Women Telegraph Operators in the Civil War

Thomas C. Jepsen

National Coalition of Independent Scholars

515 Morgan Creek Road

Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Copyright 1997 by Thomas C. Jepsen

1. Introduction - Women's Role in the Early Telegraph Industry

An aerial view of the entire telegraphic system of the United States, if such a thing had been possible in the spring of 1861, would have revealed some curious and striking things. In the West, the telegraph lines in Nevada and Nebraska were moving toward one another at a rapid rate as the transcontinental telegraph approached completion; but in the east, all along the Mason-Dixon line, the telegraph wires connecting North and South were being cut and torn down as war approached.

Since its first public demonstration in 1844, the telegraph had become an important part of American life; it was put to widespread use for news reporting, business communications, and personal notices. Over 50,000 miles of telegraph lines crisscrossed the continent in 1860. Though still in their corporate infancy, large telegraph companies like the American Telegraph Company and the Western Union were beginning to exert influence on business and politics.(1)

In addition to creating a new industry, what we call the "telecommunications industry" today, the telegraph created a new type of technical worker - the telegraph operator. As depicted in fiction and the cinema, the telegraph operator was a solitary character, shown seated at his (or occasionally her) operating table at the local railroad depot or telegraph office, manipulating a set of mysterious-looking instruments that emitted a audible series of incomprehensible dots and dashes.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine for August 1873 depicted a typical rural telegraph office in an illustration that appeared at the head of an article that was titled simply, "The Telegraph."(2) No mention is made in the text of the fact that the operator shown at the key is a woman, something that would have been a familiar sight to the average reader. The equipment on the operator's table is accurately portrayed: to the left of the table is a battery box, containing two Daniell cells, which supplied local power for the station; on the table, in order from left to right, are a telegraphic relay, a telegraphic register for recording dots and dashes on paper tape, a cutoff switch for disconnecting the line during storms, and the telegraph key, used by the operator to send the dots and dashes of Morse Code. On the wall above her head is a coil of wire, which serves as a lightning arrestor; to the right is a hook, used to spindle message blanks after sending them.

The census of 1860 lists approximately 2000 men who were employed as telegraph operators. Perhaps 100 or so women were similarly employed, though it is difficult to estimate the number with any certainty, since the census of 1860 did not break down occupations by gender. Virginia Penny, whose book, How Women Can Make Money, was written in the early 1860's, noted that around fifty women were employed at that time in the Northeast by the New York and Boston Magnetic Telegraph Company; it is reasonable to assume that an equal number of women were employed in other parts of the country. Women had, in fact, worked as telegraphers since the beginnings of the telegraph industry, in the late 1840s; it was one of the first technical professions open to women. One of the earliest women to have become a telegrapher, perhaps the first, was Sarah G. Bagley, founder of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association; Bagley was already known as a newspaper editor and women's rights advocate when she became the telegraph operator in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1846.(3)

The railroads began to adopt the telegraph as a signaling system in the 1850's, and the telegrapher's office became a standard feature of the railroad depot. Elizabeth Cogley of Lewistown, Pennsylvania, became one of the earliest railroad telegraphers in 1855. Like many boys of the era, she had gone to work as a messenger for the Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Company in the early 1850's, and eventually learned to telegraph. She learned the craft from Charles C. Spottswood, the previous operator, who boarded with her family. When the telegraph office was moved into the railroad depot in the winter of 1855-6, Cogley became the depot railroad operator as well.(4)

Elizabeth Cogley (1833-1922).

Telegrapher, Pennsylvania Railroad, 1856-1900

(Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Railroad operators had to know the language of the railroads as well as the language of the telegraph. Nineteenth-century railroad telegraphers performed a function that was analogous to that of modern air traffic controllers; they had to note the exact time that a train passed the station, and transmit this information to the next station on the line. They also had to pass orders telegraphed from a central dispatcher's office to train engineers. Sometimes this involved handing orders to trains "on the fly" by holding up a train order hoop as the train sped by, as depicted on the cover of a 1935 Railroad Magazine.

2. Civil War-era Women Telegraphers in Non-Military Roles

Telegraphy became a critical occupation as the Civil War began; of the 2000 or so men who were employed as telegraphers in 1860, over half entered military service as members of the Union Army's Military Telegraph Corps. As male telegraphers enlisted or were drafted into the Military Telegraph Corps, they were replaced by women in many offices. Elizabeth Cogley's skill and seven years' experience earned her a promotion to a position at Pennsylvania Railroad headquarters in Harrisburg in 1862, where, according to her obituary, written sixty years later, "expert and reliable operators were called to meet the important demands of the service." Abbie Strubel, who studied telegraphy at a school set up by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Pittsburgh in the 1860's, found her skills to be in demand as well; she was one of the earliest operators to learn to receive by sound alone. She operated for the B&O during the war, and, according to her obituary, "was credited during the Civil War with many acts of heroism," though no record of her wartime service survives.(5)

Many put their telegraphic skills to work for the Union cause out of patriotic motives. While working as a telegraph operator in Massachusetts in 1862, Mrs. M. E. Randolph heard many messages pass over her line about the care and treatment of wounded soldiers; she volunteered to go to Camp Tyler, near Baltimore, and manage the distribution of supplies to the sick and wounded. Annette F. Telyea, a native of Kentucky, came to Readville, Massachusetts, to take charge of the telegraph office at the recruiting camp located there; she remained in charge of the station for the duration of the war.(6)

Others turned to telegraphy as a means of support after losing a husband in the war. Hettie Ogle became a professional telegrapher after the death of her husband, Charles, who had enlisted early in the war and was killed at the siege of Richmond. She learned telegraphy at the Western Union office in Bedford, Pennsylvania, and later managed the telegraph office in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Twenty-five years later, she became famous for her heroism at the Johnstown Flood of 1889, in which she lost her life.(7)

In the Confederacy as well, women took charge of telegraph offices as men went off to war. Although even less is known about Confederate women operators than their Northern counterparts, it appears that women worked as telegraphers and office managers in Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama during the Civil War.(8)

3. Women as Military Telegraphers

In 1861, the telegraph had not yet seen extensive use in war. To be sure, the newly-strung wires were used to bring back news reports of battles in the Mexican War in 1848; but military leaders were not yet confident enough of the "talking wire" to send commands or intelligence via telegraph. The telegraph did see some limited use in the Crimean War in 1854; this was noted by an American observer, Captain George McClellan.

In April of 1861, Secretary of War Simon Cameron asked Thomas A. Scott, Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to come to Washington and organize the railroads in support of the war effort. Scott requested that Andrew Carnegie, the young superintendent of the Pittsburgh Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, be given the task of organizing a military telegraph system.

Carnegie recruited many telegraphers from the Pennsylvania Railroad and other telegraph companies to serve as operators for the military system he put in place. Materials and funds were provided by the private telegraph companies, including the American Telegraph Company and the Western Union.

On April 12, 1861, the day on which the bombardment of Fort Sumter began, Governor Dennison of Ohio asked Anson Stager, General Superintendent of the Western Division of Western Union, to assist George McClellan, now a general, in setting up a telegraph system for use by the military. Remembering what he had seen in the Crimea, McClellan ordered Stager to set up a field telegraph system for use by the military. If commercial telegraphs were available, Stager used them; if not, he strung new military wires. Thus for the first time, the telegraph wires followed the armies wherever they went, enabling them to be commanded from afar, and enabling Washington to get intelligence in a timely fashion. Already in July 1861, McClellan's army had operational field telegraphs as it moved through western Virginia.

By spring of 1862, the military telegraph network in the North enabled McClellan to communicate directly with General Buell in Louisville, General Halleck in St. Louis, and Commodore Foote in Cairo. For the first time in military history, it became possible to coordinate military operations, spread over vast areas, from a central command site.

Operating the military telegraph system required the efforts of skilled telegraph operators. At first, a civilian telegraph operator was simply assigned to each field unit. Conflicts quickly arose between the telegraphers, who had no use for military discipline, and the army regulars. The Signal Corps were particularly jealous of the new interlopers, whom they correctly suspected of usurping their perogatives. The army Quartermaster refused to issue supplies to the telegraphers, since they had no rank. Lower-ranking officers resented the fact that the telegraphers reported directly to the unit commander, and often were in possession of information to which they had no access. These problems were partially solved when a pseudo-military structure was set up, in which the telegraphers became members of the Military Telegraph Corps and reported to the Superintendent of Military Telegraphs, nominally a Major. Thus the telegraphers became civilians under military command; though they frequently ate, slept, and shared danger with the soldiers, they received no military benefits, such as pensions or commendations.(9)

A few women served in the Military Telegraph Corps; their names can be found in the roster of 1079 military telegraphers which William Rattle Plum appended to his history of the Corps, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, published in 1882. The only woman telegrapher about whom Plum provided any information is Louisa E. Volker, whose intelligence activities on behalf of the Union army at Mineral Point, Missouri, put her at risk of capture during Sterling Price's invasion of Missouri in 1864.(10)

Louisa E. Volker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1838, the daughter of German immigrants, Emanuel and Emily (or Amelia) Volker. In the 1850 Census, Emanuel Volker was listed as residing in the second ward of the city of St. Louis; his occupation was given as "grocer." Louisa, then twelve years of age, had an older sister, Mary, two younger sisters, Lorinda and Sarah, and a brother, Rudolph.(11)

In the 1840's, Emanuel Volker had purchased land from the U.S. government in Crawford County, Pulaski County, and in the city of St. Louis. In the 1850's, he and members of his family began to buy and sell land in Washington County. Atypically for the age, the female members of the Volker family, including both Louisa and her mother Emily, participated in the land transactions. In 1858, Louisa Volker, then only twenty years of age, bought several parcels of land in Washington County from William C. Inks. In a series of complex transactions, she first transferred the property to an E. Gardner Obear and then reacquired it, selling portions of it in turn to a William Lohman in the same year. She retained ownership of several tracts of land in Mineral Point, which was located in Washington County.(12)

Around 1860, the family relocated from St. Louis to Mineral Point. In the 1860 Census, Emanuel ("Manuel") Volker is shown as a resident of Breton Township in Washington County, Missouri; his occupation is listed as "Tavern Keeper." Louisa, now aged 22, is still shown as living with her parents. However, Mary, Lorinda, and Sarah are not shown as part of the household, and there is a new brother, Robert, aged six. Mary (or Maria) Volker had married Charles A. Snell in St. Louis in 1855; his name appears as Notary Public on several of the aforementioned land transactions. Lorinda and Sarah had also married, in 1856 and 1858 respectively.(13)

Mineral Point was an important junction for the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad, which had been built south from St. Louis to Pilot Knob, Missouri, in the late 1850's. Louisa Volker probably learned telegraphy from C. T. Barrett, the operator at the railroad depot in Mineral Point in the 1860's; why she decided to enter what was then a male-dominated field is not known. Clearly, the Volker family was fairly prosperous in the 1850's and early 1860's; thus the need for an independent income, the standard reason for women to enter the field at the time, was probably not the motivation for Louisa Volker's becoming a telegrapher. It is more likely that she was motivated by a desire for personal achievement, and a desire to put her pro-Union sentiments into action as the Civil War approached.(14)

Sometime around the beginning of 1863, Louisa Volker became a member of the Military Telegraph Corps of the Union army. She probably volunteered for the position as Military Telegrapher, and was accepted due to the shortage of telegraph operators in the area. The only surviving written account of her work as a Military Telegrapher appears in Plum's book, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, where Plum discusses the situation in southeastern Missouri in the summer of 1863:

About seven months previous, Miss Louisa E. Volker, a most estimable young lady, had relieved C. T. Barrett, operator at Mineral Point, and became at once not only the first lady operator in the corps, west of the Mississippi, but the only operatrix who had ever telegraphed on that side of the river. Entering upon duties which, heretofore, had devolved exclusively upon young men, she realized that peculiar feeling of responsibility which arises from an important but experimental trust, and hence, with all the zeal of a leader, she undertook the fulfillment of this new role of feminine usefulness in war. . .

On a former occasion, the station six miles north of the Point was attacked by cavalry, surprising Captain Lippencott's company, which being driven off, collected at Mineral Point. Miss Volker had previously ascertained the presence of the enemy and telegraphed to Pilot Knob the situation, and started the repairer north to mend the line if possible, which was actually accomplished during the night, she sitting by the instrument all night in expectation of an attack on Mineral Point.(15)

Under normal civilian conditions in the big cities of the east, women operators were generally not expected to work nights, as it was not considered proper for unescorted women to be out at night; some telegraph companies even used this as a justification for preferentially hiring men. However, women operators in the West, and especially railroad operators, were frequently required to work nights, as they had to be present whenever trains passed the station.

In November 1863, while she was serving as a Military Telegrapher, Louisa Volker transferred ownership of a block of land and several lots in Mineral Point to Augustus Rauschenbach of St. Louis, who was the husband of her sister Sarah, and trustee for her mother, Emily.(16) She may have transferred ownership of the land to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Confederates, in the event that she was captured. Her telegraphic skills made her a strategic target; Confederate raiders often kidnapped the local telegrapher when they invaded a town, and forced him or her to listen for intelligence, or even send false reports to confuse the enemy. However, her desire to protect the family's property led her to remain in Mineral Point, together with an unidentified sister, during Confederate General Sterling Price's raid into southern Missouri in September 1864.

On September 19, 1864, Price crossed over from Arkansas into Missouri at the head of a force of about 12,000 men. His plan was to capture St. Louis and Jefferson City, and install a secessionist government; he erroneously believed that the majority of the state's inhabitants were Confederate sympathizers, and would come to his support.

One of Price's primary targets was the town of Pilot Knob, which is located approximately eighty-five miles south of St. Louis. In addition to being the southern terminus of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad, Pilot Knob had Union supply depots and iron works that were considered vital to the defense of the region. Pilot Knob was defended by a Federal garrison of about 1500 men who were stationed at nearby Fort Davidson.(17)

Union forces under the command of Major General A. J. Smith were encamped in the area of Mineral Point. Smith's primary task was to defend the railroad link against attack by Confederates, who sporadically attacked the trains. Louisa Volker found herself in a position of great strategic importance as the only telegraph operator in the vicinity. Plum's account continues:

At Mineral Point, sixty-one miles from St. Louis and twenty-five north of the Knob, a good part of General Smith's command was concentrated to meet a portion of Price's troops expected there. Smith called in his out-posts, planted his guns and awaited attack. A train laden with soldiers and refugees, including the Irondale operator, was delayed in consequence of injury done the road near the Point. The attack on the train which followed was repulsed, the track repaired, and the train saved. By this time the woods were filled with Confederates, and picket firing began. Miss Louisa Volker, operating at the Point, having been at her instrument continuously for two days and nights, was relieved by the Irondale operator.

Price had originally intended to attack St. Louis. Sensing this, Union General W. S. Rosecrans, who commanded the Department of Missouri from headquarters in St. Louis, ordered General Smith to move in the direction of St. Louis to reinforce his position. Hearing of this, Price then made Fort Davidson, near Pilot Knob, his main target; he also began to destroy the rail and telegraph links to St. Louis, to prevent their being used to send any more reinforcements. Price sent units under General Joseph Shelby to accomplish this; by the morning of September 27, Shelby had succeeded in destroying the railroad tracks just south of Mineral Point, and in

cutting the telegraph wires, thus isolating the Federal garrison at Fort Davidson. Confederate Colonel B. Frank Gordon was then ordered to attack Mineral Point. General Smith had been ordered to fall back toward St. Louis, leaving Mineral Point defenseless against attack. Plum gave this account of the invasion of Mineral Point :

At noon of the twenty-eighth, General Smith was telegraphed to fall back, and by three, P.M., the last train started. Every male citizen, fearing conscription, left also. Miss Volker and sister remained to protect their father's home from destruction. After hiding all evidences of her employment, and placing a pistol in her pocket, with a fixed purpose of defending herself and sister against violence, she overlooked the little village from her window, and discovered Confederate cavalrymen, ragged and dirty, with "lean and hungry" looks, suddenly possess the place and begin their ravenous search for food, not to mention their hunt for plunder. This rabble was composed of men, barefooted, but spurred; others clothed in gaudy-colored curtain damask; all manner of hats and caps; some in Federal uniform, and strapped to their saddles was all kinds of plunder--calico, domestic, shoes, boots, tin pans, bed quilts, etc. Volker's house was soon filled by men who stole blankets and clothing, and helped themselves to the edibles at the same time. Miss Volker now discovered the depot, tank and engine-house in flames. Mineral Point and Coles bridges were also destroyed. By five o'clock, the enemy had all passed north, and the silence that prevailed in that deserted village was more trying than the presence of the dreaded enemy... Night approached, and darkness and imagination multiplied terrors in Volker's house, at least. The two young ladies, armed with pistol and their father's shot-gun, stood in the center of a

room, still as death, listening intently. Morning brought report that St. Louis was captured. Not long after, an unfounded rumor that Indians had deluged Potosi in blood, stampeded the women and children from the Point.(18)

The rumors were totally unfounded. Fort Davidson's defenders, under the command of Union Brigadier General Thomas Ewing Jr., successfully repulsed the first attack by the Confederates; they then slipped out of the fort and rode toward Rolla, Missouri, after blowing up the powder magazine. Price, unaware that the defenders had left, mounted a second attack at dusk on September 27, and, to his embarassment, found the fort empty when his troops entered it. Price then turned westward, and finally returned to Arkansas in December, having failed to achieve any of his strategic objectives.

Plum's account of Louisa Volker's work as a Military Telegrapher ended rather dramatically at this point; he gave no further information on Louisa Volker's life after the war. However, a search of archives in Washington County, Jefferson City, and St. Louis, Missouri, yielded information on her later activities.

During the war, Louisa Volker made the acquaintance of Thomas Hanlon Macklind, a lawyer and civil engineer in Potosi, Missouri. He had been born in Ireland and came to the United States with his parents, who settled in Pittsburgh. He was educated at the Franklin Institute as a civil engineer, and moved to Missouri in 1856, where he participated in the construction of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad. While at Potosi, he studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1860. In 1861, he and several other pro-Union men of Potosi organized a volunteer unit, the Twelfth Missouri Cavalry of the Missouri State Militia, for defense against local Confederate sympathizers. The unit participated in several battles in southeast Missouri, and Macklind was promoted from Second Lieutenant to Captain.(19)

In May 1865, Captain Macklind and Louisa Volker were married in St. Louis. They moved to St. Louis, where Macklind became an engineer with the Street Department. Macklind continued to be connected with the Street Department until his death in 1904. They had two sons -- William R, who was born in 1869, and Thomas V., who was born in 1880.(20)

Louisa Macklind evidently gave up telegraphy after her marriage. However, she took an interest in a field that was just beginning to be open to women in the 1870's - stenography. Prior to the Civil War, most clerical work was performed by men; only with the employment of women by the Treasury Department during the Civil War did women begin to enter the field of general office work. It is likely that her background in telegraphy led to her interest in stenography; good penmanship, a high degree of literacy, and excellent spelling skills were basic requirements for telegraphers as well as stenographers.

Stenography consisted of taking dictation from a speaker, and then reformatting the shorthand notes into a formal business letter or memo. Stenographers replaced the earlier copyists, who were largely male; they in turn were replaced (or supplemented) by typists. Louisa Volker not only learned stenography, but also gave free instruction to poor girls of the city. (21)

Late in life, she began still another career that was unusual for women of the age. In 1895, at age 58, she graduated from Women's Medical College in St. Louis, and was granted a license to practice medicine. The Women's Medical College had been founded in 1892 to provide women with a means of attaining a medical education; most medical schools of the time did not admit women, as it was considered improper to teach anatomy and similar subjects to a mixed audience. The school was the subject of controversy throughout its short existence; its graduates were denied internships in St. Louis hospitals, and the school closed in 1896 due to lack of funds.(22)

She was granted license #6720 for regular practice on May 18, 1895, and was listed in the Register of Physicians maintained by the State Board of Health. Although the St. Louis City Directory for 1902 and 1903 listed her as a practicing physician, she never practiced extensively, and most of her medical practice was devoted to charity cases.(23)

Louisa Macklind died on May 21, 1905, at the age of 68. Her obituary appeared in the May 22 St. Louis Post Dispatch under the heading, "First Woman War Telegrapher Dead". Cause of death was listed as senile debility, aggravated by ulcers. She was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, in the same plot with her husband and parents.(24)

Military Telegraphers, who were civilians under military command and not part of the Regular Army, sought to gain recognition for their service after the war. In particular, they wished to have their service recognized as regular military service, so that they could receive pensions and similar benefits. David Homer Bates, who had been Manager of the War Department Telegraph Office during the Civil War, was particularly instrumental in petitioning Congress to recognize the service of the Military Telegraphers. His efforts finally met with partial success in 1897 when Congress passed Senate Bill 319, "An Act for the Relief of Telegraph Operators who Served in the War of the Rebellion." However, as Bates himself noted in 1907, "The act was carefully drawn . . . to exclude us from receiving pensions." Nevertheless, former military telegraphers, including women, were recognized by this act as honorably discharged members of the United States Army.(25)

The only female Military Telegrapher other than Louisa Volker to receive a certificate of Honorable Service under the Congressional Act of January 26, 1897, was Mary E. Smith Buell, of Norwich, New York. Nothing is known of her service during the Civil War; she is listed in Plum's roster of Military Telegraphers in The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States as "Mary E. Smith." She lived in Norwich, New York, and was admitted to the Society of the United States Military Telegraph Corps in 1909, shortly before her death at the age of seventy-eight on May 24.(26)

4. The Status of Women in the Post-War Telegraph Industry

The status of women in the telegraph industry was debated, sometimes hotly, in the pages of The Telegrapher, a trade paper which first appeared in 1864. Women operators were frequent and vocal contributors who defended their right to pursue the craft against the objections of male operators, who argued that the presence of women in the telegraph office would result in lower wages and a decline in professional standards.

As the Civil War came to an end and the men began to return home, competition for jobs arose. Women operators had come to view themselves as technical professionals, and were unwilling to abandon the skills they had acquired and return to more traditional domestic roles. Also, many had become the sole family breadwinner, due to the loss of a husband or father. A debate arose in the pages of the Telegrapher over the role of women in the telegraph industry; the language is often modern and confrontational in tone.

By analyzing the discourse that took place in the Telegrapher in the late 1860's, we can gain an understanding of what the real gender issues were for women in the telegraph industry. Little interpretation is required; both women and men stated their beliefs and feelings directly and clearly, making use of the high degree of literacy required by their work.

The first gender issue that emerged was whether or not women would be admitted to the craft as equal members. The Telegrapher was the journal of the National Telegraphic Union, a mild-mannered sort of a union founded to promote the interests of the telegraphers. One of the main benefits of membership was a mutual benefit fund which aided out-of-work and retired members. The NTU had been an all-male organization since its formation in 1863; however, in the second issue of the Telegrapher (October 31, 1864), a female operator, who signed her letter "Susannah", wrote in to ask if the NTU would admit women as members:

Can a young lady operator join the "Union" without marrying one of its members? You know that we - that is, your sister operators - are rapidly growing in numbers, and I am so simple I cannot see why we should be excluded from the benefits of your association.

"Susannah" received a light and generally affirmative answer from the editor, Lewis H. Smith, who said that he knew "of no reason why she and her sisters cannot become members, providing they meet the qualifications."(27)

Susannah's letter provoked a response from a male operator using the pseudonym "Spark", who raised a second issue - the technical skills and competence of women operators. Spark said he was glad to see women operators apply for membership, as long as they "timidly and modestly" knocked at the gate. However, he added that "a prejudice exists in the minds of some of the male members of the profession, against the employment of ladies as operators," due to what he termed "the indisputable fact, that much the larger proportion of errors, in transmitting and receiving messages, are made by the female operators."(28)

According to "Spark", women operators were guilty of "clipping", or failing to give the correct duration to dot and dashes; bad penmanship; and an "overbearing and uncourteous manner of transacting business over the wires."

The December 1864 issue contained a response from a woman operator who signed herself "134", telegraphic slang for "who is at the key?"

We know there is a prejudice against lady operators, and the very word he uses, "prejudice", ...which, according to Webster means premature opinion; injury; damage, admits that it is merely a myth. ...in fact, Sir, when you look closely into the matter, I think you will see that those who criticise most are those who possess few superior qualities for business themselves... Are you quite sure that, taking the whole, the larger proportion of errors are made by the lady operators? I know very little about your city operators, but I do know ladies, in our country offices, whom I would put second to none in point of business capacity, and where errors are unknown. ...Sir, I insist that, in justice to all, you ought to retract from that statement.(29)

The pseudonym she employs - "Who is at the key?" - is itself a subtle comment on the gender issue. Telegraphy, although regarded as "men's work", was actually gender-neutral in that an operator had no way of knowing the gender of the person at the other end of the wire. Although claims were made that there was a distinctly "female" style of sending (and an associated higher level of errors), there are numerous anecdotal accounts of male operators who were surprised to learn that the "man" on the other end of the line was in fact a woman.(30)

The real motivation behind the accusations that women made more mistakes than men was fear, according to "S.W.D.", a former telegraphic manager. In his experience, women "did the business as promptly, satisfactorily, and with as little cause for complaint as did the same number of gentlemen"; he adds pointedly that "their offices were models of neatness." He asserts that men accuse women of being incompetent because "they instinctively shrink from acknowledging any fear of the other sex; therefore, as the cry of "incapacity," if heeded, will secure the same result, they adopt it as the more politic..."(31)

In the December 26, 1864 issue, a letter from "T. A.", a male operator, raises the gender issue that was of greatest significance to the male operators - the threat of women taking jobs away from men. He points out that the American Telegraph Company, under the leadership of General Marshall K. Lefferts, was training women in Morse telegraphy free of charge, in hopes of employing them in its offices. Since women will work for a lower wage than men, he alleges, they will eventually replace men in the telegraph office. He concludes that "What operators should do to protect themselves from 'hard times' is to keep the ladies out of the National Telegraphic Union, and also as much as possible off the lines."(32)

T.A.'s comments escalated the level of the debate. His letter received an angry response from "Magnetta" in the February 27, 1865 issue, in which she accuses him of hypocrisy and selfishness:

I asked myself, do I live in the nineteenth century...? or are the days of barbarism rolling back upon us, and are we to do homage to the god of selfishness?...All the spleen that may be vented will not assure us that General Lefferts, in opening a way for ladies to become operators, does it from such selfish motives as those stated. Henry Ward Beecher, and John B. Gough, strive in their lectures to convince people of woman's proper sphere. General Lefferts does more; he gives us a helping hand, and places us where we can prove ourselves equal to the best of you, if only we persevere.

"Protect from hard times - keep ladies out of Union; also off the lines!" Sir! you weighed your soul in that remark! ...But how I shudder as I imagine your mother at home washing your linen, while your sister blacks your boots! If I have brought "hard times" to your door by being allowed on the lines, I earnestly wish your soul may find ample field for expansion, and you be promoted to message boy, with a salary of fifty cents per day!(33)

It is worth noting that the position of messenger boy, the lowest-paying job in the telegraph office, was also the only job that was reserved for males only.

The editor of the Telegrapher, Lewis Smith, came out in support of allowing women to join the NTU in a editorial which appeared in the February 27, 1865 issue, in which he acknowledged that "This war of ours is throwing many unprotected women upon the world to gain a living by their own industry. Who will be mean enough to crowd them into poverty if not sin?"(34)

In September 1865, the National Telegraphic Union held its convention in Chicago. A resolution that would have allowed women to be admitted as members was voted down after a speech by Delegate J. W. Stover of Boston, in which he claimed that "female operators were no honor to the profession", and that telegraphic superintendents, finding women operators to be incompetent, were "weeding them out." The controversy that resulted from his statement carried over into the daily press. Mrs. M. E. Lewis, a New York telegrapher, wrote in the New York Times of November 26, 1865 that "There are lady telegraphers who are both an honor and an ornament to the profession." She maintained that "instead of superintendents being 'weeding them out,' they are most of them opening the door still wider for their employment, and in many cases award them the meed of being more efficient than men."(35)

Stover responded in the Telegrapher for January 15, 1866 that telegraphy was not a proper occupation for women, since it "brings them in contact with too many of the rough corners of the world, and requires an understanding of such matters as a womanly woman cannot be expected to possess." Thus he implied that women operators who succeeded were therefore "unwomanly" by definition. Stover's charges were a restatement of the "separate spheres" ideology of women's work in the nineteenth century, in which women's proper place was the domestic sphere; women entered the working world only at the risk of their "femininity."(36)

The primary issue that emerged in the debate between Stover and Mrs. Lewis was that of business skills. The majority of women operators, particularly in the early years before 1870, worked in small one-operator offices, generally in railroad depots in rural areas. A telegraph office was basically a small business; running a telegraph office was an aspect of business activity by women in the nineteenth century which has been largely overlooked. In addition to sending and receiving messages, the operator had to deal with the public, maintain the equipment, and do bookkeeping.

Mrs. Lewis stated in her response to Stover in the February 1, 1866 issue of the Telegrapher that "It is men's fault if women do not understand business. If men did right, all women would be taught business enough while at school or afterwards, to fit them for managing their own affairs... The assertion that womanly women cannot understand business is thoroughly disproved by the fact that many of them do."

As for Stover's statement that telegraphy would bring women into contact with the "rough corners" of the world, Mrs. Lewis replied that

It is unsafe to argue that business is so dirty that women must not touch it. It is like arguing that politics are so dirty that clergymen must have none. It is a mistake to drive cleanly people away from either. It would be better to help the cleanly people expel the dirt.

Mrs. Lewis provides an interesting rebuttal to the "separate spheres" notion of women's work by arguing that telegraphy requires the same skill set as housework:

Woman's sphere, according to him, is keeping house. Now, exactly the qualities for a good housekeeper are those for a good telegrapher - patience, faithfulness, careful attention to numerous and tiresome little details. If women are not on an average altogether superior to men in those qualities, I am in error.(37) Stover's assertion that women's success in telegraphy was achieved at the loss of their femininity received a sarcastic response from "Josie" in the March 1, 1866 issue of the Telegrapher:

My sister operators, what think you of that gentleman's last effort? And you, gentlemen, members of the N.T.U. or otherwise, are you not interested here? How do Mr. Stover's strictures effect the ladies whom some of you have married, and who were formerly telegraphers, and competent ones, too. We fear you have made a sad mistake; you have each made your own a wife who, of necessity, lacks in "sensitiveness and womanly traits," and, terrible thought, "is strong-minded and self-confident."

Nor is it at all a matter for congratulation that these, your wives, were successful operators, possessing a knowledge of business necessary to their profession. Oh! no, that proves them to be "unwomanly", "possessing masculine characteristics", etc. Well, you are subjects for commiseration, and you have ours...(38)

Thus by publicly debating their critics and challenging those who tried to shut them out of the workplace, women telegraph operators achieved visibility and recognition in their craft. The numbers of women engaged in telegraphy grew steadily during the 1870's; census and industry figures, which almost certainly err on the low side, showed the percentage of women operators growing from four percent in 1870 to eight percent in 1877.(39)

By the mid-1870's, the presence of women in the telegraph office was accepted by men and women alike. An attempt to re-open the issue of women's presence in the telegraph office in 1875 was met with this response in the pages of the Telegrapher: "Lady operators are an established fact, and whatever may be our views of the "sphere of woman", we may as well accept the situation, and drop that subject."(40)

5. Researching the Lives of 19th Century Women Telegraphers

Why is the story forgotten? "Forgetting" the story of women telegraph operators was an early 20th century phenomenon. James D. Reid's 1879 history, The Telegraph in America: Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men, its title notwithstanding, provides a good account of the entry of women into the telegraph industry, and provides biographies of several noted women telegraphers. As already noted, Plum's 1882 account of the work of the Military Telegraph Corps mentions the participation of women. Sometime in the early twentieth century, however, the role of women in the telegraph industry disappeared from the written history, and telegraphy began to be constructed as an archtypally male occupation. Robert L. Thompson's 1947 work, Wiring A Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States 1832-1866, considered to be the primary scholarly reference for the nineteenth-century telegraph industry, does not even mention the fact that women worked as telegraphers. Edwin Gabler's 1988 work, The American Telegrapher: A Social History, 1860-1900 is the first twentieth century history to provide some detail about the work and lives of women telegraphers.(41)

One reason for this is that, as in other fields of women's work, accurate records were not kept, as women were not considered to be serious workers. Corporate records on the subject are scarce. Most large companies simply did not keep centralized personnel records of their employees. This was true of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and for many railroads as well. The Western Union knew at any time how many employees it had, but to find out the names and payrates of individual employees, one would have to go to each individual office and look at the office ledger book. Few of these ledger books survive today.

Of the few records that were generated initially, even fewer survive today. Many of the railroads destroyed personnel records during the closedowns that occurred during the cutbacks of the 1960s-1980s.

Another reason for the lack of information on telegraphers has to do with the technology itself. Telegraphy was rapidly forgotten as it was replaced by the telephone and other forms if communications; few today understand the critical role that nineteenth-century telegraphers played in providing communications and running the railroads safely and on time.

Researching the lives of 19th century women requires an approach that is different from that used in researching the lives of their male contemporaries. Women in general left their traces in birth, death, and marriage records, while men are more commonly recorded in land transactions, court records, and military service records. The stories of Civil War - era women telegraphers can be found in the telegraphic journals and magazines of the era, and in their obituaries. Local newspapers and historical societies often provide a wealth of information about these forgotten pioneers.

Recovering Louisa Volker Macklind's story turned out to be as much an exercise in genealogy as historical research. Beginning with a single reference in Plum's Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, the trail led to the Census of 1850 and 1860, in both of which her name appears; however, she is not listed in the 1870 Census for Missouri. I was not certain at first that she had survived the war; if she had, it was likely that she had married or left the state. A chance discovery of the marriage record of her older sister, Mary, in St. Louis in 1855 eventually brought me into contact with living descendants of that family; however, they had no knowledge of what had happened to Louisa Volker after the Civil War. A search of the Washington County land deeds revealed a mention of a land transfer between Rudolph C. Volker and a "Louisa Macklind" in 1887; since the name Macklind had turned up both in Plum's book and in correspondence with descendants of Louisa's sister Mary, it seemed possible that this was her married name. An earlier search of Missouri marriages for a "Louisa Volker" had yielded nothing; however, a search for "Macklind" yielded the marriage certificate for Thomas Macklind and Louisa "Boelker" in May 1865 (Her family name was variously spelled "Volker," "Volcker", "Voelker", and "Boelker" in the records accessed). After learning her married name, further research was largely a matter of following City Directory listings and obituaries. Her obituaries, in both the local papers and the telegraphic journals, provided information on her later activities in stenography and medicine. Since she was listed in the City Directory as a physician, it was possible to trace her medical career.

While going through the records of the Western Union Company at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington on an unrelated project, I came across a folder containing photographs of members of the Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War. Most of the photographs were of men, and were labeled with the name of the person shown; the names were familiar to me from my reading of Plum and the Telegrapher. However, there was one photograph of an unidentified woman that had been taken at the Scholten studio in St. Louis, a prominent photography studio of the Civil War era. Although this photograph cannot be identified positively, it is very likely a photograph of Louisa Volker, since she was the only female Military Telegrapher associated with the city of St. Louis.(42)

I would like to thank the Missouri researchers and genealogists who made all this research possible: Elizabeth Bailey of the State Historical Society of Missouri, who furnished me with the first Census listings; Coralee Paull of St. Louis, who researched St. Louis area resources; Alice Henson, who researched the Washington County records kept at Jefferson City; and Marie Edgar of the Mine au Breton Historical Society, who provided me with information from the records at the Washington County Courthouse in Potosi. Without their diligent work, this research would have been impossible, and Louisa Volker's fascinating story would have remained untold.

6. Postscript: An "Unsolved Mystery"

While doing research at the Library of Congress recently, I came across a 1911 obituary in one of the telegraphic journals for a Samantha French Brenisholtz, a resident of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. In the obituary, Brenisholtz was said to have been the "chief telegraph operator" at Gettysburg during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, and to have sent many important messages from local field commanders to the War Department in Washington.(43) I was intrigued by her story, and decided to see if I could verify it. I obtained a local newspaper obituary from Ruth Gembe, the reference librarian at the Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, public library, which repeated the statement that she had been the telegraph operator at Gettysburg, but gave no additional details. Mrs. Gembe also provided me with some genealogical information on Mrs. Brenisholtz; she had been born Samantha French in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, in about 1836, had moved to Waynesboro in 1861, and had married Dr. Fred S. Brenisholtz there in 1878.(44)

I then wrote to Elwood Christ, a researcher with the Adams County Historical Society in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who was unable to find any references to her in local historical records. However, he did provide me with an anecdotal account which appeared in the Worcester, Massachusetts Veteran almost thirty years after the Battle of Gettysburg, concerning the story of a woman operator at Gettysburg:

When the enemy entered the town driving away the citizens, the railroad station operator, a young girl, took the machine from the operating table, connected the wires so as to preserve the circuit intact and carried the instrument to Cemetery Hill, a quarter of a mile distant. Placing it upon a block of wood, she instructed the boys how to cut the line and reconnect the wires, and seated upon the ground sent and received news for the officers all through the battle, faltering not in her resolution when the brains of a man struck by a shell not six feet away were spattered all over her...(45)

Was Samantha French the "courageous girl" who provided vital communications in the midst of battle? Or is the story simply a romanticized fiction? Perhaps further research will shed more light on the story of the Gettysburg telegraph operator, and the many other forgotten women who put their technical skills to work for their country at a critical moment.

Related Publications:

"Crossed Wires," Civil War Times Illustrated, Vol. XXXIII, nr. 5 (December 1994), 56-60.

"The Telegraph Comes to Colorado: A New Technology and Its Consequences," Essays and Monographs in Colorado History, nr. 7 (1987), 1-25.

"The Telegraph Goes to War," Civil War, Vol. IX, nr. 6 (November/December 1991), 58-62.

"Two 'Lightning Slingers' from South Carolina: The Telegraphic Careers of Ambrose and Narciso Gonzales," South Carolina Historical Magazine (October 1993), 264-282.

"Women Telegraphers in the Railroad Depot," Railroad History 173 (Autumn 1995), 142-154.

"Women Telegraph Operators on the Western Frontier," Journal of the West, Vol. XXXV, No. 2 (April 1996), 72-80.

Ma Kiley: The Life of a Railroad Telegrapher (El Paso, TX: Texas Western Press, 1997).

1. George Prescott, History, Theory, and Practice of the Electric Telegraph (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860), 214.

2. "The Telegraph," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, August 1873, 332.

3. Virginia Penny, How Women Can Make Money (Springfield, Mass.: Fisk & Co., 1870), 101. Sarah Bagley's telegraphic work is mentioned in Helena Wright, "Sarah G. Bagley: A Biographical Note," Labor History, Vol. 20 Nr. 3 (Summer 1979), 398-413.

4. "The Oldest Lady Telegrapher," Telegraph Age, September 16, 1897, 382.

5. Lewistown (PA) Sentinel, March 24, 1922; Long Beach, California, Press, August 19, 1924.

6. Telegraph Age, March 9, 1893, 85; ibid, April 16, 1909, 301.

7. Johnstown (PA) Daily Tribune, February 27, 1940; David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 97.

8. Louise R. Moreau, "The Feminine Touch in Telecommunications," AWA Review (vol 4, 1989), 73. For a good description of the Confederate use of the telegraph, see J. Cutler Andrews, "The Southern Telegraph Company, 1861-1865: A Chapter in the History of Wartime Communication," The Journal of Southern History (vol. XXX, 1964), 319-344.

9. William R. Plum, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1882), vol. 1, 62-92; David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office (New York: The Century Company, 1907), 14-37. For a discussion of the strategic significance of the telegraph in warfare, see John Keegan, The Mask of Command (London: Penguin Books, 1988), 210-212.

10. Plum, The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, vol. II, 380. In addition to Louisa Volker, the roster also contains the names of Mary E. Smith and Ann Marean.

11. U.S. Census, 1850, St. Louis, Ward 2, St. Louis City, micro page 207A.

12. Washington County Index to Deeds 1813-1868, Vol. J, Page 447; Vol. J, Page 488; Vol. J. Page 586.

13. U.S. Census, 1860, Washington County, MO, Breton Township, micro page 516; Missouri Republican, December 3, 1855, p. 2; St. Louis Marriages 1804-76 (St. Louis Genealogical Society); Missouri Historical Society Information Card File (August Rauschenbach).

14. Edwin Gabler discusses the motivations for women entering telegraphy in the nineteenth century in The American Telegrapher: A Social History, 1860-1900 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1988); see esp. p. 116.

15. Plum, Vol. I, pp. 345-6.

16. Washington County Index to Deeds 1813-1868, Vol. N, Page 123.

17. Details of the battle of Pilot Knob are taken from Bryce A. Suderow, Thunder in Arcadia Valley: Price's Defeat, September 27, 1864 (Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Center for Regional History and Cultural Heritage: 1986), Cyrus A. Peterson and Joseph Mills Hanson, Pilot Knob: The Thermopylae of the West (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1914), and Stephen B. Oates, Confederate Cavalry West of the River (Austin: U. of Texas Press, 1992)..

18. Plum, Vol. II, pp. 218-219.

19. "In Memoriam: Thomas Hanlon Macklind." Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Headquarters Commandery of the State of Missouri. Circular No. 10, Series of 1904, Whole No. 276. St. Louis, November 15, 1904.

20. St. Louis County Marriages 1804-76 (Thomas Macklind to Louise "Boelker", 5/17/1865); Missouri Republican, March 14, 1904.

21. St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 22, 1905; Telegraph Age, June 16, 1905, p. 241. Margery Davies discusses the employment of women in clerical positions after the Civil War in Woman's Place is at the Typewriter (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982).

22. Martha R. Clevenger, "From Lay Practitioner to Doctor of Medicine: Woman Physicians in St. Louis, 1860-1920." Gateway Heritage (Winter 1987-1988), pp. 12-21.

23. Register of Physicians, Vol. II, State Board of Health, Missouri State Archives, License #6720; 1902 City Directory of St. Louis; 1903 City Directory of St. Louis; St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 22, 1905.

24. St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 22, 1905; St. Louis City Burial Record #3374; Correspondence, Donald W. Meyer, Superintendent, Bellefontaine Cemetery Association.

25. Congressional Record, January 28, 1897 (vol. 29, pt. 2), 1243; Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, 36-7.

26. Telegraph Age, June 1, 1909, 380; July 1, 1909, 498; Norwich, NY, Sun, May 25, 1909, May 26, 1909.

27. Telegrapher, October 31, 1864, 16. Melodie Andrews discusses the debate over the presence of women in the post-Civil War telegraph industry in " 'What The Girls Can Do': The Debate Over the Employment of Women in the Early American Telegraph Industry," Essays in Economic and Business History 8 (1990), 109-120.

28. Telegrapher, November 28, 1864, 20.

29. Ibid, December 26, 1864, 32.

30. See, for example, Shirley Tillotson, " 'We may all soon be first-class men': Gender and skill in Canada's early twentieth century urban telegraph industry," Labour/Le Travail 27 (Spring 1991), 117.

31. Telegrapher, February 27, 1865, 61-2.

32. Ibid, December 26, 1864, 32.

33. Ibid, February 27, 1865, 61.

34. Ibid, 58.

35. Telegrapher Supplement, November 6, 1865, 12-13; New York Times, November 26, 1865.

36. Telegrapher, January 15, 1866, 33. Margery Davies discusses the "threat to femininity" posed by the workplace in Woman's Place is at the Typewriter, 80-1.

37. Telegrapher, February 1, 1866, 42.

38. Ibid, March 1, 1866, 68.

39. Gabler, The American Telegrapher, 109.

40. Telegrapher, March 27, 1875, 74.

41. James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America: Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men (New York: Derby Brothers, 1879); Robert L. Thompson, Wiring a Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States 1832-1866 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947). Plum and Gabler were previously cited.

42. Western Union Telegraph Company Collection, 1848-1963, Series 11, Box 110, Folder 4. Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

43. Telegraph and Telephone Age, September 16, 1911, 604.

44. "Mrs. Brenisholtz Joins Her Husband in the Other Land," Waynesboro, PA, Evening Herald, September 8, 1911; correspondence, Ruth Gembe, Alexander Hamilton Memorial Free Library, October 21, 1996.

45. "A Courageous Girl," The Worcester, Mass., Veteran, Vol. 1, nr. 10 (March 1892), 8.