The Man behind the Grant Telegrams

November 5th, 2012by Naomi BlumbergFiled under: Collections, Exhibitions, Stories

For many of us, the telegraphic system, a precursor to e-mail in many ways, is somewhat mysterious, even romantic. We typically imagine a small rectangular sheet of paper with the Western Union logo at the top and a very short, urgent message typed or written out without any punctuation. The Museum’s telegram collection of the 1868 election returns, aside from two on official Western Union stationary, are newsprint sheets with messages of all lengths scribbled in pencil. They weren’t at all what I expected.

The night of the election, presidential hopeful Ulysses S. Grant walked down the road to Elihu Washburne’s house. Washburne, a congressman and friend to Abraham Lincoln, was a longtime friend of Grant’s and a great supporter of his throughout the Civil War as well as during his political career. On election night, Washburne set up a telegraph machine in his home for returns to be sent directly to General Grant. I assume, therefore, that the Museum’s many plain newsprint telegrams are the ones that came to Washburne’s residence as opposed to the town’s central telegraph office.

Residence of Elihu B. Washburne, Galena, Illinois

How typical was it to have a telegraph machine in your own house in the 1860s? Almost entirely unheard of. Although Washburne was quite worldly and well-off, even he was pretty taken with the idea that presidential election returns were being wired directly to his very own library. In a letter to his wife at six o’clock on the night of the election, Washburne wrote:

You ought to be here this evening for you would enjoy it. The telegraph machinery is all in and I am writing at the table where the instruments are in front of the window that looks out on the porch. The operator is here and we are waiting for the returns to come in. . . . Now we all come out from tea into the library and the telegraph ticks away, but as yet brings no news.

Apparently, they were on pins and needles as the news streamed in. According to Washburne:

The little old library looks like a Committee room of Ward politicians this morning. . . . It was very exciting receiving returns. After success seemed to be assured, the Lead Mine Band came over and gave some music and we felt pretty foxy. The General staid [sic] till about one o’clock this morning. . . . The General was very cool, yet anxious. What a terrific contest we have had! It has come out right, but what a narrow escape.

Cabinet card portrait of Elihu B. Washburne

Following the election, Grant appointed Washburne as his Secretary of State. Washburne proceeded to serve the shortest term in history in this position (March 5 to 15, 1869) before falling ill and leaving the post. Incidentally, when he retired from politics and settled in Chicago, he served as president of the Chicago Historical Society from 1884 until his death in 1887.

President Elect, depicting Grant (center) and Washburne (left), reproduced from Grant in Peace: From Appomattox to Mount McGregor. A Personal Memoir by Adam Badeau

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 through late December.

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