The Civil War was the first "modern war." Because of the rapid changes in American society, Abraham Lincoln became president of a divided United States during a period of technological and social revolution. Among the many modern marvels 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 (the only president to hold a patent) 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 best way to 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 great 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 the right actions ' offers a striking example for those who spend their days tapping out notes on computers and BlackBerrys.
An elegant work of history, Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails is an instructive example of timeless leadership lessons.
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October 31, 2006
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Excerpt from Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails by Tom Wheeler
What became of our forces which held the bridge till twenty minutes ago, as you say " the president of the United States telegraphed a Union army colonel during the 1862 Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run).
For the second time in 13 months the Confederate army was thrashing Lincoln's troops on the ground around Manassas, Virginia, just outside the Federal capital. During the first battle the president followed the lead of his military advisors and patiently awaited the final news from the battlefield. It was different the second time around. Abraham Lincoln was fully engaged, making inquiries and receiving reports from the battlefield. The tool that allowed the president to become so engaged was the telegraph.
Like most of the people it represented, the U.S. government was slow in awakening to the opportunity presented by the telegraph. When Lincoln took office, if a government agency wished to send a telegram an employee was sent to queue up at the central telegraph office. At the outbreak of the war even an agency as essential as the War Department was not connected to the telegraph network.
Like his countrymen and his government, Abraham Lincoln had to learn how to use the telegraph. Lincoln's challenge, of course, was that his learning curve occurred amidst a military conflict to determine the fate of the national union.
The First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) occurred four months into the Lincoln presidency. In the slightly more than a year between the first battle and the rematch on the same ground, Abraham Lincoln discovered the power of the telegraph to project his voice, as well as to extend his eyes and ears. As he grew in his role as a national leader, Lincoln simultaneously progressed in how he applied what he sometimes called "lightning messages" to extend that leadership.
First Manassas (Bull Run) was the first major battle of the Civil War. As the newspaper headlines cried "Forward to Richmond!" the new chief executive pushed his generals to take action. The route to the Confederate capital of Richmond ran through Manassas, Virginia, approximately 30 miles outside of Washington, a railroad junction at the mouth of a key pass through the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, on the plain beside a small, steep-sided stream named Bull Run, General Irvin McDowell planned to attack the Rebels, while another Union force on the opposite side of the Blue Ridge kept the Rebels in that area bottled up and out of the action.