When he took office in March, the telegraph extended only to the Navy Yard and the War Department, not the White House. For several months thereafter the administration had to use the city’s central telegraph office to send its dispatches.
By contrast, the nerve center of the Union war effort in 1861 was found at the headquarters of Gen. George McClellan, who had actually issued a standing order that all messages were to be given solely to him. Such was the situation in October 1861, when telegrams reporting the disastrous Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff were brought directly to McClellan as he met with Lincoln in the White House. McClellan withheld the news from Lincoln, who later learned of both the defeat at Ball’s Bluff and that his close friend Edward Baker had been killed in action. Such a policy was unacceptable, and Lincoln soon transferred control of the telegraph from McClellan’s headquarters to the War Department.