When I found the book “Brass-Pounders” by Alvin F. Harlow, I wondered skeptically how a book about Civil War telegraphers could be interesting. After all, how many stories could someone write about operators sitting in old wooden offices sending and receiving Morse code? But from the first story on, I found the adventures of the telegraphers compelling, and I learned that many were field operators who replaced horseback couriers. The exploits of Massillon native Jesse Bunnell stand out as extraordinary.
In late June 1862 the federal Army of the Potomac under Gen. George B. McClellan moved up the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers toward Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy when “Forward to Richmond” was the North’s rallying cry. Gen. Fitz John Porter’s V Corps was on the north side of the swampy Chickahominy River, and McClellan’s headquarters were 10 miles away on the other side of the Chickahominy.
When the Seven Days’ Battles began June 25 with assaults on the V Corps, Porter’s telegraph operator was Bunnell, age 18, who had begun at age 11 as a messenger boy in Massillon, later becoming an operator. He was a railroad telegrapher at various places in Ohio, noted for his speed in sending and receiving and in December 1860 setting a two-hour record sending President Buchanan’s final Congressional message at 38 words per minute, according to Harlow. Bunnell joined the Army Telegraph Corps when the Civil War began.
McClellan sent the order to move out late on the night of June 25 by telegraph, Porter ordered Bunnell to send a last-minute message, and the baggage wagon left Bunnell behind. Bunnell sent his final dispatch, packed his knapsack, cut the wire a few yards from the instrument and coiled it around the key, and struck and folded his tent. He sat by the road as darkness began to fade into gray, about 3:30 a.m., and hitched a ride on a wagon from the Ninth Pennsylvania carrying tents and officers’ baggage. Having had little sleep, he fell asleep in the back and awoke in broad daylight, across the river, the driver having forgotten he was back there. He begged some hardtack crackers and started back along the road but was knocked off a bridge into a swamp by a struggling team of horses. He held his instrument above his head, but his knapsack got soaked and the last two crackers were ruined. He struggled forward, feet tangled in roots and muck, finally reached a dry road, got directions to headquarters from a local, and found the telegraph line, which led him to headquarters. While Bunnell was missing, men had to carry messages on horseback. Bunnell shinned up a pole and cut into the line, returned to the ground, called “Mc, Mc, Mc,” McClellan’s call sign, and sent a dispatch from Porter that the courier had given him.
Later Bunnell moved to the shelter of a tree to avoid bullets, using a rock for a seat and holding his instrument on his knee. He poured sweat when the sun moved high enough to deprive him of shade, the bullets whizzing through the leaves, and once a cannon ball hit the tree trunk, jarring his spine. He was ravenously hungry and thirsty and sat in his minimal shelter as darkness fell and the Battle of Gaines’s Mill ended. At 11 p.m. he wired, “I am closing my office,” climbed the pole, detached the wire and joined an infantry regiment.
“Soldier Life and the Secret Service” from The Photograph History of the Civil War says, “Illustrative of the courage and resourcefulness of operators was the action of Jesse Bunnell, attached to General Porter’s headquarters. Finding himself on the fighting line, with the Federal troops hard pressed, Bunnell, without orders, cut the wire and opened communications with McClellan’s headquarters. Superior Confederate forces were then threatening defeat to the invaders, but this battle-office enabled McClellan to keep in touch with the situation and ensure Porter’s position by sending the commands of French, Meagher, and Slocum to his relief.”
Bunnell founded his own business in New York City 13 years after the war, and these excerpts from the Bunnell Co. website, http://jhbunnell.com/bunnellcohistory.shtml, illustrate Bunnell’s post-war work, continuing in the field of telegraphy: “In 1878, Jesse created J. H. Bunnell and Co. … Bunnell received a patent on the 15th of February 1881 for his steel lever key. Stamped from one piece of steel, with minor machining required, this key was Bunnell’s answer to the loosening of the steel trunnion inserted in the brass lever. So successful, the steel lever continues to this day in keys. … In 1888, Bunnell introduced his double speed (sideswiper) key to help telegraphers avoid a ‘glass arm’ (today called carpal tunnel syndrome).”
Jesse Bunnell died on Feb. 9, 1899, at age 56 from heart failure caused by a severe cold. He is buried in Brooklyn.
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