William "Rattle" Plum, Author of the The Military Telegraph During the Civil War, Manuscript Archive
18 letters, ca 1861-1864.
William Rattle Plum (1845-1927) was born in Cuyahoga Falls, OH and was a friend to Robert S. Paul and a member of the Cuyahoga Falls Literary Club. In 1862, at the age of 16 he volunteered as a telegrapher for the Union Army. He had been working for the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad as a telegraph operator before he joined the war effort. After the war, he entered Yale Law School and graduated before marrying Helen Williams and moving to Lombard, IL in 1868. He became a successful lawyer, an active member of the town of Lombard and a horticulturalist. In 1882, Plum wrote a book entitled The Military Telegraph During the Civil War in the United States, describing his experiences. After his death in 1927, his will created a public library in his family home in Lombard, now called the Helen M. Plum Memorial Library. (Biography from Find a Grave written by Gerry Rader Watts.)
The letters from William R. Plum to Robert S. Paul contain numerous stories of Plum’s experiences as a telegraph operator during the war and returning home to see his friends and family during breaks. Plum was based in Nashville, Smithland, KY, Whitesides, TN, and Fort Donelson, TN during the war, under the command of Generals William S. Rosecrans and George H. Thomas in the Army of the Cumberland. His position as a telegraph operator was difficult, and he wrote to Robert Paul throughout his service with complaints and concerns, in addition to noting items and places of interest.
Prior to joining the army, Plum also wrote regularly while working with the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad. He wrote on March 30, 1861, I have a great many telegraph messages I never have had to carry any to the centre. My messages are mostly about RR business I have learned to keep the Post Office, State in Books, make acct all many bills + a host of little things…doing all these things at a time is no little share. He was enjoying the work but was learning quite a bit and was very busy. In one particularly interesting letter from May 25, 1861, he wrote to Robert, expressing his thoughts about the war: I am going to join that corpse [sic] of telegraph oprs if I can, possible I would be in my glory then think I would make a good spy as I could go into telegraph offices + listen to all that was going on + they would not suspect me. There is nothing going on here I get most all news long before it is printed.
Once Plum joined the telegraph corps he began to write about his work and his experiences with the Army of the Cumberland. On April 29, 1862 he wrote, Our boys are planning out a real scientific campaign of this war we have good old heads going. This is the neatest managed war I have ever heard of bully for McClellan and others we will bag the …New Orleans is ours and the dirty operators left before the town was besieged without giving us any of the particulars. In February 1863, he wrote to Robert about Robert’s reluctance to join the war as a soldier, My patriotism, as it ever was firm so it is even now resolute, determined + inflexible as loyalty can make it…Rosecrans has a brilliant army which only needs ill toned letters from home to demoralize them + cannot the old men whose sons are at war for them control the element of discord at home + will they not try a few more victories for us… The letters also describe his trouble getting a commission and the difficulty and long hours involved in his work, plus his many hours of travel on horseback. In 1864, Plum entered Yale Law School, but continued to work as a telegraph operator at night.