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The Telegraph Goes to War

Edited by Donald E. Markle

$25.95 published by Edmonston Publishing Inc. ISBN1-892059-02-9 (272 pages)

Reviewed By Alec Hasenson

This book on the American Civil War seems to have it all. History, drama, facts and personalities, they are all here. Based on a contemporary diary by Washington D.C. telegraphist Homer Bates, Donald Markle has woven a disparate collection of material into a readable and informative book. I appreciated the short informative history of the military telegraph and how in America's 'War Between the States' its function gradually became separated from being mostly a commercial operation run by civilian clerks to a mainly military operation. Markle also relates how early use of the military telegraph, involving only the most senior officers and officials, as in the Crimea, gradually spread downwards to involve more junior commanders, in the civil war in America. George McClellan was an early advocate of the military telegraph, having observed its use in the Crimea. A pity he was otherwise so cautious and conservative in his subsequent approach to war. President Lincoln too, was enthusiastic, but more aggressive.

American Civil War Round Table UK / Book Review /  The Telegraph Goes to War - The Personal Diary of David Homer Bates, Lincoln's Telegraph Operator / Donald E Markle

It might be thought that a recital of multiple diary entries, which take up so much of the book, could be rather monotonous, but here too Donald Markle has smoothed the way by the introduction of a short, informative summary of the war for each three month chapter covered by the diary entries, beginning with November/ December, 1863, the only chapter as it happens, spanning just two months. All these summaries make the diary entries that follow much more interesting. These too, are amplified by a plethora of end notes; some would say far too many others perhaps still not enough, but it can be a somewhat tiring to keep referring to the many pages of notes at the end of each chapter instead of looking at foot notes, which I personally prefer. However, with quite so many end notes only these are practical or the whole thing becomes unwieldy.

There is an excellent map illustrating how circuitous the telegraph wires could often be from point to point in the civil war; not as the crow flies but rather as a lengthy roundabout route avoiding Confederate held territory, adding many hundreds of miles from origin to destination. Other maps showing the location of place names mentioned in the diary would have been helpful, but again, there would have had to be a great many of them, taking up valuable space. Bates also mentions a number of people of whom he gives no personal details. It would have been interesting to know more of Mr and Mrs Brown of Baltimore for instance, where Homer Bates had gone to spend Thanksgiving in 1863. Were these relatives or friends? Presumably their sympathies would have been with the North, in a city where many had already gone to fight for the South.

It is a pity that Homer's diary only covers the period November 1863 - June 1865. I would have liked to read whatever else Donald Markle might have said in introducing earlier chapters relating to the war, but even so there is much to be learnt from what there is, both for the interested reader and the researcher. It deserves a place on the bookshelf.


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