fingertips. Once upon a time, however, news traveled only so fast and by one of only a few methods. Imagine receiving election results by telegram.
Telegraph operator receiving a message in Chicago, 1912
In 1868, Republican presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant and his vice president Schuyler Colfax ran against Democrats Horatio Seymour and Francis Preston Blair Jr. General Grant remained at home in Galena, Illinois, throughout the campaign season, the common practice at the time. He spent election night at the home of Elihu Washburne, a friend, neighbor, and founder of the Republican Party. Washburne had arranged to have a telegraph wire directed to his home, so Grant could keep a low profile until he was pushed into the national limelight.
The Museum has ninety of these messages. Several are from Grant’s closest friends and fellow Galena residents, and many of the later ones congratulate the general on his certain victory. As a collection, the Grant telegrams read as a play-by-play of the unfolding election. Many contain up-to-the minute information about tallies rolling in from places like Philadelphia and New York—two cities where the margin of victory was tiny. A telegram sent by Charles H. T. Collis, the city solicitor of Philadelphia, reads: “The enemy in Pennsylvania has surrendered by 20,000. We shall have peace.” According to that message and many that follow, it seems that Pennsylvania was a particularly hard-won Republican victory in 1868.
Though today’s election returns may come in faster and more efficiently, they most likely do not share the same thoughtful sentiments as their nineteenth-century counterparts. As part of the Museum’s Unexpected Chicago series, telegrams to General Grant from Samuel Ruggles of New York and Galena resident Joseph Russell Jones are on display in the lobby beginning on November 2.
Tags: Barack Obama, Elihu Washburne, Francis Preston Blair Jr., Horatio Seymour, Mitt Romney, Naomi Blumberg, presidential election, Republican Party, Schuyler Colfax, telegram, Ulysses S. Grant, Unexpected Chicago