Charles Edward Bliven of the Army Telegraph Corps at Shiloh

    This article focuses on the Civil War era correspondence of military telegrapher Charles Edward Bliven (pen name “Pen Lever”) to the editor of the Daily Toledo Blade from late 1861 to the fall of 1862 as he followed the fortunes of the western Federal armies. While Bliven occasionally touches on his specific duties with the telegraph corps, the primary focus of his correspondence centers around his impressions of the communities in which he worked. Recruited into the nascent Army Telegraph Corps in late 1861 “by reason of his practical knowledge of telegraphy and high standing as an expert in that art,” Bliven initially worked as the chief operator in General Don Carlos Buell's headquarters in Louisville, then went south after the Battle of Shiloh and after some time in Nashville, headed west to work as the chief operator in Memphis. His travels took him into northern Alabama and western Tennessee, and he was in Jackson when that city was threatened by Armstrong's cavalry raid in late August 1862. The correspondence next finds Bliven engaged in Cincinnati where he describes the effect of the Confederate invasion of Kentucky upon the city.

    These letters provide a fascinating insight into the Civil War as viewed from behind the lines. Bliven's stories focus on the impact of war on the local populace; how citizens responded to changing economic and war conditions, how loyalties shifted during the course of the conflict, even how citizens dealt with the carnage that the war left behind- cities filled with sick and wounded men, hillsides covered with shallow graves, mass destruction of basic infrastructure such as bridges and railroads. As a military telegrapher, Bliven had daily access to a great deal of sensitive inside information, as well as knowing of any developments from other parts of the western theater that were communicated via telegraph between military commanders. “In addition to his duties and service as an organizer and director, he was very often made the confidant and adviser of the highest civil and military actors in that critical period, and affairs of the most momentous importance were committed and entrusted to him” a comrade later wrote.

    Born September 21, 1835 in Phelps, Ontario County, New York, Bliven moved with his family to Toledo, Ohio in the 1840s where Bliven soon took a job as a messenger boy for the railroad. He worked his way up the ranks and was working as superintendent of the railway department when the Civil War began in 1861. Bliven's efforts in the field were rewarded by his promotion to Assistant Superintendent of Telegraphic Communication for the southwest in 1863, based in Cincinnati. His efficiency in this role led to his transfer into the Quartermaster Department as a Captain in late 1864. Bliven served briefly with the Army of the Potomac, before transferring back to Cincinnati where he served as Inspector and Executive Officer in charge of Camp and Garrison Equipage, Transportation, Post Quartermaster, and Disbursing Officer. 
     One measure of his efficiency in this role is a statement from a government auditor who found an error of only 33 cents in Bliven's accounts, extending over two years and millions of dollars of expenditures, a record unprecedented in the Quartermaster Corps. Bliven ended the war as a Brevet Major, and after declining an offer to remain in the Army, was honorably discharged on May 31, 1866. Following the war, Major Bliven returned home to Toledo where he entered into the practice of law for a few years before making his fortune in the insurance business. Major Bliven died on August 29, 1896 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo.    
    In this segment, Bliven relates his experiences carrying dispatches in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862; he also recounts his exploration of the horrors of the battlefield. The entire set of 1861-1862 letters will be uploaded soon to the research files section of my website at

Steamer E.H. Fairchild, Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee
April 13, 1862
    I was fortunate enough to be one of the delegation sent here by the Louisville Sanitary Commission with this steamer and hospital stores for the wounded and suffering soldiers engaged in the late battle. We left Louisville at 12 o'clock Thursday night, having on board 23 ladies and 45 gentlemen including the surgeons and assistants sent from Lexington and Frankfort by the State Military Board, and M.C. Younglove of Cleveland. Additional supplies were received from the ladies of different places along the river. At Evansville, Mr. Younglove and myself obtained a sewing machine from a former resident of Toledo, which enabled the ladies on board to prepare the bedding necessary, after being disappointed in not receiving the expected supply of cots at Evansville.

    Friday afternoon we met the Commodore Perry from Pittsburg with about 300 wounded on board. The same evening we met the Switzerland with about the same number; she was hailed with stores and assistance tendered which were not needed. We learned enough to make us all anxious to reach the scene of suffering, and the boat was crowded along at the rate of twenty miles per hour. She made 40 miles in two hours and ten minutes. At Paducah, where we expected to receive more supplies and further instructions after some little detention we turned into the Tennessee river and hurried along as fast as possible against the strong current. We passed the Empress about daylight and the Anglo Saxon at Fort Henry, both bound up the river.

    At Fort Henry, I received dispatches to deliver to Gen. Halleck at Pittsburg, Above the fort we met the Woodford and War Eagle bound down with more wounded. We saw but few people along the river; some of them had only lately returned as the pilot told me; their houses were vacant on the last trip. Those we did see manifested every satisfaction at our presence and saluted us with waving handkerchiefs, swinging hats, and cheers. At one place a white flag was prominently displayed; at another, several men, women, and children rushed down to the banks and cheered us; one of the men hailed and asked 'how the fight was going up yonder?' Standing by the pilothouse, I answered 'all right' at which all commenced cheering, swinging their hats, and crying out 'Good, glory to God!' We saw much desolation and in but a few places signs of returning prosperity. Several dead bodies were passed floating in the river, confirming the report that our troops were forced to the river on Sunday and many of them drowned. Why the bodies were not recovered I can not say, unless it was thought best not to delay, but to hurry to a greater work.

    We arrived at Savannah about 2 o'clock Sunday morning and at Pittsburg at 3. After delivering my dispatches immediately to General Halleck on board the Continental, I set about finding troops from Toledo and vicinity.  The 14th Ohio was up river with General Sherman on an important expedition to destroy Rebel communication with the east, across the Tennessee river, which was successfully accomplished by them. Three other expeditions had been sent to do this work and had failed. The 14th Ohio returned today, all right. Lt. Col. Este and Lt. Davis were sick on the steamer White Cloud across the river, and Col. Steedman was at headquarters; so I did not see them during my short visit to their camp. The boys are without tents, the baggage trains not having come up yet. They have made themselves as comfortable as possible with blankets, brush, and bark- almost every tree on the battlefield is stripped of its bark to make shelter for the troops that came up without tents. The 68th Ohio is at Crump's Landing, between here and Savannah, guarding Gen. Lew Wallace's camp. The 38th Ohio has not got here yet. The 3rd Ohio Cavalry is camped two miles east of Savannah from whence detachments are sent to guard the trains. A portion of the regiment is at Waynesboro. Company C under Captain Howland is about 15 miles east of Savannah. The 21st, 49th, and 72nd were in the battle and suffered more or less. The 72nd had not a field officer in command Sunday night, Col. Buckland acting Brigadier General, is highly spoken of, as is Col. W.H. Gibson of the 49th, also acting Brigadier General. I have not been able to find the 21st, but learn that they were in the thickest of the fight with General Nelson and behaved well.
    It is reported that some Ohio troops behaved badly on the first day. The regiments particularly mentioned in this respect were the newest regiments in the field, all of them having left the state since the fall of Fort Donelson and occupied the worst advanced and exposed positions in Saturday's fight. They were not properly supported and one regiment had so lately arrived that it had not been supplied with ammunition. These same regiments did their whole duty on Monday when properly handled and supported by Gen. Buell. They were in the thickest of the fight, and it is conceded on all hands here that they were among the bravest troops on the field. If they lost any honor on Sunday, they regained it on Monday, as their lists of killed and wounded will show. Regiments from other states acted precisely the same under similar circumstances. A Wisconsin regiment arrived on Saturday afternoon, was sent to the front, were attacked and driven back before their tents were pitched. A Michigan regiment was also sent to the front without a round of ammunition.
    I wandered all over the field yesterday. The scene was a terrible one. The almost countless little hillocks of fresh turned earth told the cost of the victory. The great heaps here and there show how hard the Rebels fought and how great was their loss. Gen. Johnson's grave is on the brow of a ravine, and is surrounded by a neat fence. Whenever a body could be recognized, the grave was properly marked by a board placed at the head on which was roughly carved the name and number of the regiment of the dead sleeper. On a beech tree I found the name, number of regiment, and a Masonic emblem, neatly engraved, showing that a friend and brother had paid the last tribute due to the dead soldier whose body laid at its foot.

Major General Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio

    Before I started for the field, one of Gen. Halleck's aides assured me that a pass was not necessary. I however, went to Gen. Buell and procured the following:

Headquarters, Army of the Ohio, April 19, 1862

Pass bearer, Mr. C.E. Bliven, to Gen. Wood's Head Quarters.

By order of Maj. Gen. Buell, Chas. L. Fitzhugh, A.D.C.

    This bit of paper was all powerful wherever I chose to go. It passed me all over the field or if I had occasion to go on board the Continental, Gen. Halleck's headquarters, or on to the Tigress, those of Gen. Grant, or to Savannah and back where I went to find my friends. I was about to produce it once, when away out in front, about five miles from the river where I was stopped by the officer of the guard when a familiar voice was heard, 'let him pass.' Much astonished I looked up and found Lt. Col. William H. Graves of the 12th Michigan, advancing with a smiling face and extended hands. An invitation to visit his tent followed, which was indeed acceptable, I being much fatigued from constant walking through mud and water up to my boot tops. Col. Graves was in command of the 12th Michigan, was in the thickest of the fight, and gained great credit for his coolness and bravery, and especially in extricating his command from the overwhelming force which took Gen. Prentiss and so many men prisoners. He was particularly observed by Gen. Buell and was among the first who attracted the general's attention Sunday afternoon. He was ably seconded by Maj. George Kimmell, who greatly distinguished himself throughout the day. The adjutant had three horses shot under him. The chaplain was particularly conspicuous for the daring courage exhibited while acting as aid to Gen. Prentiss in carrying his orders under the hottest fire. (see Chapter 41 of Thomas P. Lowry's Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools for more insight into Lt. Col. W.H. Graves, his superior Colonel Francis Quinn, and the schism in the regiment fostered by these two men.)
    Dr. Kedale of Blissfield, Michigan was taken prisoner early Sunday morning because he would not abandon his hospitals with sick and wounded. He was released and returned to his regiment on Thursday. To him I am indebted for much interesting information. He states that the Rebels were much elated with their success on Sunday and felt sure of Grant and his whole army on Monday morning. They said the reason they did not achieve it Sunday afternoon was the intoxication of Breckenridge, who caused five of his regiments to fire into three others, which was returned and kept up for 20 minutes causing great slaughter and confusion among them. He says this was the cause of the cessation of Rebel hostilities on Sunday afternoon, and during which the heavy battery was got into position at the landing and the gunboats sent up river to shell the ravines, and Gen. Nelson crossed over the river and advanced so as to protect Grant's scattered forces, checking the Rebel advance for the night. In the morning, Gen. Buell's arrangements were complete, and the result is well known.    
    The Rebels taken prisoners say they soon found out on Monday morning that they had a different foe to fight; that there was none of the vacillation of Sunday. Everything moved admirably and speedily like clockwork. Gen. Beauregard said in the presence of a lieutenant colonel now a prisoner that Buell's left wing was the best formed he ever saw. The way Nelson handled it on the field verified the assertion. Gen. Buell's headquarters have been in the field since his arrival here. His army is splendidly arranged and will not be surprised. Gen. Grant's headquarters have been on the Tigress but were moved into the field this P.M. Gen. Halleck has ordered his staff to move their baggage ashore, I suppose his headquarters will be in the field tomorrow or the next day. The telegraph line was completed to this point and the cable laid across the river today.
    We commenced taking on board the wounded yesterday and shall leave this evening with about 230, some of whom are Rebels, most of whom say they were greatly deceived by their leaders. They appear to be agreeably disappointed at their kind treatment. They say that Beauregard had from 50-60,000 men in the battle and 30,000 in reserve in Corinth under Crittenden. His troops were enlisted for a short time- some for one year, some for 90 days, and a large number for this battle. Our force engaged on Sunday was about 30,000. In the afternoon before Buell came up, it was not over 20,000. One of Gen. Halleck's staff told me that our loss was about 1,500 killed, 4,000 wounded, and 3,000 prisoners. The Rebel loss in killed and wounded is one third greater, and about 1,000 prisoners.
    I have been busy writing letters for wounded men to their friends. Among others, I wrote one today for a young Rebel prisoner, about 17, to his mother in Hickman, Kentucky. He said to me, 'Be sure and tell her that I was guarded five days after I was taken from home; that I was wounded while fighting in the Southern army but now I mean to live and die under the stars and stripes.'
    The E.H. Fairchild left Pittsburg Landing that evening and arrived in Louisville on April 17, 1862, carrying Bliven along with 288 wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who were delivered to the city's hospitals. Bliven soon left Louisville, repairing and setting up telegraph lines along the railroad line leading south from Louisville to Nashville.

“Sick and Wounded Soldiers,” Daily Toledo Blade, April 22, 1862, pg. 2
Letter from C.E. Bliven, Daily Toledo Blade, April 22, 1862, pg. 2

Dan Masters


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