Civil War Lieutenant Colonel Sam Zook Failed to Grasp Boundaries

The co-creator of the telegraph took his work, on the battlefield and in business, to the extreme.



Samual K. Zook

Samuel K. Zook

For most of us, basic personality traits don’t change over time. Consider the life of Samuel K. Zook, a self-promoting, rule-bending Civil War general killed in battle when he was supposed to be in another place.

Zook grew up on the modern-day grounds of Valley Forge National Historical Park. He died at Gettysburg while leading his brigade to assist wavering and outnumbered Union troops, despite orders to go elsewhere.

The son of Upper Merion farmers, Zook was a descendant of Hans Zoug, a bishop of the pacifist Mennonites. Imprisoned for his faith in 17th-century Switzerland, Zoug had been given the choice of joining the established church or being executed. He chose execution, though his punishment was later changed to banishment.

Despite his ancestry, Zook never showed much interest in religion and rather preferred the military. His infatuation flourished when the family moved to a house that had been the headquarters of Gen. Nathanael Greene during the Valley Forge encampment.

As a boy, he loved leading schoolmates in war games. Once, he arrested his sister for refusing to obey orders. Zook even changed his middle name to Kosciuszko, for the Polish engineer who’d served with Washington—though some biographers believe he never made the change legal. As soon as he could carry a musket, Zook joined the local militia. At 19, he was commissioned adjutant of the 110th Regiment. 

Unfortunately, the militia did not provide a living, so Zook had to find a job.

In 1845, he entered a fledgling industry, going to work in the Philadelphia office of the Magnetic Telegraph Company, the first such business in the country.

Contrary to legend, Samuel F.B. Morse did not invent the telegraph. In 1825, after word failed to reach him in time that his wife was dying, Morse was inspired by the idea of technology that could quickly relay messages over long distances. Building on others’ earlier work in electromagnetism, he created a version of the telegraph that used only a single wire—a cheaper system than those using multiple wires. He also helped develop Morse code.

One of his first investors was Amos Kendall, a former journalist who’d been postmaster general in the Jackson and Van Buren administrations. He paid Morse a licensing fee and was empowered to sell additional licenses. Kendall announced plans to extend the line from Baltimore to New York, though later scaled back to a line between Philadelphia and New York. After railroads rejected his proposals to run lines along their rights-of-way, Kendall had to settle for using an old wagon road through Norristown, Doylestown and the New Jersey towns of Somerville and Newark.

Kendall hired Zook as an assistant in the Philadelphia office, where his job was to send and receive messages and see to the completion and maintenance of the wire.

“One morning, not long after the line was opened, we guessed by the tug of the magnet that the wire was broken not very far away,” recalled Zook’s colleague, James D. Reid. “We had no repairer at Philadelphia, so it became Zook’s duty to hunt the break and repair it.”

Reid told Zook to take the train to Norristown and walk back along the line until he found the break. He was then to find a puddle of water, stand in it, and touch the broken wire to his tongue. “All went well until this latter performance, which was followed first by an ominous silence, and soon after by the hugest of Pennsylvania profanity,” wrote Reid. “The truth was the strength of the current had upset him. And when, an hour or more afterward, Sam came to the office covered with mud, and madness in his eye, we learned our first lesson in the dangers of line testing and repairs.”

Working together, Reid and Zook made several discoveries. One was that the telegraph required far less power than they were using. In 1846, to test a Newark operator who boasted of being able to hear the weakest signal, they began to halve the power. Only when the number of connections had been reduced from 80 to one did the New Jersey man message, “What is the matter with your battery?”

“From that time, we began to learn the economical use of our battery material and greatly reduced the number of cells,” wrote Reid.

Reid and Zook also discovered that copper wire was unnecessary. Finding an unexpected break while walking the line, they patched it with iron wire and found that it worked perfectly. “This brought about the common use of iron wire, which represented a substantial savings over the copper wire,” according to Zook biographer A.M. Gambone.

The early telegraph was financially shaky. In the beginning of 1846, Zook and his co-workers were told they would have to depend solely on receipts for their pay—and business was slow. Without financial incentives, Zook seems to have focused on self-improvement, including a publicized effort to set a record for the number of letters sent in one minute. He reached 135, which, according to one newspaper, “exceeds all previous (numerical) attempts.”

About this time, Kendall assigned Zook to supervise installation of a telegraph line from Philadelphia to Chester. The Delaware County Republican reported that it was routed out the post road (Route 13) through Darby “to avoid the drawbridges over the Schuylkill, Darby, Crum and Ridley creeks.”

Soon after, both Reid and Zook left the company to join Henry O’Reilly, a franchisee who planned to build a line from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and elsewhere. According to Gambone, Zook was “infatuated” with the Irish-born O’Reilly, who Kendall described as “liberal, generous, profuse … but (lacking) prudence in money matters … (having) little veneration for contracts … (forming) and (breaking) friendships with equal rapidity … bitter in his hates … impatient of restraint.”

Kendall was widely respected as an honest man, but also as one in need of “the entrepreneurial spirit necessary for a start-up.” Most likely, the ambitious young Zook imagined more opportunity with O’Reilly.

Ultimately, O’Reilly would build more than 8,000 miles of telegraph line in the West and South. Offices opened in swift succession. Zook personally opened offices in Zanesville, Ohio, on Aug. 4, 1847, Columbus on Aug. 11, and Cincinnati on Aug. 20.

When O’Reilly’s lines reached Louisville in 1847, locals welcomed easier communication with the East. But what they really wanted was a link to Memphis and New Orleans, where their main business interests were. “The O’Reilly contract, however, expressly forbade any movement under it in that direction,” wrote Reid. 

The Morse franchise allowed him to offer telegraph services only in the West. A contract for the Southern states had been sold to someone else. 

O’Reilly built anyway, using a new company name, the People’s Telegraph Co., and a new device, the Columbian, developed by Zook and a co-worker, Edward Barnes. If he could get away with this, it meant an opportunity to exploit a vast new market without paying royalties to Morse. “Admirers of the Columbian alleged that it differed from Morse’s system in two ways,” wrote on historian.

It used permanent magnets instead of electromagnets, and it had a relay that supposedly protected transmission during thunderstorms.

Morse called the differences trivial and the device a fraud. Reid agreed: “The ‘Columbian’ instrument, so called, which, by courtesy, may be stated as the joint invention of Barnes and Zook, was the veriest plagiarism which two sane or insane men could possibly pass over to the uses of an honest or dishonest service.”

The case was first heard in August 1848 through the judicial system until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Morse, extending his patent rights by seven years.

Zook, meanwhile, had moved on to New York, establishing himself as superintendent of the Washington and New York Telegraph Co. and joining the 6th Regiment of the New York militia, in which he worked his way up to lieutenant colonel by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861.

At Gettysburg, when approached by a panicked Major Henry Tremain, Zook paused. He had orders, but a plea for help from a unit being overrun demanded a response. Tremain later described the expression on Zook’s face as a “calm, firm look, inspiring to me with its significance.”

“Sir,” said Zook, “if you will give me the order of Gen. Sickles, I will obey it.” 

Daniel Sickles, Zook’s superior, had no idea what was happening. As with the telegraph, Zook was one to push limits.

Tremain responded: “Gen. Sickles’ order, general, is that you file your brigade to the right and move into action here.”

The brigade plunged in, with Zook mounted and an easy target. Shot in the stomach, he was carried to a field hospital and died the next morning. 

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