List of McKinley Firsts Part 8: The Spanish-American War was the first war to be managed from a White House War Room connected to military headquarters in Washington, DC and the field by both phone and telegraph.

By Trish Scarmuzzi, Curator, National McKinley Birthplace Museum

While McKinley was the first to use a systematized press operation, he was also the first President to lead the United States during a foreign war. That war was of course the Spanish-American War, and with it, the Filipino Insurrection. When the Civil War occurred, Abraham Lincoln also depended on new technology, the telegraph, for communicating with his commanders in the field.  Technology developed at an astounding rate in the years after this war. That technology included the telephone, as well as electricity being harnessed for use indoors. Electricity was installed in the White House in 1891.[1] According to White House historians, Rutherford B. Hayes was the first president to have a telephone and a typewriter in the White House – the telephone was installed in May 1879 and the typewriter arrived in February 1880.[2] All of these technological advances led to the advent of the War Room.

war room at Washington

In the War Room at Washington.
President McKinley, Secretary Long, Secretary Alger, and Major-General Miles consult a map documenting the progress of the Spanish-American War. Image retrieved 8.10.2016 from,Charles/Greater%20Republic,The/chapter27.htm

According to historian Lewis L. Gould, when the Spanish-American War began John Addison Porter and later George B. Cortelyou, McKinley’s Presidential secretaries, used a room on the second floor of the White House as the War Room. “The President could send telegrams over the twenty telegraph wires that linked him with the major cable lines between the United States and the Caribbean. The War Room never closed, and the president went there frequently to monitor events.”[3] Thus the modern White House Situation Room began taking shape.


“The demands of the war with Spain in 1898 and the imperial expansion that followed required the presidency to monitor events on a twenty-four-hour basis. The War Room of the McKinley presidency anticipated the more elaborate Situation rooms of the twentieth century.”[4] Secretary George Cortelyou is standing to the right. Image from the Library of Congress. Retrieved 8.10.2016 from



 McKinley War Room Canton Memorial

William McKinley and his staff in the White House War Room during the Spanish American War. Retrieved 8.10.2016 from



[1] “In what year was electricity installed in the White House?” Retrieved 8.11.2016 from

[2] “What are some interesting facts about presidents and first ladies?.” Retrieved 9.11.2016 from

 [3] Gould, Lewis L. The Modern American Presidency, Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2009. 12

[4] Ibid., 13.

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