Transcontinental Telegraph Completed: What God Hath Wrought

Thursday, October 24, 1861

In the early days of the war, news from east coast to the west traveled no faster than a horse. Specifically, no faster than a pony of the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, otherwise known as the Pony Express, which bragged that it could get mail from Missouri to San Francisco in just ten days. Things were, however, changing.

Since the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, two companies, one coming from the west, the other from the east, had been putting up poles and running lines. This transcontinental telegraph line, following emigrant roads and Pony Express trails, was to meet in Salt Lake City, Utah. By October 10, the Pacific Telegraph Company, building west from Omaha, connected their last wire, allowing Brigham Young to send the first telegram east. Young, President of the Mormon Church, commended the completion of the eastern half of the line and affirmed that “Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the Constitution and laws of our once happy country.”

It would take another two weeks for the Overland Telegraph Company, building from San Francisco, and short on poles, to reach Salt Lake City. Finally, on this date, east and west were connected.

The first message from California was for President Lincoln. On behalf of Governor Leland Stanford and the people of California, Chief Justice Stephen J. Field congratulated Lincoln “upon the completion of this great work,” and expressed their loyalty to the Union.

A second message was sent by Horace Carpentier, President of Overland Telegraph, announcing that the work had been completed, hoping that it may “be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.”1


Lincoln Finally Fires Fremont… Unless…

The problems with General John C. Fremont, western commander, headquartered in St. Louis, had been weighing on President Lincoln’s mind for weeks now. Ever since Fremont’s proclamation freeing the slaves of disloyal Missourians, coupled with abuses of power and general shoddiness as a military leader, it was becoming increasingly clear that he needed to be replaced. Earlier in the month, Secretary of War Simon Cameron had it in his power to fire Fremont, but chose not to. Lincoln, himself, had been unsure, but was edging ever closer to making a move.

On this day, after a Cabinet meeting where support for Fremont was completely absent, Lincoln drafted a letter to General Samuel Curtis in St. Louis, asking him to deliver two enclosed letters, one to General Fremont, the other to General David Hunter.

Curtis was to deliver Fremont’s letter, penned by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, to the General in the field, unless he [Fremont] had “fought and won a battle, or shall then be actually in a battle, or shall then be in the immediate presence of the enemy, in expectation of a battle.”

The letter to be given to Fremont was General Orders No. 18, removing him from command:

Headquarters of the Army,

Washington, October 24, 1861.

Major-General Fremont, of the U.S. Army, the present commander of the Western Department of the same, will, on the receipt of this order, call Major-General Hunter, of the U.S. Volunteers, to relieve him temporarily in that command, when he (Major-General Fremont) will report to General Headquarters, by letter, for further orders. WINFIELD SCOTT2

The second of the enclosed letters was to General Hunter and was written by Lincoln himself. The President, leaving “a considerable margin for the exercise of your judgment & discretion,” suggested that Hunter give up the pursuit of the Missouri State Guard under Sterling Price, who was, thought Lincoln, retreating into Arkansas. Instead, he was to pull back to Sedalia and Rolla, while General Lane in Kansas would cover the border.

Though Lincoln wrote that the letter to Hunter was enclosed with the letter to Fremont, the President actually held onto it for a few days, hoping that Hunter could find his footing before being bombarded by suggestions.3


By Hook or By Crook, Here’s West Virginia

The citizens of Western Virginia’s thirty-nine counties, on this date, voted on whether they should break away and form their own state. These counties formed what was hoped by many to be the new State of Kanawha. When the date of October 24 was set for the public vote on the ordinance for division, few could have suspected the results.

It was a landslide victory for the new state of Kanawha: 18,408 to 781. These figures, however, may not be what they seem. Kanawha County, known for its many Confederates, was presently occupied by Union troops. There, the vote was 1,039 in favor of the new state to one against. Similar returns showed up in other occupied counties.4

Of eligible voters, only about one third voted. Pro-Southern secessionists either refused to vote, or Union soldiers intimidated them from voting. Unlike typical elections, where a box “for” or “against” was be checked anonymously from behind a curtain, this vote was by voice. The voter would be asked if he was for or against the new state and his answer was recorded along with his name.5

Regardless of how it was obtained, the official vote from the thirty-nine counties was in favor of breaking away from Virginia and forming a new state.

  1. The Telegraph: a History of Morse’s Invention and its Predecessors in the United States by Lewis Coe, McFarland, 2003. Also, The Saga of the Pony Express by Joseph J. Di Certo, Mountain Press, 2002. []
  2. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 4, p562-563. []
  3. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, p1-2. []
  4. The Rending of Virginia: a History by Granville Davisson Hall, Mayer & Miller, 1901. []
  5. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
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Transcontinental Telegraph Completed: What God Hath Wrought by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “Transcontinental Telegraph Completed: What God Hath Wrought

  1. What a terrifically Interesting day…the transcontinental telegraph was quite a big deal…Baker just dead and West Virginia voted for…this is the kind of tale that brings the living it to life.


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