Blogging A-Z W Is For Wiretap

George Ellsworth

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.


    1. Lilac,

      Thank you so much. I confess I knew I was going to be babysitting today, so I threw this together. It probably has a lot of mistakes. Regardless, I very much appreciate your loyal support.

  1. Now there’s a guy I’d love to go drink a beer with and just sit back and listen to stories. Hey, maybe you guys are related, Julie Weathers!

    Here’s a spot that befuddled me:

    “captured and paroled 1,200 prisoners…” If I understand that correctly, they released all their prisoners. Was that common during the Civil War? Doesn’t seem to make much sense strategically, but things were different 150 years ago, so what do I know?!

  2. John,

    George was fascinating. I honestly have to restrain myself with so many of these stories because I want to include so many in Rain Crow. Beauregard, Morgan, Stuart, Ellsworth, all had wicked senses of humor and raised Billy with the Federals. Stuart once captured a Federal train of remount horses and supplies and wired Washington to tell them their quality of horses was slipping. He’d appreciate it if they’d start investing in better ones soon.

    Yes, quite frequently if they couldn’t take prisoners, they’d extract a promise from them the prisoner would go home and not take up arms again. Much of the time the freed prisoners honored their parole and the captors just turned them loose.

    Raiders often didn’t have time or manpower to guard a large group of prisoners as they were traveling fast and light and the alternative was killing them.

    Grant is the one who stopped the prisoner exchange program which led to the massive overcrowding in southern prisons. The boys in the south would keep fighting once they were exchanged as they were fighting for their homes. The northern prisoners usually went home.

  3. Who knew wiretapping started with telegraphs? The civil war history is fascinating and so sad. It’s really a miracle a single nation emerged out the back end of that. I hope it never happens again. Great stuff, Julie. Truly, this has been such a learning experience for me.

  4. I had no idea they did that during the war! The methods of spying have changed, but the spying itself really hasn’t. It’s really interesting .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *