1000 Messages Later

by Richard Metzger
President TP Chapter Morse Telegraph Club

Since our September, 1989 recreation of a military telegraph, recounted in "The Battle for Atlanta" (DOTS & DASHES, Oct-Nov-Dec 1989), Bill Dence and I have brought our sounders to life at several dozen Civil War re-enactments.

At each event the public is invited to walk through our camps and visit with the many, varied people who make up the hobby Whenever possible we attempt to locate our telegraph offices to gain maximum exposure to the public, as well as to serve a military purpose. Because of this Bill and I found ourselves involved in one of our more unusual escapades, during the Boyd Hill Raid of mid- April.

Bill set up his telegraph office in a barn-board shack inside the earthen walls of a Union-held fort. We ran our wire along a convenient fence 1000 feet to the Confederate camp where I set up my office. Throughout the morning it was business as usual as we sent and received many souvenir messages for fascinated onlookers.

Fort Clinch, Florida, 1864/1991, with U.S. Military Telegraph Operator Bill Dence at his post during garrison duty weekend. He and sidekick Dick Metzger put in an amazing amount of time manning telegraph circuits at various Civil War Reenactments.
Photo by Dick Metzger.

During a pause in our clicking, the Reb commander approached and asked me to send a message to the Union fort. Since each side had separate event registrations and individual troop strength wasnít known, I was to telegraph that the Union forces were outnumbered three to one, and that we demanded immediate surrender or evacuation of the fort.

Moments later came the reply: "We hv no intent to surrender or evacuate. Mv no boats to support us, hv no choice but to fight." This reply was not a total surprise. Had they surrendered the fort, there would be no re-enactment and we would all go home two days early As it turned out, troop strengths were quite even.

Ringside Report

When the re-enactment of the battle began later that afternoon, I could not see and could only faintly hear the cannons and muskets from my telegraph desk. Bill decided he would give me a blow-by-blow description of the clash via telegraph.

He turned out to be an excellent part, For nearly an hour he sent news from the front which read in part "14 wounded and 2 dead. Our men now taking position on top of theí tower & cannons ready Getting heated up here, smell of black powder is strong. Vry loud gun fire." And then later; "We are going to be charging ur front. Rebs driven bk, captured one field piece, one Reb shot when he tried to escape. Rebs retreating into woods."

This was news to me - I had thought we were to win. That meant, though, that the next day would be our turn. Whenever possible at a battle reenactment, each army is given the opportunity to win the fight, historical accuracy notwithstanding.

An idea suddenly came to mind and just before the battle next day, I asked the Reb commander if I could follow his troops onto the field, breach the fort wall and capture the Union telegraph office. He invited me to do so and I returned to my field desk to load my revolver.

As the battle raged, we pushed forward and were driven back many times, each time inching closer to the fort. Suddenly, on the extreme left, I watched as half of our forward skirmish line ran across the open ground and breached the fort wall. I ran quickly across the front left of our line, turned and covered the open ground and slipped through the wall opening. Guess What! Encountering no resistance, I crossed quickly to the Union telegraph office. Bill was at his key, dutifully either trying to raise me or give me more battlefield reports. I leveled my revolver at him and proclaimed, "You are captured! Surrender your office!" At that moment I wished Iíd been pointing a camera instead of a pistol, because his expression of total amazement was priceless! I told him he would not be harmed as he was a member of the telegraph fraternity and led him outside. Thus ended, with a rather different twist of events, the 2nd Annual Boyd Hill Raid.

Dick Metzger at Headquarters office, Fort Clinch. As the late-model relay atop the desk attests, a problem with Civil War telegraph reenactments is suitable equipment- little gear from that era is available. Few layman know the difference, but still it would be nice to be historically accurate.
Photo by Dick Metzger.

The most recent telegraph re-enactment is probably our favorite. it is called a "living history theater" week-end of garrison duty at Fort Clinch State Park, at Fernandina Beach, Fla. This fort is on the Florida- Georgia state line and during the Civil War was used to guard the month of part of Fermandina. Approximately 120 men and women live, eat and work as if it were May 1864, in a fully operational fort virtually untouched by change since that time.

As the public enters the park, they are greeted at the interpretive center and museum, then exit through a second door. As they do, the year becomes 1864 and Bill Dence and his telegraph tent appear before them.

The fort is not yet visible, requiring a walk up a dirt path over a large hill. We have run 1000 feet of wire up to the fort, through its dry moat (glacis) and up over the walls (the rampart, parapet and terreplein) to the headquarters building. I share my telegraph office there with the fort commander and his officers.

Souvenir messages seem to come non-stop from Bill. As visitors enter the fort, they are required to "check in" at the headquarters office for a military pass, and there they can receive their dispatches from me.

An example of these souvenir messages, written in pen and ink on a reproduction U.S. Military Telegraph blank, is; "Lisa is 10, Bridgette is 7, Gary is 4 yrs old & all are the proud owners of a new dog." Another rather urgent one read; "Shea is 7 years old & a Brownie from troop 411 and is looking for the rest of her troop. Is her troop there?" We have a lot of fun with these.

Since the weekend is billed as a "living history theater," anything within the realm of historic probability can and sometimes does happen.

Rear-echelon Commandos

Shortly after we opened our offices Saturday and sent our standard opening message to the fort commander (The military telegraph line has been completed between your office and this station and is now open for Government business) I received a message: "Capt. Kirach, Ft. Clinch from Hdqtrs Jacksonville. Member of Inspector Gen. office, Secret Service, Marine Corps inspector due at fort shortly (Sig) Capt. L. Dodd."

These gentlemen entered the fort and proceeded to conduct an 1864-style investigation into missing medical supplies, black market operations, spying and the like, which kept the telegraph busy.

At times when their investigation needed a boost, they would send messages from the fort such as, "To Commander, USS Pohatton, Jacksonville from C. Roberts, Secret Service, Ft. Clinch. Request any information available on Maj. Richert or Cap. Sheets. (sig) Capt. L. Dodd."

I received a reply to this particular inquiry twenty-five minutes later from Billís post, most likely authored by the same person. All this is done, though, as visitors look on, spectators to the drama.

That Saturday Bill and I worked our telegraph positions from 9 am. to 10 p.m., with a two hour dinner break. During the busy evening shift, when the fort hosts its popular "candlelight tours," I realized Iíd run out of U.S. Military Telegraph blanks. These special blanks are used only for military dispatches and souvenir messages; all our "gabbing" is copied in our heads or on scratch paper. That meant we had handed out nearly one thousand messages over the last couple of years.

I say "nearly" since I did keep two back so they could be recopied, a task cheerfully accomplished by Park Ranger and telegraph enthusiast Bob Rahberg almost before I needed more.

Now that we are resupplied with a fresh stack of blanks, we are off and running, and this time Iíll keep a closer eye on my "unlimited" supply.

And, oh, yes - little Shea did find her Brownie troop.

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