The U.S.S. Monitor, which launched a revolution in battleships, was a child of other revolutions. Without new iron-making techniques, iron ships were impractical. Without rifled cannons, the two-gun Monitor would have been a toy. Without railroads to transfer men and materials, she could not have been built in a little over three months. And without the telegraph, she could not have been built at all or sent to arrive in time for her shootout in Chesapeake Bay.


Telegraphs only became practical in the 1840s but spread with astonishing speed across America. By the Civil War, they were part of the landscape. (And seascape: news of the Monitor’s arrival in Hampton Roads, carried by telegraph cable under the Chesapeake to a land station and then on to Washington, made the day for Lincoln’s nervous cabinet.)

Among the changes brought by this almost-instant messaging, daily newspapers often became surprisingly timely. The day after the Monitor and the Virginia (a.k.a. Merrimac) fought, details were splashed across the front page of the New York Times.


The Union War Department’s telegraph office was a short walk from the White House. Lincoln spent many hours there, following and responding to battle news, getting away from the crowds seeking attention, and writing the first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation during downtimes.

The Department’s head telegrapher went on to run Western Union, which dominated telegraphy in this country for well over a century. Wikipedia tells me that the company would still deliver a personal telegram as late as 2006, but of course decades before that the telephone had turned it into a curiosity. I was dumbfounded to receive one when I was 20 and had no phone. The yellow sheet of paper with a sentence in capital letters came from a friend who was changing plans. Lincoln knew what that was like.


The Monitor and the Virginia slug it out. My great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant in a New York regiment, watched the battle. No telegrams or other written documentation survive for him. We don’t even know his full name.

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