Gen. John Hunt Morgan
Mention wiretapping and everyone automatically thinks of FBI, NSA, smarmy illegal eavesdropping by unethical private investigators and various other modern scenarios, but it actually began long before. Some people elevated it to an art form during the Civil War. George Ellsworth was one of those men.
Ellsworth was Canadian by birth had enlisted for a second time with 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, Company A on June 1, 1862, so we assume he was in from the beginning of the war. He joined up with John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry in Mobile, Alabama. He was with Hunt on the raid that started in early July where they covered 1,000 miles in less than a month, captured and paroled 1,200 prisoners, and only lost 100 of his 800 men.
This success was largely due to Ellsworth’s wiretapping. He’d tap into telegraph wires or take over captured telegraph offices and send outlandish messages to various Union stations, keeping the Federals in complete confusion.
While stopped near Cave City, KY, Ellsworth cut into the lines so skillfully the operator didn’t realize it even though he was in the middle of transmitting. Ellsworth intercepted a message instructing Union Generals to pursue Rebel invaders. General Boyle imprudently mentioned force numbers and where the other generals were and where they were going in the message without the benefit of cipher.
Ellsworth responded to the operator so he thought the transmissions were going through when in fact nothing past Horse Cave, where he was camped got out. A thunderstorm broke out while he was passing and receiving messages. A suspicious operator who didn’t recognize his style asked who he was and if he was all right. He responded, “O.K. Lightning,” knowing that lightning, would cause differences in transmissions. He sat the rest of the night, water up to his knees with his machine on his little table, electricity flashing from his finger as he sent out all manner of messages to civilians and Federals alike as well as intercepting the military orders.
The name stuck. He was known as “Old Lightning” or “Captain Lightning” the rest of his days.
On July 21, they took over the Somerset, KY telegraph office. By this time, the entire Union army in that area was hunting Morgan’s men. Ellsworth meant to capture the operator to learn his style, but having been capture once by the Confederates, he scrambled like a rabbit out the back window and went over a fence.
The operator at Lexington suggested they sign their messages with a 7 to know for sure they were authentic and that damned Ellsworth wasn’t intercepting. Ellsworth agreed. He said he was going to take a nap, but was strictly forbidden while they were trying to locate Morgan they were sure was heading to the supply depot in Somerset. He was already there, of course, but now they were wondering since they had assumed he would have already arrived.
Finally, at 2:00 a.m. Lexington let Ellsworth take a nap and shut down the line.
Later that day, Morgan had Ellsworth send his last message to a Louisville newspaper editor who had been less than flattering to Morgan. “Destroyed $1,000,000 worth of Government Stores. Now off for Dixie.”
The Louisville operator asked what he meant. Ellsworth told him to wait for the end of the message and sent the signature John Hunt Morgan. The operator asked who he was. Ellsworth gave his real name and added the next time they came to let him off earlier and not keep him up until 2 o’clock looking for Morgan.
The operator responded, “ha ha ha.”
Ellsworth wasn’t the only wiretapper with great skill, although he may have been the best known and most widely hated in the north. Tappers abounded on both sides and Ellsworth even captured a few Union operators tapped into his lines.