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How the Civil War Changed Your Life

8 things to think about as we mark the conflict's 150th anniversary

November 19, 1863 photograph of Lincoln getting up to give the Gettysburg address.

President Abraham Lincoln prepares to deliver on Nov. 19, 1863, the speech that would become known as the Gettysburg Address. — Library of Congress

4. We let technology guide how we communicate.

Abraham Lincoln was a techie. A product of the Industrial Revolution, Lincoln is the only president to have held a patent (for a device to buoy boats over shoals). He was fascinated with the idea of applying technology to war: In 1861, for example, after being impressed by a demonstration of ideas for balloon reconnaissance, he established the Balloon Corps, which would soon begin floating hot-air balloons above Confederate camps in acts of aerial espionage.

Lincoln also encouraged the development of rapid-fire weapons to modernize combat. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson, the author of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, notes that Lincoln personally tested the "coffee-mill gun," an early version of a hand-cranked machine gun.

But above all, Lincoln loved the telegram. Invented just a few decades earlier, the telegraph system had gone national in 1844.

As Tom Wheeler recounts in his book, Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War, the White House had no telegraph connection. Twice daily throughout his presidency, Lincoln walked to the telegraph office of the War Department (on the site of today's Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just west of the White House) to receive updates and to send orders to his generals on the front. He sent this one to General Ulysses S. Grant on Aug. 17, 1864: "Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew & choke, as much as possible."

Before Lincoln's day, letters and speeches were often long-winded. With the telegraph came the need for concise communication. After all, every dot and dash of Morse Code carried a cost. Gone were the "wherefores," "herewith" and "hences." Flowery, formal speech was out.

Lincoln's Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses both demonstrate this new economy of phrase. "Events were moving too fast for the more languid phrases of the past," historian Garry Wills writes in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg. "The trick, of course, was not simply to be brief but to say a great deal in the fewest words. Lincoln justly boasted, of his Second Inaugural's six hundred words, ‘Lots of wisdom in that document, I suspect.'"

Not only did Lincoln's wartime dependence on the telegraph eventually lead to a wave of investment in new communication devices, from the telephone to the Internet (the latter invented, not coincidentally, for military use), but it also signaled the evolution of a language that morphs as quickly as the devices that instantaneously tweet our words around the globe.

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