Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln's Codebreakers

In a previous post, we looked at how Abraham Lincoln utilized the telegraph during the Civil War to supervise his generals in the field and gather intelligence — sometimes by scanning telegrams intended for other Washington recipients. But in addition to working closely with Lincoln, the War Department's team of telegraph operators — who were based at the present-day location of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House — also were pressed into service to perform another critical function in the war effort. They also worked as cryptographers, encoding sensitive communications for the Union side, and as codebreakers, deciphering intercepted letters sent by Confederate officials and spies.

In an age when the federal government and the national security establishment was vastly smaller than it is today, David Homer Bates and three other operators — Thomas T. Eckert, Charles A. Tinker, and Albert B. Chandler — functioned as the 19th Century equivalent of the Fort Meade, Md.-based National Security Agency, which has an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 employees and an arsenal of supercomputers and other gadgetry at its disposal.

Lincoln's Secret Weapon: The Telegraph

Today, Washingtonians rely upon Twitter, smart phones, and 24-hour cable news channels to continually fill our craving for information. But a century and a half ago, during the Civil War, the only source of instantaneous news from far away was the telegraph, and in Washington, there was only one place to get it: The Department of War's headquarters building, which stood at the present site of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. 

Before the war, amazingly, the government didn't even have its own telegraph operation, instead relying upon the same commercial telegraph offices that civilians used.

Assassin's Cranium

Lewis Powell, the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William H. Seward, was prone to goof-ups. You might even say he had the tendency to lose his head.

As you know from our previous post, Powell was one of the co-conspirators in the Lincoln assassination plot. After his bloody rampage in the Seward home, Powell was tried and hanged along with three other conspirators on July 7, 1865. That should have been the end of the story, but it took over one hundred years for Powell's tale to come to an end.

Colorized photo of Lewis Powell.

Even More Little Known Victims of the Lincoln Assassination Plot

April 14th, 1865 was a pretty bad day for a lot of people. Lincoln was assassinated, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone had their lives torn apart, and Secretary of State William H. Seward was brutally stabbed along with most of his family and a few bystanders.

Oh, you hadn’t heard about that last one?

Booth and his co-conspirators’ plan was larger than just the assassination of Lincoln. Their plot included a number of top officials in the U.S. government whose death they hoped would bring the country to its knees. Lewis Powell, a twenty year old Confederate soldier, was chosen to assassinate the Secretary of State.

Luckily for the Sewards, Powell was probably the worst assassin in American history.

Little Known Victims of the Lincoln Assassination

Currier and Ives, The Assassination of Lincoln at Ford's Theater, April 14, 1865. (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

The events of April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre in Washington are well known. Actor John Wilkes Booth went into President Lincoln's box and shot him. The President was mortally wounded and died the next morning. Meanwhile, Booth led authorities on a 12 day chase that ended with his own death in Virginia. What you may not know, however, is that there were others victimized that April night. This is their haunting story.

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