The Zig Zag Telegraph

FOR nearly nineteen years I have been waiting for some one to write the history of this line ; but during all this time no account of its origin, or the manner in which it performed its work, has been published, and so far as I can learn no hint even of its existence has appeared in print. Can it be possible that I was sole proprietor and operator; that my weary messages alone went creeping over the wires ; that its faithful, patient services were given to me only ? If so, upon me clearly devolves the task of writing its history. And yet, to own the truth, this task is not an easy one. The Zig Zag was such an anomaly among telegraphs, such a bizarre affair altogether, that it sets at defiance all ordinary methods of description. It was behind the times; it was slow with its messages ; it carried them a long way around, and stopped with them in unexpected places ; there was an air of mistiness about it that, made me sometimes suspect that it was only the ghost of a telegraph, — the phantom, perhaps, of some incompleted, early invention left an orphan by the death of the inventor.

But stay ; I must be more explicit. This telegraph was not composed of solid material substance; it did not consist of actual posts and wires. It was a phenomenon of an exceptional condition of body or mind, a phase of mental action in a given direction, a system of exploration in the realms of memory, a — well, I will admit it at once, a something that I never quite understood ; a problem, the solution of which I have many times almost reached, but that has always eluded me by dodging around unexpected corners and disappearing when I thought I had forced it into a cul de sac. I will therefore make public my experience with this line, and transfer to others the solution of the problem; and, as the condition of body and mind was doubtless a factor necessary to the solution, I will make known this condition by briefly telling a small portion of my life’s history.

On the 6th of March, A. D. 1865, with other paroled prisoners, I crossed Broad River, twelve miles from Wilmington, N. C., and stood once more, with bared head and thankful heart, beneath the flag of our country. The emotions awakened by the sight of this emblem of all we held dear I shall not venture to describe. I should blush to bring the poor tribute of words to the flag sanctified, by baptism in the tears of our tenderest and the blood of our bravest. For more than ten months I had been a prisoner at Andersonville and Florence. In this article I shall make no attempt to portray the horrors of Andersonville. The evidence under seal furnished by those thirteen thousand graves needs no corroboration by parole testimony. When the storm has passed, the wrecks on the beach are surer records of the force of the tempest than all the figures at the signal stations. I had fought the battle for life for more than ten months in those prison pens, and I was conscious that I had fought it well. I had lost ground daily, it is true, but I had contested it foot by foot and inch by inch. My resistance had been steady, unfaltering, systematic. At the time I was paroled I was suffering from scurvy and general debility, and had also endured most of the minor sicknesses of the camp ; but thus far I had escaped those fearful fevers that had wrecked so many of my companions. Shortly after I reached Wilmington a strange dullness took possession of me. My mind refused to act with its accustomed vigor. Owing to the ravenous appetites of some of the men, orders had been given to issue extra rations to all who required them ; and although the regular daily ration was more than sufficient for me, I fell into line with the others and drew the extra. This I took to my tent-mate for safe-keeping, and again fell in and repeated the process, over and over, as long as the drawing lasted. About this time, too, racking pains assailed me, and I longed inexpressibly for home. Then the vessel came to take us to Annapolis, and we struggled and pushed and jostled each other in our eagerness to get on board ; and at last I was fortunate enough to get tumbled on to the deck, just as the captain announced that he had a load, and could take no more. My recollections of the voyage are confused. I remember being rolled about, and crowded, and lain on by other passengers. I also remember staggering up to draw rations, although I could not eat. Then I was helped off the vessel, and some one took me by the arm and led me away. Then we stopped, and a voice said, “Wash him.” And then — blankness.

How long the blank lasted I do not know. When my consciousness returned I was in a clean bed with white sheets. A light burned in the room, but I saw no one. I closed my eyes, and was lost again. When I awoke it was broad day, and a young man dressed in a fresh suit of army blue was standing by the bedside, He expressed no surprise as his glance met mine. I lifted my right hand, and was astonished at the effort so slight an action required. I gazed at the skeleton fingers, and vaguely wondered where I had been while that hand was growing so thin. I said, “ What ’s the matter?” He replied, “You’ve had the fever. You ‘re all right now. Don’t talk.” His voice was low and even ; it expressed no sympathy, no anxiety ; he moved away, and I slept again. My recovery was rapid. The hospital surgeon visited me at intervals : he asked me no questions ; he merely looked at me and passed on. I had a ravenous appetite, and, with the regularity of clockwork, a tray was placed before me on which were a cup of tea and a delicate piece of toast crowned with a poached egg. As I gazed at this dainty repast, I thought it a meal fit for a god, — that is, for a very small god. After a few days the pyramid ou the plate was increased in altitude by the insertion of another slice of toast under the ovarious crown, and flanked by a bottle of porter. Next came the order for admission to the full-diet table, and soon after the certificate entitling me to a furlough. During all this period of convalescence I was conscious of no derangement of the mind’s action. My main interests in life centred in the present, or reached forward to the future; but still memories of the past, mostly of home and early life, came to me naturally. I had, however, made no attempt to recall past events, as the admirable system of unquestioning treatment practiced at St. Mary’s College Green Hospital had suggested no such effort; and it was only when called upon to answer questions, at the time I applied for a furlough, that I discovered the singular phase of mental aberration which forms the subject of this narrative. I have said that my recovery was rapid ; perhaps I ought to add that as I threw off the fever I began to suffer with a difficulty in my feet, probably scurvy, — a difficulty that increased daily, until each foot felt like an immense bruise. But as this disease did not trouble me seriously while I was in the hospital, I did not mention the matter to any one, fearing that to do so would delay my departure for home. This brief portion of personal history is, I believe, all that is necessary to put the public in possession of facts that have any bearing on the problem under discussion.

And now I come to the most difficult part of my task, the portrayal on paper of this abnormal action of the mind ; and in order successfully to do this, I must describe the normal action in the same direction in such a way that it will be clearly recognized by all, and yet in such a way as will enable the reader to comprehend the abnormal.

Hold ! I have it! I will materialize this action, and if the materialization lacks an arm, or even a leg to stand on, as is not unusually the case, if it but serve my purpose before vanishing in thin air, I shall be content. I will represent memory as a network of telegraph wires, the main line connecting the mind with the beginning of conscious existence, and side wires connecting this line with each event, each incident, each thought, of past life. When the mind is unimpaired and the lines are in perfect working order, information can be obtained instantly from any of these out-lying stations. The question is flashed over the wires, and the answer is returned, and the combined messages constitute a thought. In many instances, however, no perceptible action of the mind seems required ; the mind is unquestioning and at rest; and yet, from the various depots in which our experiences of the past are stored, the messages come trooping in, and we call them memories. These are phases of the normal action of the intellect and the undisturbed working of the lines. But I am also familiar with many phases of abnormal action, and various stages of wreck in the lines of communication : —

First, the poor wretch with the wires all down behind him, and the past a blank.

Second, where the main line is cut at a given point in the past. Back to this point the communications are perfect and the side lines complete, but beyond — nothingness.

Third, where the main line is complete and the side lines are in order near the farther end, but mostly broken or impaired from childhood to the present. This is a common case. The grayhaired man prattles of the scenes of his youth, but does not recall the events of manhood. Every word of the prayer his mother taught him is familiar, but he cannot remember a sentence of the speech that made him famous ten years ago. He does not recognize an acquaintance of yesterday, but the faces of the friends of his boyhood stand out clear and distinct. I need not particularize further; every one is familiar with the gaps in sections, where the storms of life have beaten down the side lines, and with the downfall of individual wires. Neither will it be worth while to call attention to the slight derangement of a particular wire that does not respond as promptly as we wish, but leaves our question unanswered, while the operator at the other terminus apparently takes a short nap, and we scratch our heads in vexation. My object in writing this article is to describe this well - known system of communication only so far as may be necessary to explain the working of the other line, that no one but myself appears to have used ; and as I made use of both, I will designate the former as the Direct Line, and the latter as the Zig Zag. The Direct Line was always at my service one way: it would bring messages, but could not be relied on to carry them; it would transmit one and refuse the next in what I then thought a most captious manner ; and sometimes it would apparently grow sulky and refuse them altogether. But the patient Zig Zag was not captious; it did not sulk when called upon to do the work refused by its rival; it went steadily, ploddingly, at its task, and never rested till its work was done. These two lines were distinct in almost every respect, and in order to make the distinction plain I will describe as concisely as possible the peculiarities of the Zig Zag.

First, it never took a dispatch straight to its destination, but went zigzagging through the past, making short flights from point to point, and sending back messages from every station. Tese messages were dim pictures of familiar scenes, that approached slowly and grew plainer until they reached a certain uniform point of distinctness, when they vanished instantly.

Second, these return messages never contained the information I was seeking, and some of them appeared to have no possible connection with it; and yet I was conscious that each of these dissolving views brought me nearer the object of my search.

Third, no communication ever came back over the Zig Zag from the station where it finally delivered my dispatch, but instead the answer came flashing over the Direct Line. This was the most perplexing part of the whole transaction ; for, although assured that each returning message by the Zig Zag brought me one station nearer the station containing the object sought, I never knew how many still intervened, and the answer by the Direct Line invariably caught me puzzling over the last message by the Zig Zag, and gave me a little shock, like that experienced by a person when another jumps out suddenly behind him and cries, “ Boo ! ”

Fourth, the number of stations stopped at varied, and this variation appeared to have no relation with the remoteness or nearness of the intelligence desired. To make this clear, suppose A and B to be stations on the Direct Line, — A containing stores deposited five years and B those deposited six months before: messages to B would sometimes be carried further around and stop at more stations than messages to A.

Fifth, to each dispatch the return messages came at regular intervals after the first, which took about twice the time of each of the others.

Sixth, the length of the intervals varied with the varying dispatches ; the answers to some coming very slowly, and to others quite rapidly.

Seventh, sending and receiving messages by this line produced a certain strain on mind and body that was not felt when using the Direct Line.

And now, having partially described the working of this line, I will go back to the time when I discovered it. I had been notified that a furlough would be given me by applying at a certain office, to which I was directed, and, with visions of home floating before my mind, I walked into the room and stopped at the desk. A grave, stern-looking officer, with a pen in his hand and a book before him, sat by the table, He looked up, and said, “Your name.” I gave it, and then supposed be would fill out my furlough ; but instead he recorded my name in the book, and then inquired, “ What regiment do you belong to ? ” Of course I knew perfectly well that the information sought was among my stores, but when I turned to the past with the question, “ What regiment do I belong to ? ” I was amazed to find that the Direct Line did not respond. My dispatch was off on the Zig Zag, and soon the misty messages came back : —

First message by Zig Zag. A bleak field, with a swamp extending from side to side near the centre; the field inclosed with a stockade, and crowded with wretched, dirty, ragged men ; outside the dead-line, a long row of skeleton forms, with dead faces turned to the sky.

Second message by Zig Zag. A long line of Union soldiers charging through an open field, with a forest before them ; the line is broken and jagged, as if it had met a blizzard of lead ; there are empty saddles, and fallen flags, and a blue-and-red wind-row of dead.

Third message by Zig Zag. A regiment of soldiers on dress parade ; the soldiers wear blue coats ; there are figures on the fronts of their caps.

By the Direct Line, 76th New York, I gave the name of my regiment, and the officer dashed it down, and asked brusquely, “ What company ? ” I ought to have been prepared for this question, but I was not. My mind was so dazed with the strange workings of the two lines that I thought of nothing else till the question was put. Again I turned to the past, and inquired, “ What company ?" and again the Zig Zag took the question.

First message by Zig Zag. A river spanned by a bridge ; beyond the bridge an arch of evergreens and flags ; a throng of men hurrying over the bridge and under the arch ; the men are emaciated and half naked, but their faces glow with joy.

Second message by Zig Zag. A forest ; Union soldiers grouped round a dead cavalry man ; a sergeant with face turned toward the group, as if about to give an order ; a line of Confederate troops in front.

By the Direct Line, Company F.

I named the company, and the officer jotted it down, and said, “ Your captain’s name ? ” Again the Zig Zag took the question.

First message by Zig Zag. A long line of Union soldiers, with a group of officers on horseback in front; the officers with field-glasses to their eyes ; the ground in front descending to a small stream, then ascending to a ridge ; the ridge crowned with a line of Confederate earth-works and batteries; sharpshooters deployed as skirmishers between the lines.

Second message by Zig Zag. A prison pen ; a scaffold ; six men with ropes around their necks and meal sacks drawn over their heads ; a sea of faces turned up toward the scaffold.

Third message by Zig Zag. A brigade drawn up in hollow square ; a man kneeling on a coffin, with a file of soldiers before him ; an officer standing stern and pale, his extended right hand holding a white handkerchief.

By the Direct Line, Captain Goddard.

The officer took down the name, and inquired impatiently, “ When did you enlist ? ” I had noted his growing irritability, and it increased my distress. Other patients were waiting to be questioned. The fear that my mind was hopelessly shattered was growing into certainty. The strain on mind and body incident to sending and receiving messages was intense. My knees shook under me, and great drops of sweat stood on my forehead ; but I turned doggedly to the past with the inquiry, “ When did I enlist ?” The Direct Line rejected the message, as it had the others, but the faithful Zig Zag did not desert me; although evidently overworked, it came bravely to the rescue, and took my message. The first response was longer than usual in coming, but it came at last.

Message by Zig Zag. A large sheet of water with a river emptying into it; a snug harbor ; a grove of oaks with a speaker’s stand in the centre ; the grove and stand crowded with people.

At this point the officer repeated the question, “ When did you enlist ? ” The interruption broke the connection on the Zig Zag. The tone of the question demanded an immediate answer of some sort. I made one desperate effort to force the answer from the Direct Line, then I said sadly, “ I can’t tell.” The officer laid down his pen, and said petulantly, “ I can’t give you a furlough if you can’t tell when you enlisted.” Oh, the agony of that moment! I was not to go home, after all ! Was it not enough that I was shattered in body and mind, but must this very ruin cut off my last chance for recovery? I thought not of the forms of respect due from a private to a superior; I felt only the injustice of fate. The instinct of selfpreservation asserted itself. The old spirit of resistance that had carried me through so many trials blazed out afresh for a moment, and I exclaimed passionately, “ Can’t you make some allowance ? Can’t you see what a wreck I am ? I’ve been in prison, God knows how long, and I ‘ve had the fever, and I can’t think ! ” The protest began almost fiercely, but it ended in a wail. I broke down utterly, and cried like a child. For a moment the silence of the room was broken only by sobs; then a gentle voice said, “ I can make allowance ; don’t distress yourself.” Could this be the voice of that stern official ? I glanced at him through my tears, and from that instant I have had a truer understanding of the story of the transfiguration. His face was as tender as a woman’s. With the utmost gentleness, he assured me that the matter could be arranged, that I must take time, and give the date as nearly as possible. Thus encouraged I commenced again on the Zig Zag, and found the year, and then the month, but not the day. The furlough was granted, however, and, storing the paper safely in my pocket, I took the first train for home.

At first I was a good deal troubled about the peculiarities of the Zig Zag, but I soon made a discovery that proved it to be a friend, and also showed that the Direct Line, in refusing some of my messages and taking others, was acting according to law instead of in a spirit of caprice, as I at first supposed. The work of the Zig Zag was to open communication with the stations on the Direct Line, and it had only to convey one message to each station to accomplish this. When the message was received and the answer sent back by the Direct Line, the connection with that station by the Direct Line was established, and messages flashed back and forth with their former regularity. I have before spoken of the messages that came unbidden ; these also opened communication on the Direct Line, and to these two sets of stations my messages went straight. Stimulated by this discovery, I operated the Zig Zag cheerfully, for I knew that each returning message enlarged the area of the reconquered territory. By means of the voluntary messages and the efforts of the Zig Zag, I was soon in direct communication with most of the stations, and the use of the Zig Zag became the exception. At this time, I used to ponder a good deal on the subject, and strive to comprehend the working of these lines. One thing that perplexed me greatly was the gap between the last message by the Zig Zag and the return message by the Direct Line. On exploring these stations after direct communication had been established, I found that some of the Zig Zag messages approached very nearly the information required ; for example, the one in regard to the company. It will be recollected that, in the last picture presented by the Zig Zag, a sergeant stood as if about to give an order. Now the order really given was, “ Company F into line ; ” but as no inkling of what this order was reached me at the time, by either line, the gap, though apparently small, could not be filled up. At other times, I could not, by the most careful examination, find the least connection between the last message by the Zig Zag and the answer by the Direct Line. This puzzled me, and I imagined that some of the messages by the Zig Zag had miscarried, and had found their way to some unknown dead-letter office; but I finally became satisfied that the gap, in each instance, extended only from the last station on the Zig Zag to the station on the Direct Line containing the information sought. I now give the course of reasoning by which this conclusion was reached. Since the messages by the Zig Zag, came at regular intervals after the first, and the first took double the time of each of the others, I concluded that the dispatch I sent traveled at exactly the same rate of speed as the return messages. Thus if A, B, and C represent stations on the Zig Zag, and D the desired point on the Direct Line, and the interval of time between messages was five seconds, my message would be five seconds in reaching A, and the return message from A would reach me five seconds later, or at the exact time that my dispatch reached B; while the message from B would reach me at the same instant that my dispatch reached C, and consequently the message from C would reach me at the same time that my dispatch reached D, the point on the Direct Line ; and as the transmission of messages on the Direct Line occupied no appreciable time, this view of the case was sustained by the fact that the answer by the Direct Line always came to me while I was examining the last message by the Zig Zag.

And now the history of this strange line is finished, at least so far as my knowledge of it extends. I bid farewell to the Zig Zag forever. Ah ! but is it forever ? As I sit in the twilight and watch the gathering shadows, and think of the time in the not distant future when the shadows shall gather for the last time, and when perhaps the parting soul will long to send the final messages of love, I ask myself, “ Shall I not find it again ? ”

Lloyd G. Thompson.