This Day in Jewish History / Emancipation Proclamation Telegraph Operator Is Born

Edward Rosewater sent out the text that turned slaves in the 10 states belonging to the Confederacy into free men.

January 28, 1841, is the birthdate of Edward Rosewater, the Bohemian-born telegraph operator turned Nebraska newspaper publisher who gained a form of immortality when, on January 1, 1863, he sent out President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to the world.

Edward Rosenwasser (he Anglicized his name after immigrating to the United States) was born in Bukovan, Bohemia (today in the Czech Republic), the oldest of what would eventually be the 11 children of Herman and Rosalia Kohn Rosenwasser. In 1854, the family sailed to the United States where, after a short time in New York, they settled in Cleveland, Ohio.

Edward’s formal education was very limited: He studied penmanship and bookkeeping for three months at Hollister and Felton’s Commercial College in Cleveland. Thereafter he began to learn the new profession of telegrapher.

Starting in 1858, Rosewater moved around frequently, heading progressively south, picking up extensive experience as a telegraph operator as he went along. When the Civil War began in 1861, he was in Alabama. By April 1862, however, he had volunteered for the Union army and soon was attached to the telegraphy office of the War Department in Washington.

At the time, the War (today called “Defense”) Department was situated a block from the White House, at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street. Because the White House didn’t have its own telegraph connection, Lincoln walked over frequently, sometimes in his slippers, to send and receive messages.

On January 1, 1863, Rosewater was given the document, signed by the president, with the text of the Emancipation Proclamation for transmission to all offices of the executive branch of government. The emancipation did not outlaw slavery; rather it officially declared the freedom of those slaves who were in the 10 states belonging to the Confederacy. In practical terms, they did not gain that freedom until the South was defeated and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution made slavery illegal.

Rosewater noted that in the days leading up to the occasion, Lincoln had alluded “repeatedly, in a rather humorous vein, to that forthcoming proclamation which, in his opinion appeared to be something of a Pope’s bull against the comet” – that is, not likely to have much of an effect. But when the president visited the telegraph office on the morning of January 1, Rosewater wrote that “he was entirely calm and made no reference to the act which since has been surrounded by artists of the pen and brush by such a halo.” And indeed, it was only in retrospect that the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation became clear.

Later in 1863, Rosewater left the army and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was appointed manager of the Western Union telegraph office and an agent for the Associated Press. In the latter capacity, he also served as the local reporter for several Eastern newspapers.

In 1871, Rosewater, who by now had served in the Nebraska state legislature and helped set up the public school system of Omaha, founded the Omaha Bee. It was Nebraska’s first regional newspaper, and it achieved national fame during his editorship for its aggressive and sometimes sensationalistic style. Rosewater himself was active in Republican politics, back when the party still represented the liberal legacy of Abraham Lincoln, and he was twice an unsuccessful candidate for the party’s nomination for U.S. senator.

Rosewater died on August 30, 1906. Shortly before his death he had played a role in the founding of the American Jewish Committee, which became one of the United States’ leading Jewish advocacy groups. His son Victor Rosewater (1871-1940) followed him as editor of the Bee and also as a leader of the AJC.

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