Book Review: Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails

Mr. Lincon’s T-Mails: The Untold Story Of How Abraham Lincoln Used The Telegraph To Win The Civil War, by Tom Wheeler

I borrowed this book from a friend, and it is interesting how this book mirrors the focus of another book I have been reading (not yet finished) that is much longer and concerns Lincoln’s relationship with the press. It is a short book that manages to do something rare, and that is find a new, or at least under-appreciated, area of Civil War history, which is not an easy task [1]. In doing so, this book finds in a narrow focus on Abraham Lincoln’s appreciation of the power of the telegraph a lesson that is surprisingly and pointedly relevant both to our own time, but also, in a surprising way, to my own life. As a result, this book was both easy to read (at under 200 pages) as well as full of thought-provoking commentary about leadership and technology in a way that is highly interesting.

This book is organized in a mostly chronological fashion, looking at the three stages of Lincoln’s use of the telegraph. In the opening stage of the Civil War, Lincoln was somewhat tentative in his use of the telegraph as he learned how to use it and learned how to recognize the power of the telegraph in providing a means of rapid communication with the generals in the field, as a result of the fact that the telegraph had not been widely connected to the federal government. In the second phase of the Civil War, Lincoln used the telegraph as a way of conveying his strategic vision and prodding reluctant generals into action. In the third phase, Lincoln found leaders who had his confidence and wrote in ways that sought to give and receive information to clarify the actions of generals to make sure they conformed with his political and grand strategic aims. It is striking to note that when it comes to management in the electronic age, Lincoln basically wrote the book in the absence of precedent, acting in ways that were alien to his time, setting precedents that were useful and that are used today.

Particularly of relevant importance are a few of the aspects of Lincoln’s communication. One was the fact that his adoption of the telegraph did not in any way discount the limitations of t-mails (the telegraph form of e-mails), which included a large amount of ambiguity and a low ability to convey nuance (similar to e-mails). Indeed, Lincoln preferred face to face meetings where possible in matters of importance and as ways to set the boundaries of the relationship, to see what kind of confidence he would have in the general, and this was done frequently in the Eastern Theater. Where face-to-face interaction was not possible, Lincoln preferred to convey his thoughts in very well-argued and thoughtful letters, recognizing that the short telegraphs did not convey the kind of nuance that was necessary to convey at all times. Coincidentally, these are my preferences as well. Additionally, and related to this, Lincoln was skilled in what is now known as Management-By-Walking-Around, which is how I like to lead as well. It is pleasing for me to think that among Abraham Lincoln’s other virtues are the fact that he was wise in how he handled technology, and is a fitting example of that sort of behavior as in so many other ones [2].

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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