Tim Crumrin - Experience Delivery Director/Senior Historian
I think the most intriguing character to emerge from our research into Morgan’s Raid for the 1863 Civil War Journey
experience was his rogue telegrapher George “Lightning” Ellsworth. “Lightning” (accounts vary as to whether his nickname resulted from his speed at transmitting messages or the sang froid he exhibited while sending messages from atop a telegraph pole during a storm) had the ability to mimic the “hand” of other telegraphers. He would climb telegraph poles or take over telegraph offices to send false reports about the raiders’ location and intentions to confuse the forces chasing them. In effect, he was running a disinformation campaign, a vital element of 21st-century warfare.
It seems fitting that a master of disinformation led such a mysterious and peripatetic life. Born in Canada in 1843, Ellsworth turned what seems to have been a family interest in telegraphy into his career. He migrated to the US in his early teens and by the coming of the Civil War he had worked as telegrapher in several Midwestern towns, including Evansville.
If possible, his life became even more intriguing after the war. The war’s end led him to Cincinnati where he worked alongside another telegrapher, Thomas Edison. A man of indiscriminate habits, a drunken Ellsworth killed a bartender in a gambling joint in Kentucky in 1867. Thrice escaping jail, he headed west, likely working as an itinerant telegrapher. There he sometimes exchanged the telegraph key for a gun, as when he was arrested while trying to rob a train in Wills, Texas in 1875. The last two decades of his life were quieter. Eventually married, George Ellsworth settled down in Louisiana. In 1899 he was found dead in the telegraph office. It was said that his now-quieted hand was on the key.
For more information on “Lightning”, see the excellent article on Ellsworth co-authored by Stephen Towne of IUPUI at https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/handle/1805/2495.
Stephen served as a consultant for the Civil War Journey project.