The Birth of the Signal Corps

Effective communications have always been vital to military forces. Commanders must be able to maintain control over their units in order to fight successfully. By the mid-nineteenth century the extended battlefields created by more powerful weapons posed new challenges for military signaling. As armies grew larger and more complex, it became increasingly difficult to integrate their various components. For the U.S. Army, a small organization spread across a vast continent, geography provided an added impetus for the development of a means of rapid, long-distance military communication. In this milieu, the United States Army became the first army in the world to establish a separate communications branch, beginning with the appointment in 1860 of a signal officer to the Army staff in the War Department. This event marked the official origin of the US Army Signal Corps.

Early Military Signaling

A separate institution was not, of course, necessary for the act of communication. Armies had managed to transmit information throughout the millennia without the help of a signal corps. As long as military units remained relatively small and engaged in close-order combat, the commander's voice provided an adequate means for transmitting signals on the battlefield. From ancient times armies also used musical instruments, such as trumpets and bugles, as signaling devices. For long-distance communication commanders employed runners or mounted messengers. In 490 B.C. a Greek runner delivered the news of victory over the Persians at Marathon to Athens and then died from the exertion. (This heroic feat gave rise to the athletic event known as the marathon.) Other less strenuous signaling methods included the use of beacon fires and pigeons. With the development of gunpowder, firearms and cannon increased the size of the battlefield, but signaling techniques made few significant advances until the dawn of the electrical age.

During the American Revolution the Continental Army closely followed the organization and procedures of the British Army, including its signaling techniques. Fifers and drummers provided the field music-that is, the transmission of signals in battle. During the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben instituted the Continental Army's first system of drill procedures, which included standardized signals.1 After achieving indepen-


dence, the US Army's signaling methods remained virtually unchanged until the invention of the electric telegraph in the 1840s. The new and still unreliable device saw limited service during the Mexican War (1846-1848). The quartermaster general, Brig. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, for example, used the telegraph to communicate from his Washington office with the quartermaster offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. As a precautionary measure, however, he supplemented each telegram with a letter.2

European nations, meanwhile, moved more quickly to adopt new communication methods. In the 1790s Claude Chappe, a French engineer, invented a semaphore telegraph system that consisted of mechanical arms mounted on towers. The raising or lowering of the arms in the proper combinations indicated specific letters, words, or phrases. Using this system, messages could be exchanged over long distances in hours rather than days. The British, noting the success of the French system, constructed a telegraph employing pivoted shutters that were opened and closed by levers. Other countries, among them Germany, Sweden, and Russia, adopted their own optical telegraph systems.3

During the Crimean War (1854-1856) European armies moved a step closer to modern communication methods by using electric telegraphy. The French and British jointly built telegraph lines to communicate with their home governments, and a message could be relayed from Balaclava to London in about twenty-four hours. The British established some field lines, but they were of only limited value. Artillery rounds landing in the cable trenches damaged the lines, and mice nibbled at any exposed wires. The soldiers themselves sabotaged the system by using the insulation as a substitute for broken pipe stems.4 The French used the telegraph to communicate between the several army headquarters and the detached corps to "insure the rapid transmission of orders and harmony of movement."5 The Russians also communicated by telegraph between St. Petersburg and Sevastopol.

Maj. Richard Delafield, an American engineer officer sent to observe the conflict, commented at some length on the use of the telegraph. While acknowledging its usefulness for communicating with the home government, he also recognized that it introduced a new factor to warfare: for the first time, command and control could be exercised from afar. He reported that "orders were sometimes given that more circumstantial information, only to be gained in sight of the enemy, would have shown to be highly inexpedient."6 The British government, in fact, overburdened its commanders with suggestions, recommendations, and requests for useless information.7 The new technology, although expanding the scope of command and control, concomitantly limited field officers' freedom of action.

While European armies had not yet fully exploited the potential of electric telegraphy, the Crimean War provided a glimpse of its possibilities. By 1856 the Prussian Army had introduced the use of the telegraph. Meanwhile, a young doctor from New York who had recently entered the United States Army was destined to play a vital role in the further development of military communications.


Photo:  Myer in 1854

MYER IN 1854

Albert J. Myer-Father of the Signal Corps

Albert J. Myer was born in Newburgh, New York, on 20 September 1828.8 After his mother's death when he was only six, Myer was raised by an aunt in Buffalo. At the early age of thirteen he enrolled at Geneva (later Hobart) College, located about one hundred miles east of Buffalo. Following his graduation in 1847, Myer returned to Buffalo, where he began the study of medicine. During this period he also worked in the office of the New York State Telegraph Company.9 In 1854, three years after receiving his medical degree from the University of Buffalo, Myer joined the Army as an assistant surgeon and was ordered to Texas. There he developed a military signaling system based on his medical dissertation, "A New Sign Language for Deaf Mutes." Drawing on his experience as a telegraph operator, Myer had originally transformed the Bain telegraph code into a means of personal communication by which words could be spelled by tapping them out upon a person's cheek or hand or on an object, such as a table. In Texas he converted this sign language into the flag and torch signaling system that has become known as "wigwag." Unlike semaphore signaling, which employed two flags, wigwag required just one.10

While serving at Fort Duncan, Texas, in 1856, Myer wrote to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and offered his signaling system to the War Department. Although he did not provide details as to the mechanics-perhaps because he had not yet fully worked them out-he did envision a means "to communicate between detachments of troops, marching or halted, or ships at sea in motion or at rest. . . ." Listing the general characteristics of his proposal, Myer explained that communication would be made "by day or by night, in wet or in dry weather, in fogs or in sunshine." The equipment would be "such as can be rapidly transported and used by one man mounted or on foot." As for personnel, only two men, a sender and a receiver, would ordinarily be required.11 Myer hoped to receive a formal hearing, and he secured the support of the Army's chief of engineers, Col. Joseph G. Totten. Myer's lack of specificity, however, cost him


the attention of Secretary Davis, who wrote on his letter: "In the absence of more full information no opinion can be formed of the plan proposed."12

Despite Davis' rebuff, Myer's cause was not lost. Totten remained interested, and when John B. Floyd replaced Davis as secretary of war in 1857, the chief of engineers reintroduced Myer's proposal.13 Floyd was receptive, and in March 1859 Myer appeared before a board of examination in Washington, D.C. But this body, presided over by Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee of the 2d Cavalry, gave his system only a lukewarm acceptance. According to the board's report, "this system is limited in its application, to very short distances, ordinarily to one mile, but certainly, to not over three miles, and then under quite favorable circumstances of elevation of ground at the Signal Stations." The board considered that "such a system might be useful as an accessory to, in many circumstances, but not as a Substitute for the means now employed to convey intelligence by an Army in the Field, and especially on a Field of Battle."14 It did, however, recommend further tests.

Myer began these trials in April 1859 at Fort Monroe, Virginia, later moving to New York Harbor; West Point, New York; and Washington, DC Several officers and enlisted men assisted him, chief of whom was 2d Lt. Edward Porter Alexander, who began working with Myer in October. By then Myer had developed a new code. A combination of numerals represented each letter of the alphabet, and he assigned numerical values to the movements of the flag or torch to each side of a central reference point. For example, a movement to the left could equal "1" and to the right, "2." To discern the message, the receiver interpreted the movements of the flag or torch in accordance with the code. The end of a word, sentence, or message was indicated by dipping the flag forward one or more times.15 During their three months of working together, Myer and Alexander communicated at distances up to fifteen miles and made some modifications to the equipment. In late November Myer reported to the War Department that the tests had "exceeded anticipation." Myer also suggested that if the Army adopted his signaling system he should be placed in charge of it.16 (Figure 1)

The fate of Myer's plans now rested with the War Department and Congress. Secretary Floyd provided some encouragement by devoting two paragraphs of his annual report for 1859 to Myer's system, stating that "the plan proposed appears to be ready and reliable."17 Floyd subsequently recommended that Congress add a signal officer to the Army staff. As a result, Myer and Alexander appeared in February 1860 before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. Jefferson Davis, now a senator from Mississippi, served as its chairman. While awaiting action by the Senate committee, Myer (who was proving to be a consummate behind-the-scenes politician) also received a hearing from the House Committee on Military Affairs, which unanimously recommended the appointment of a signal officer with the rank of major. On 29 March 1860 the House approved the Army appropriations bill for fiscal year 1861 with the following amendment attached:



Figure:  Flag Positions of Myer's Original Two-Element Code

.....*Woods illustrates the General Service Code of 1872. In this illustration, the meaning of the right and left motions has been reversed to conform to Myer's original code.

.....Source: David L. Woods, A History of Tactical Communication Techniques (Orlando, Fla.: Martin-Marietta Corp., 1965), plate V-6.

For the manufacture or purchase of apparatus and equipment for field signals, $2000; and that there be added to the staff of the Army one signal officer, with the rank, pay, and allowance of a major of cavalry, who shall have charge, under the direction of the Secretary of War, of all signal duty, and all books, papers, and apparatus connected therewith.18

The bill then moved to the Senate where the amendment ran into opposition, notably that of Jefferson Davis. While Davis thought that Myer's signals should be used by the Army, he opposed the creation of the position of signal officer, believing that this appointment would lead to the establishment of a new department (which it ultimately did). Instead, signals should be placed within one of the existing departments. Despite Davis' objections, the Senate accepted the amendment, and President James Buchanan signed the appropriations bill into law on 21 June 1860. With this stroke of the pen, the US Army Signal Corps was born.19

On 27 June 1860 the Senate confirmed Myer's appointment as signal officer with the rank of major.20 He thus abandoned the practice of medicine for the uncertain future of a military communicator. Perhaps his marriage into a prominent Buffalo, New York, family, originally from Massachusetts-the Waldens of Walden Pond-made his career choice somewhat less risky. Nevertheless, within a month he received orders to report to the Department of New Mexico to test his signals in the field during a campaign against the Navajos. Myer requested the services of Lieutenant Alexander, but the young officer was serving elsewhere, and Myer could not get his assignment changed.21 Consequently, Myer had to find and train a new assistant upon his arrival in New Mexico.22 Before leaving


for the Southwest, Myer applied for a patent on his signaling system, which he received in January 18 Arriving at Santa Fe in October 1860, Myer was assigned to the staff of the departmental commander, Col. Thomas T. Fauntleroy, and was further assigned to duty in the field with troops commanded by Maj. Edward R. S. Canby. Myer's signal party consisted of two detailed officers, an enlisted assistant for each officer, and a mounted escort. Among the officers who served under Myer was 2d Lt. William J. L. Nicodemus, later to become chief signal officer. Myer and his men accompanied troops on campaign, maintaining communication between the columns, performing reconnaissance, and reporting by signals. The simplicity of the Myer system, with its lightweight, portable equipment, made it well suited to use in the rugged terrain under winter conditions.

Major Canby became a strong supporter of Myer's signals, commending them on several occasions. In fact, Canby favored the formation of a specialized signal corps, to which Davis had objected, rather than the instruction of all officers in signaling, as then advocated by Myer.23 With the surrender of the Navajos in February 1861, Myer was relieved from duty in the field and worked for a time on the departmental staff in Santa Fe where Colonel Fauntleroy also spoke highly of his work. The colonel reported that "the Services of the Signal Party have been valuable in the operations against the Navajos and have conclusively demonstrated not only the practical usefulness of field signals but that they can be used under any of the contingencies of frontier warfare.”24 When relieved from duty in New Mexico in May 1861, Myer could feel confident that his efforts there had been successful.

Meanwhile, larger events were taking shape that would profoundly affect the future of Myer and his signals. By February 1861 seven southern states had seceded from the Union, and soon thereafter Jefferson Davis became the provisional president of the newly formed Confederate States of America. Shortly before Myer's relief from duty in New Mexico, the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, by Confederate forces on 12 April 1861 proved to be the opening shots of the Civil War. Myer soon found himself back in Washington facing the challenge of his career: The time had come to test his signals in a full-scale conflict.

The Civil War Organization and Training

Having worked out the basic mechanics of his system, Myer prepared to furnish communications in the various theaters of war. At first, however, the signal officer had no personnel because the June 1860 legislation had not allowed for any. Therefore, the various field commanders had to detail officers and men to signal duty from their regular units. The detailed officers were known as acting signal officers, and the corps was sometimes referred to as the "acting signal corps." The detail system, however, possessed serious drawbacks for both the branch and its personnel. Myer's primary concern was the fact that the men could


be called back to their units at any time. On the other hand, soldiers considered signal duty detrimental to their careers because they were not eligible for promotion while on detail.

These problems prompted Myer in August 1861 to submit draft legislation to Secretary of War Simon Cameron "for the organization of a signal corps to serve during the present war, and to have the charge of all the telegraphic duty of the Army." Myer proposed that every officer of the corps be trained in both aerial and electrical signals. His plan, based on an Army of 500,000 men, called for a force consisting of seven assistant signal officers-two captains and five lieutenants-plus forty warrant officers and forty signal artificers who would serve as line builders and repairmen. Myer intended that each division "be accompanied by its corps of telegraphists or signal men, and that it be equipped with suitable apparatus and the appurtenances for both fixed and movable field telegraph and for the use of aerial and electric signals."25 Myer, apparently influenced by Major Canby's arguments, now adopted the idea of a separate corps. Congress adjourned, however, before taking action, forcing the signal officer to continue his exertions to get the legislation passed.

Meanwhile, signal training had begun with Myer's assignment in early June 1861 to Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he set up a temporary school.26 Although it existed only for the period that Myer served there, the school created the first nucleus of trained personnel who saw service in the initial engagements of the war. Several of the officers and men detailed for instruction soon applied their newly acquired skills to directing artillery fire upon the Confederate works at Sewall's Point, across Hampton Roads from Fort Monroe. Fire direction became a common function for Signal Corps officers during the Civil War, making them, in effect, forward observers.27

Early in the war Myer "wore two hats," for he was also assigned in August 1861 as chief signal officer of the Army of the Potomac commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. As such he obtained officers and men from various regiments and sent them to signal training camps run by officers instructed at Fort Monroe. In late August Myer established a central training camp at Red Hill, Georgetown, DC, in the area now occupied by the former Soviet embassy. The original class comprised soldiers detailed from regiments of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps who were stationed nearby. Sgt. Luther C. Furst of the 10th Regiment was among the first to report there. In his diary he remarked upon the strict discipline maintained at the camp. "I suppose [we] will have a West Point life of it.... We are kept very busy drilling four hours a day in signaling besides attending to some 100 horses."28 In September the students from outlying camps joined those at Red Hill, and signal training was consolidated there. For the officers this meant learning the code and then practicing the sending and receiving of messages, using telescopes to read them at long distances. As a security precaution the enlisted men (or flagmen) were not given access to the code; they simply manipulated the flag or torch at an officer's direction. (Some, no doubt, managed to unravel the mysteries of the talking flags in the process.) The men also


Photo:  Signal Corps camp of instruction, Red Hill, Georgetown, D.C.


received riding drill, for they were to be mounted and, armed with carbines, able to fight either on horseback or on foot. In the spring of 1862, when the Army of the Potomac embarked upon the Peninsula campaign, the drain on personnel led to the camp's closing. But Myer reopened it early the following year, and it remained in operation for the rest of the war.29

For field duty Myer divided his officers and men into sets (as he called them) of two officers and four enlisted men. He planned to have one set serve with each regiment and a signal officer on duty at each divisional headquarters.30 Each set could be split into a half set as needed. Myer sent signal parties, consisting of several sets, to occupy stations along the Potomac. In October a party accompanied the expedition to Port Royal, South Carolina, led by Brig. Gen. Thomas W Sherman. Myer recognized two members of this group, Lts. Henry S. Tafft and William S. Cogswell, by citing them for distinguished service at Port Royal Ferry and awarding them special battle flags.31

By this action Myer intended to recognize "every signal officer who shall skillfully and bravely carry in action and use his signal flag." The honorary flags displayed a star in the center, and each point of the star would be embroidered with the name of a battle in which the flag had been used. Due to the large number of engagements as the war continued, the Signal Corps determined that the flags would be decorated at the end of the conflict. Today the battle star is depicted on the Signal Corps regimental flag and insignia.32


In November 1861 Myer submitted to the secretary of war his first annual report as the Army's signal officer. He recommended that "officers be detailed to organize and instruct signal parties, or corps, with every army or corps of any army that is or may be in the service of the United States." Depending upon the wishes of the commanding general, the detailed officers could serve solely on signal duty as members of signal parties or return to their regiments to per­form signaling as an additional duty. Using previously trained signal officers as instructors, Myer believed that every brigade could be provided with signal communication in three months. He again recommended that Congress enact legislation organizing a temporary signal corps for the duration of the war. He also suggested that the US Military Academy at West Point include signaling in its curriculum.33 Congress approved his requested appropriation of $20,000 plus a contingency fund of $1,000, but despite its endorsement by General McClellan, Myer's second attempt to organize a signal corps fared no better than his first.34 Although legislation was introduced, the concern that a new body of officers would be created manifested itself once again. Ultimately the bill was amended to delete the organizational portion, rendering it solely an appropriations measure.35

Myer remained undaunted and continued his lobbying efforts. In January 1862 the House Committee on Military Affairs asked him to draft a plan for the organization of a signal corps. He also wrote several letters to the new secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, requesting his support, but the secretary's replies offered little encouragement. In April the House passed an organizational bill, but once again the Senate proved to be a roadblock. Myer, by then engaged in the Peninsula campaign, had not been able to direct the legislative effort personally. He did achieve a degree of satisfaction, however, when the War Department issued general orders in June directing that officers detached from their regiments for signal duty could not be relieved except by orders from the adjutant general of the Army.36 When Myer prepared his second annual report in November 1862, he still had not secured the much-needed legislation, and he "earnestly" called the problem to the attention of the secretary of war. This time Stanton responded positively, praising the services of the Signal Corps (as even he referred to it) in his annual report of 1 December 1862 and recommending a separate organization.37

Myer now began a determined campaign to win legislative approval. He had resigned his field position as chief signal officer of the Army of the Potomac in October so that he could devote more attention to running the Corps and, no doubt, to his lobbying. He distributed copies of his 1862 annual report to the members of the House and Senate Committees on Military Affairs, the House Committee on Ways and Means, and various other influential congressmen. In late December he submitted to the secretary of war his third draft of an organizational bill. Receiving Stanton's approval, Myer then sent his proposal to both the House and Senate military committees. To promote his cause, Myer appeared before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and solicited testimonials on the


Photo:  Secretary Stanton


usefulness of signals from important officers, such as McClellan. Myer also circulated petitions to acting signal officers in the field as a means by which they and the enlisted men on signal duty could demonstrate their support for the legislation.

In February 1863 a bill emerged from the Senate committee that provided for the organization of a Signal Corps during the "present rebellion." It created the position of chief signal officer, with the rank of colonel, who would be assisted by two clerks in the Washington office. Additional officers included a lieutenant colonel, two majors, a captain for each army corps or military department, and as many lieutenants (not more than eight) per corps or department as the president deemed necessary. The bill provided for one sergeant and six privates for each officer. The legislation also required entrance examinations for both officers and enlisted men in order to establish high technical standards for the branch. Furthermore, Regular Army officers appointed to the Signal Corps would be restored to their units after the war without the loss of rank or the right of promotion.

Myer's campaign must have been persuasive, for the bill passed the Senate without debate and then moved to the House, where its provisions were incorporated into the sundry civil appropriations bill. After approval by a conference committee and reconfirmation by both houses, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law, with the signal provisions intact, on 3 March 1863. It was truly a signal victory.38

As specified in the legislation, candidates had to appear before an examining board in order to join the Signal Corps. Those already performing signal duties were not exempt from testing; if they failed, they returned to their regiments. One board, known as the central, or principal board, sat in Washington, and others convened in the various military departments. The boards examined potential signal officers in reading, writing, composition, arithmetic, elementary chemistry, natural philosophy, surveying, and topography. They also tested the prospective officers in the use and management of field signals. Current members received additional examination upon the operation of signal parties in the field and the preparation of reports. The boards questioned candidates for warrants on reading, writing, geography, and arithmetic. A separate, or revising, board reviewed the


findings of the other boards and then submitted its reports to the secretary of war for approval. Of course, the possibility existed of being reduced in rank as a result of the examination, and the chief signal officer later reported "quite a number" of resignations for this reason. From the beginning the Signal Corps expected its soldiers to be highly qualified.39

On 28 April 1863 Myer appeared before the central board, which unanimously recommended him for the position of chief signal officer with the rank of colonel. He received the appointment, signed by Secretary Stanton, the following day, and he immediately accepted it. Since Congress was in recess, however, Myer's appointment could not be immediately confirmed by the Senate.40

The Military Academy introduced a course in signaling in July 1863, fulfilling a request repeatedly made by Myer since early in the war. Unfortunately, for reasons that are not clear, West Point discontinued the course the following year. Signal instruction continued at the US Naval Academy where it had been introduced in 1862 when the Navy adopted Myer's signals.41 In July 1864 Myer issued a General Service Code to facilitate communication between the Army and the Navy. (Table 1)

Even more important was the publication in 1864 of the first edition of Myer's A Manual of Signals: For the Use of Signal Officers in the Field, which codified signal doctrine for the first time. In it he discussed at length the principles of signaling and included a section on the history of signals, tracing the origins of military communication to the writings of the Greek historian Polybius, who had described a system in which the letters of the alphabet were transmitted by means of lighted torches. This manual, subsequently revised and expanded, remained the basis of signal doctrine for many years.42

Signal Equipment and Methods

The regulation signal equipment carried by a signal officer during the Civil War comprised three parts: the kit, the canteen, and the haversack. The canvas kit contained the flags, staffs, torches, a torch case, and a wormer used to extract the wick if it became lodged inside the torch. These were rolled together and bound by straps. The copper canteen carried one half-gallon of turpentine or other flammable fluid to fuel the torches. The haversack housed wicking, matches, pliers, shears, a funnel, two flame shades, and a wind shade. All three pieces had shoulder straps by which the officer could carry them. (Figure 2)

The flags came in seven varieties of colors and sizes to provide optimal visibility under prevailing conditions. Light colors were used to signal against dark backgrounds and vice versa. Made of cotton, linen, or another lightweight fabric, the types were:

6' x 6', white, with red center, 2' x 2'
6' x 6', black, with white center, 2' x 2'
4' x 4', white, with red center, 16" x 16"
4' x 4', black, with white center, 16" x 16"



end of word
end of sentence
end of message

.*The flag movements were the reverse of those in Myer's original code, i.e., a movement to the right indicated "1" and to the left, "2." The movement of the flag to the front of the the flagman indicated the numeral "3." The Army continued to use the General Service Code until 1912.

...Source: Cir, HQ, Military Division of West Mississippi, 11 Jul 1864.

4' x 4', red, with white center, 16" x 16"
2'x 2', white, with red center, 8" x 8"
2'x 2', red, with white center, 8" x 8"

The flags were tied to a hickory staff constructed in four-foot jointed sections. The Signal Corps most commonly used four-foot flags attached to a twelve-foot staff, with white being the most versatile color. Red flags were generally used at sea. Under exceptional circumstances when a flagman had to seek shelter while signaling, or did not want to attract the enemy's attention, he used the two-foot flag, known as the "action flag."

Signal torches were copper cylinders, eighteen inches long and one and one-half inches in diameter. The torch used cotton wicking, and the flagman attached it to the staff by clamp-rings and screws. The flame shade, a circular piece of copper, prevented the flame from traveling down the side of the torch. The signalman also used a wind shade, consisting of copper strips, when necessary. The foot torch, used as a reference point, was similar in structure but slightly wider. When flags or torches were not appropriate, signalmen could send messages by means of rockets or colored lights.43

Officers carried telescopes for reading signals at long distances and used binoculars or field glasses for reading messages at distances of four miles or less. (The latter were also useful on shipboard where the movement interfered with



Figure 2-Regulation Signal Equipment

...Figure 1: complete signal kit when packed; figure 2: contents of signal kit, ready to be placed in the canvas case (the four joints of the staff are bound to the rolled flags); figure 3: torch case (made of rubber cloth about three feet long by two and one-half feet wide; the torches were inserted into pouches inside the case); figure 4: haversack; figure 5: service can (capable of carrying five gallons of fuel); figure 6: canteen; figure 7: flying torch with flame shade attached; figure 8: foot torch with flame shade attached; figure 9: signal flags, showing their relative sizes.

...Source: Albert J. Myer, A Manual of Signals: For the Use of Signal Officers in the Field (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1877).


telescopes.) Signal officers' equipment also included pocket compasses for reconnaissance and the locating of signal stations as well as notebooks for keeping a record of the messages sent and received.

Signal security posed a serious problem. The chief of staff of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, expressed this concern during the battle of Chancellorsville when he ordered that signals not be used because the enemy could read them. Capt. Benjamin F. Fisher, chief signal officer of the Army of the Potomac, lamented in his report of the battle that "the corps is distrusted, and considered unsafe as a means of transmitting important messages. It is well known that the enemy can read our signals when the regular code is used."44 To prevent the Confederates from reading Union messages, the Signal Corps developed a cipher disk that consisted of two concentric disks upon which letters and their numerical equivalents, according to the code in use, were inscribed. To encipher a message, the signal officer selected an "adjustment letter" on the inner disk and then made this letter correspond with a preselected numerical code or "key number" on the outer disk. This method proved effective, and the enemy apparently never broke it.45

Signal stations consisted of two types-communication and observation-but one station could serve both purposes. A distinguishing call sign, a letter or combination of letters, was assigned to each station. Each signal officer, likewise, had a call or signature by which his messages could be identified.46 Careful site selection proved especially important to avoid such obstacles as dust or rows of tents. Signal officers often used trees as stations and, according to the signal manual:

The flag-man may then secure himself in the tree with a belt or rope. The officer fixes his own position at some other place in the same tree, and rests his telescope among its branches; or what is better, ascends another tree for this purpose: as the first is apt to be so shaken by the motions of the flagman, as to disturb the vision through the telescope.47

In some cases soldiers constructed special towers as signal platforms. Church steeples and other tall buildings also made good stations. While the Union Army often used balloons for reconnaissance early in the Civil War, they never came under the Signal Corps' auspices during the conflict. The Army employed civilian aeronauts, of whom Thaddeus S. C. Lowe is the best known. Signal officers, however, sometimes made observations from aloft and relayed the information to the ground using flags or the electric telegraph.48

Myer was already knowledgeable about electric telegraphy when he became signal officer in 1860 because of his experience as an operator in Buffalo. This background may explain why he interpreted his duties under the 1860 legislation to include electrical signaling. Another factor may have been the formation early in the war of an organization known as the US Military Telegraph. Despite its name, the Military Telegraph employed civilian operators, and its supervisory personnel received military commissions in the Quartermaster Department so


that they could disburse funds and property. Anson Stager, an official of the Western Union Telegraph Company, became its general manager. After President Lincoln took control of the nation's commercial telegraph lines in February 1862, they became available for use by Stager's organization.49

Although technically under the Quartermaster Department, the Military Telegraph was actually controlled by Secretary Stanton. As a former director of and attorney for the Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company, Stanton, like Myer, possessed considerable knowledge about telegraph operations. He placed the telegraph office next to his own in the War Department, and one of his biographers described the operators as Stanton's "little army ... part of his own personal and confidential staff."50 Myer saw this organization as a rival and believed that Stanton and the telegraph companies conspired against the Signal Corps. Whether collusion existed or not, Myer took on a formidable adversary when he challenged Stanton, a man whom one historian has described as a "stubby, whiskered, ill-tempered conniver."51

The fact that the Military Telegraph functioned independently of the army commanders it was supposed to serve created potential problems of command and control. Only the operators themselves knew the cipher codes used to transmit messages, and even President Lincoln, a frequent visitor to the War Department telegraph office, was denied access to them.52 The placement of electric telegraphy under the Signal Corps could have alleviated this situation and provided a more closely coordinated communication system. Failing that, a reasonable compromise would have been to place tactical communications under the Signal Corps and leave strategic lines with the Military Telegraph.

In June 1861 Myer first sought to gain control over electric telegraphy in addition to aerial signals. Such a request merited consideration, because Myer's visual signaling system was restricted to use in good weather over relatively open terrain with favorable atmospheric conditions. Message transmission by flag or torch was also slow, averaging about three words per minute with a range of ten to fifteen miles. By contrast, electrical signals were faster and less affected by the weather.53

Myer's 1 August 1861 proposal to the secretary of war for the organization of a signal corps had specified that it have control of all telegraphic duty within the Army, both aerial and electrical. On 6 August he again wrote to Cameron, this time requesting a "Telegraphic or Signal Train to accompany the Army on the march." The train would carry all the equipment needed for both aerial and electric signals and would include among its personnel "selected electric telegraphists." Myer's plan received favorable endorsements from Generals Irvin McDowell and George B. McClellan.54 On 14 August Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott authorized Myer to purchase a small telegraph train.55

When using the term train, Myer was not referring to a vehicle that ran along tracks, but to light wagons drawn by horses. The wagons carried the telegraph sets and other necessary items, such as reels of insulated copper wire and iron lances, for stringing temporary field lines-called "flying telegraph lines." Each


train was to be equipped with five miles of wire and two wagons, each with a telegraph instrument.56 In battle, one wagon remained at the starting point as a receiving station, while the other traveled into the field with the sending instrument.

Myer contracted with Henry J. Rogers, a telegraphic engineer from New York City, to construct a model train. Rogers had assisted Samuel E B. Morse in building the first commercial telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, and his arrangement with Myer began a tradition of civilian-military cooperation in the development of signal equipment that continues to this day.

In January 1862 Rogers delivered the model to the Georgetown signal camp. He had adapted the conventional Morse telegraph instrument for field use by replacing the sending key and the sound receiver with a dial indicator. The indicator consisted of a circular index plate bearing the letters of the alphabet and a pointer that was turned to the letter to be transmitted. A similar pointer spelled out the message at the receiving end. This adaptation eliminated the need for skilled operators with a knowledge of Morse code and required only the ability to read and write. To provide power, Rogers had designed a galvanic battery that eliminated the danger of acid spills.57

Shortly after the train's arrival in Georgetown a board of three signal officers examined it, and on 25 February they issued a generally favorable report. The examiners tested two miles of wire laid by the train and found that it "transmitted the galvanic current uninterruptedly." Even the passage of heavily laden wagons over the wire did not damage it. The officers concluded that the train was satisfactory for experimental purposes but that Rogers needed to make the mechanical portions more durable for field service. Overall, they believed that such a train would be of great use as an auxiliary to the permanent telegraph lines.58

The telegraph train received its first field test during the Peninsula campaign. In May 1862 a detachment from the Georgetown signal camp took a modified train to Myer in the field. For this model Rogers had substituted a new type of telegraph instrument, the invention of George W Beardslee of New York City. The Beardslee magneto-electric telegraph required no heavy, acid-filled batteries; rather, the turning of a crank generated current by revolving a set of magnets. Rogers had retained the dial indicator, however. In its final form the Beardslee telegraph was housed in a wooden chest with handles and weighed about one hundred pounds.59

Signal Corpsmen primarily employed visual signals during the Peninsula campaign, but they used the telegraph train on a limited basis to connect general headquarters with the field. Messages received at the field telegraph from visual stations were transmitted to headquarters, providing coordination between the visual and electrical systems. As the French and British had discovered in the Crimea, the novelty of the telegraph line brought some unforeseen problems. Curious soldiers cut off pieces of the wire for examination, and some evidently thought the wire to be an enemy device. To prevent tampering, patrols were stationed along the line.


Photo:  Beardslee telegraph


In his report covering the operations on the Peninsula, General McClellan spoke highly of the Signal Corps' services, including its field telegraph:

In addition to the flags and torches, Major Myer introduced a portable insulated telegraph wire, which could be readily laid from point to point, and which could be used under the same general system. In front of Washington, and on the Lower Potomac, at any point within our lines not reached by the military telegraph, the great usefulness of this system of signals was made manifest.60


While McClellan's conception of the Signal Corps as a supplement to the Military Telegraph probably did not entirely please Myer, it is nonetheless clear that the Corps performed satisfactorily in the general's view.

The telegraph train received more extensive use in December 1862 during the battle of Fredericksburg where fog and smoke from the burning town often impeded visual signaling. Telegraph lines connected Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, who now commanded the Army of the Potomac, with the headquarters of the commanders of grand divisions (consisting of two or more corps), Maj. Gen. Edwin V Sumner and Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, and with the supply base at Belle Plain, seven and one-half miles away. On 13 December, the main day of the battle, Signal Corpsmen, while under fire, extended a line across the Rappahannock River into the town of Fredericksburg in twenty minutes. The successful use of the telegraph during this battle enabled Myer to secure funds for additional trains, and by late 1863 thirty of them were in service throughout the Army.61

The Signal Corps' success, however, exacerbated the still unsettled issue of control over electric telegraphy. Both the Signal Corps and the Military Telegraph were operating lines in the field. Congress failed to solve the problem in the legislation organizing the Corps in 1863, because it did not specify the branch's duties. Secretary Stanton, however, sympathized with the civilians and in his 1863 annual report wrote of placing restrictions upon the duties of signal officers. Although he did not elaborate, it is reasonable to assume that he did not consider electric telegraphy to be a Signal Corps function. At the same time, he praised the services of the Military Telegraph. General Manager Stager, meanwhile, reporting on the Military Telegraph's activities, lauded the secretary in print.62

Concurrently, the technical limitations of the Beardslee device created serious problems for the Signal Corps. At the battle of Chancellorsville, in the spring of 1863, the Corps had to relinquish some of its lines to the Military Telegraph to operate with its more powerful machines. The Beardslee's revolving magnets could not generate enough electricity to transmit signals more than about five to eight miles. Therefore, it alone could not connect the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, situated on the south side of the Rappahannock, with his chief of staff, General Butterfield, at general headquarters over ten miles away on the other side of the river. Using both electrical and visual signals, the Signal Corps took three hours to deliver messages between them. To make matters worse, many of the Corps' operators were new, and the telegraph wire itself was in poor condition, having been in constant use for several months. The system broke down completely when Hooker and Butterfield overloaded it, sending more messages than the officers and equipment could handle, and obliging the Military Telegraph to take over. Even with this change, the inadequacy of the Union's field communications contributed to the failure of the Chancellorsville campaign.63

Despite the mitigating circumstances, the Signal Corps could not escape the fact that the Beardslee system had considerable technical shortcomings. The ten-


Image:  The signal telegraph train as used at the battle of Fredericksburg


dency for the sending and receiving index pointers to get out of synchronization and thereby transmit garbled messages posed yet another difficulty, and much time was lost by sending the machines back to New York for repair. Clearly, something drastic had to be done.

By the autumn of 1863 Myer had decided to convert the Beardslee machines to use Morse keys and sounders, but it was a calculated risk. Morse telegraphs required trained operators, and the recruitment process placed Myer in direct competition with the Military Telegraph for personnel. In September 1863 Myer placed a series of advertisements in the Army and Navy Official Gazette calling for expert telegraphers to apply for commissions in the Signal Corps. Because he had not cleared these notices with the secretary of war, he incurred Stanton's wrath. On 22 September Assistant Secretary of War W. A. Nichols wrote a letter to Myer informing him that his actions had been "irregular and improper" and reminding him to "bear in mind that the Signal Corps is not an independent organization, but a branch of the Service under the direction of the War Department."64 Stager, meanwhile, reacted by recommending to Stanton that all field telegraphs be placed under the direction of the Military Telegraph.65 The crisis culminated in Stanton's removal of Myer as chief signal officer on 10 November 1863. The secretary turned all telegraph apparatus over to Stager and relegated Myer to duty in Memphis, Tennessee.66

After his dismissal, Myer met with Stager in an attempt to establish a working relationship between their respective organizations. They reached an agreement, but it was never put into effect; perhaps if Myer had made such an overture two years earlier, he would not have found himself in virtual exile.67

Ironically, after all the controversy, the Military Telegraph never used the Beardslee machines it acquired from the Signal Corps. The civilian telegraphers considered them unreliable and an "expensive failure.68 For the remainder of the


Photo:  Colonel Nicodemus
Photo:  Colonel Fisher

war the Military Telegraph and its Morse equipment provided telegraphic support for the Union Army. For field service, the Military Telegraph adopted Myer's telegraphic train technique. According to Stager's annual report for 1866, the Military Telegraph constructed a total of 15,389 miles of field, land, and submarine lines.69   Despite the abandonment of the Beardslee, the Signal Corps deserves credit for developing the first portable, rugged, electrical communication system designed for the battlefield. The machines used in the signal telegraph train were the ancestors of the sophisticated battlefield communication devices used by the Army today.

With Myer's departure, Maj. William J. L. Nicodemus became acting chief signal officer. A native of Maryland and a West Point graduate, class of 1858, Nicodemus' first signaling assignment had come when he assisted Myer during the New Mexico campaign in 1861. He returned to signal duty in February 1863 as commander of the Georgetown training camp, and the following September he was appointed to one of the two majorities in the Signal Corps. Upon becoming chief, he took command of a branch that had grown to include approximately two hundred officers and one thousand enlisted men.70 Like Myer before him, however, Nicodemus soon ran afoul of Secretary of War Stanton. His transgression consisted of printing copies of his 1864 annual report on the Signal Corps' press and distributing them in pamphlet form without the secretary's approval. Because the report revealed the fact that the Corps could read the enemy's signals, Stanton


considered it a breach of security, and he dismissed Nicodemus, now a lieutenant colonel, from the Army in December 1864.71

In the wake of Nicodemus' removal, Col. Benjamin F. Fisher took command of the Signal Corps. Fisher had been captured near Aldie, Virginia, in June 1863, while serving as chief signal officer of the Army of the Potomac, and he spent the next eight months in Libby Prison. After a harrowing escape in the middle of winter, he returned to his former duties. As the US Army's chief signal officer, Fisher managed to avoid Stanton's ire and retained his position into the postwar period.72

Wartime Operations

Signal Corpsmen served throughout the Union Army, with the largest number of officers assigned to the Army of the Potomac and the Departments of the Cumberland and the Tennessee. When Myer was chief signal officer of the Army of the Potomac, he urged that signal personnel be centralized and that the chief signal officer of the army, after obtaining details of coming operations at headquarters, direct the signal parties to wherever they were needed. Instead, commanding generals usually determined the employment of the signal parties, most often assigning them to army or corps headquarters. When inclement weather or unfavorable terrain made visual signaling impossible, signal officers often served commanders as aides.73

As new additions to the Army, signal soldiers did not immediately gain universal acceptance and recognition. Commanders had to become familiar with the Signal Corps' mission and accustomed to calling upon its services. An example of this situation occurred during the battle of Shiloh in April 1862 when Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant unwittingly rode through a signal station belonging to the Army of the Ohio, apparently unaware of its purpose. Not recognizing the intruder (as Grant disdained the badges of his rank), the lieutenant guarding the station called out: "Git out of the way there! Ain't you got no sense?" The general quietly apologized and removed himself from the signal officer's line of vision.74 Grant was among those who were slow to include signal parties in their commands; his Army of the Tennessee did not have an active signal detachment in the field until March 1863.75

In the field, confusion over how best to employ signal personnel had been evident from the start. During the war's first major encounter, the battle of Bull Run, the chief signal officer reached the battlefield, but the Union Signal Corps did not. Myer had intended to command a balloon detachment at Manassas, but a delay in the receipt of his orders left him with little time for preparation. Although he requested signal personnel from Fort Monroe to assist him, there was not enough time for them to reach Washington before the fighting began. Consequently, the eve of the battle found Myer rushing toward Manassas with a balloon and a detachment of twenty men from the 26th Pennsylvania Infantry. In their haste, the balloon became caught in some trees and was badly damaged.


Photo:  Chief Signal Officer Myer (standing) during the Peninsula campaign


Abandoning the sphere, Myer continued to the battlefield where he served as an aide to Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler. During this engagement at Bull Run, the Union Army relied solely upon the services of the Military Telegraph, which provided administrative support only.76

As chief signal officer of the Army of the Potomac, Myer personally directed signal activities during the Peninsula campaign in the spring and summer of 1862. With the conclusion of that campaign and the second Union defeat at Bull Run in August, the North feared a Confederate invasion. Apprehension became reality early in September when a signal officer atop Sugarloaf Mountain, overlooking the Potomac valley, relayed the news that Confederate forces were crossing the river. Southern troops subsequently captured the signal officer, 1st Lt. Brinkerhoff N. Miner, and his flagman.77 Union signalmen reoccupied the station several days later, and it served as an important link in the chain of communications along the Army of the Potomac's route of march through the mountains. From Point of Rocks, Maryland, a telegraph line ran to Washington, and the Signal Corps transmitted messages between this station and McClellan's headquarters.78


On 17 September 1862 the town of Sharpsburg, overlooking Antietam Creek, became the site of the decisive engagement of the Maryland campaign, the battle of Antietam. McClellan ordered that signal stations be established on the right and left of the line to communicate with his headquarters, and other stations to be opened as needed. A signal station on Elk Mountain commanded the battlefield, and from this vantage point a signal officer, 1st Lt. Joseph Gloskoski, relayed information about enemy movements to the Union commanders. In particular, a message to General Burnside-"Look out well on your left; the enemy are moving a strong force in that direction."-warned of Maj. Gen. A. P Hill's arrival from Harpers Ferry to reinforce Lee. When the message arrived at the signal station near Burnside's headquarters, however, the general was not there and, consequently, he did not receive the information in time for it to be of use.79 Hill's counterattack forced Burnside to retreat, ending the last federal threat to destroy Lee's army that day. While ostensibly a Union victory, Antietam proved to be the single bloodiest day of the Civil War, with over 23,000 casualties. Lee had been beaten but not destroyed, and withdrew his forces across the Potomac, where they remained under the watchful eyes of Union signalmen.80

In June 1863 Lee once again invaded the North, and this time the opposing armies met at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the first three days of July. This decisive engagement presents an excellent example of the effective use of flag signals both for communication and for conveying intelligence. Although Capt. Lemuel B. Norton, chief signal officer of the Army of the Potomac, had field telegraph trains at his disposal, he did not deploy them.81 During the fighting on the first day a Union signal officer, Lt. Aaron B. Jerome, successively occupied several prominent locations within the town of Gettysburg, such as the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary and the courthouse steeple. From there he observed the enemy's approach and reported their movements to Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, the officer in overall command of the first units of the Army of the Potomac to arrive in the town. He informed Howard that "Over a division of the rebels is making a flank movement on our right; the line extends over a mile, and is advancing, skirmishing. There is nothing but cavalry to oppose them."82 Unfortunately, Howard was badly outnumbered and could do little with this accurate intelligence. By the end of the day the Confederates had captured the town, and Jerome had to vacate his posts.

The Union forces retreated to a line of hills south of Gettysburg where they were joined by heavy reinforcements and the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. By midmorning on 2 July, Union signal officers had established communication between General Meade and his corps commanders. They had located stations at key positions along the Union line: Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill, Power's Hill, Little Round Top, and the Leister House, where Meade made his headquarters.

Little Round Top proved a particularly important location because it offered a panoramic view of the battlefield, and signalmen were the first Union troops to occupy the strategic hilltop. Just before noon on 2 July, Lieutenant Jerome (now


Illustration:  General Warren at the signal station on Little Round Top


serving on this rocky promontory) signaled to General Butterfield at army headquarters: "The rebels are in force, and our skirmishers give way. One mile west of Round Top signal station, the woods are full of them."83 Later that afternoon Capt. James S. Hall, a signal officer with the II Corps, detected an attempt by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps to outflank the Union left. Longstreet, aware that they could be seen from the station, had ordered his men to countermarch, and it was this movement that Hall observed. Hall signaled to General Butterfield that "A heavy column of enemy's infantry, about 10,000 strong, is moving from opposite our extreme left toward our right."84 The delay caused by the countermarch gave Meade time to send troops to meet the threat.85 The Confederate effort that day to seize Little Round Top resulted in failure, but only after a long and bloody struggle. During the contest the signal station became a target of such intense fire that it was temporarily abandoned. Another signal detachment later reoccupied the station, and it remained in service throughout the rest of the battle.

The new signal party included Sgt. Luther C. Furst, flagman for Capt. Edward C. Pierce, a signal officer attached to the VI Corps. Like those before him, Furst faced the dangers of the exposed position. Fighting became very heavy on 3 July, with shell, shot, and shrapnel filling the air. The deadly aim of the sharpshooters in Devil's Den at the foot of the hill prevented Furst from using his flag. Furst noted in his diary that seven men had been wounded or killed that day near the station. Unable to send visual signals, Furst acted as a mounted courier to Meade's headquarters. Warned that he would never make it through, Furst defied the odds and delivered his message. The following morning, Furst reported the situation to be "all quiet," as the Confederates withdrew from the field in defeat.86


The station at Little Round Top remained open until 6 July. After that the signalmen accompanied Meade's army as it pursued Lee back across the Potomac.87 Brig. Gen. Edward P Alexander, who acted as Longstreet's corps artillery commander at Gettysburg, later referred to "that wretched little signal station" and remarked that he "was particularly cautioned, in moving the artillery, to keep it out of sight of the signal station on Round Top."88 Today, a Signal Corps monument on the hill commemorates the dedicated men who served there.

In his report of the campaign Captain Norton also cited the services on 3 July of Capt. Davis E. Castle, who operated from the signal station at the Leister House. On that day the Confederates launched a massive assault against the Union center, known as Pickett's charge, in which Alexander commanded the artillery. After all others had abandoned the signal station during the onslaught, including his flagman, who left with the signaling equipment, Captain Castle remained on duty, sending messages with a bedsheet attached to a pole.89

During the Gettysburg campaign, some authorities in Washington feared that the capital might be attacked. Personnel from the Georgetown signal camp, and even those working in the signal office, were called out to observe and report on rebel movements. Among the signal stations established was one in the unfinished Capitol dome. A more serious threat to the capital occurred during Lt. Gen. Jubal Early's raid in 1864. At that time signal stations were set up in most of the forts surrounding the city. While the Confederates never launched a full-scale attack, skirmishing did take place at Fort Stevens, where the signal officer narrowly escaped being killed.90

Not all signaling occurred on land. During the joint Army-Navy operations in 1863 to open navigation on the Mississippi River, Army signalmen maintained communication between ship and shore. When Rear Adm. David Farragut ran his fleet past the defenses of Port Hudson, Louisiana, in March, signal officers high in the mastheads kept the vessels in contact with each other. They continued on duty throughout the siege of that city that ended with its fall on 9 July. Signal officers provided similar service at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the garrison surrendered the day after the Union victory at Gettysburg.91

Having finally achieved formal existence, the Signal Corps continued to gain recognition and use by commanders during the final two years of the war. One of the most famous instances occurred in October 1864 at Allatoona, Georgia, a battle that marked the end of the fighting around Atlanta. Allatoona, about thirty miles northwest of Atlanta, was the site of a strategic railroad pass through the mountains, as well as a supply base for Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's army group. Moreover, the capture of Allatoona Pass by the Confederates would cut off Sherman's communications to the north. A small force under the command of Lt. Col. John E. Tourtellotte, 4th Minnesota Infantry, defended the position. After a signal officer atop Kennessaw Mountain, about eighteen miles south of Allatoona, spotted enemy movement toward the latter place, General Sherman called to Brig. Gen. John B. Corse at Rome, Georgia, north of Allatoona, to reinforce the threatened garrison. Lt. Charles H. Fish, stationed at Kennessaw, relayed


Photo:  General Alexander
Photo:  Major Norris

the message by flag signals to the station at Allatoona, from which it was transmitted via telegraph and locomotive (the telegraph wires having been cut) to Rome.92 Messages sent to the garrison at Allatoona during the ensuing siege reputedly inspired the song "Hold the Fort," which became famous as a gospel hymn and later served as an anthem of the labor movement.93 On 4 October Brig. Gen. William Vandever signaled to Tourtellotte from Kennessaw that: "Sherman is moving in force. Hold out." Later that day another message read: "General Sherman says hold fast. We are coming." The following day Tourtellotte received a third message from Kennessaw. "Tell Allatoona hold on. General Sherman says he is working hard for you."94 Fortunately, Corse arrived in time, and despite heavy fighting on 5 October, in which members of the Signal Corps participated, the position held.95

Ironically, Sherman did not place a great deal of reliance on the Signal Corps. In his memoirs he commented that he had "little faith in the signal service by flags and torches, though we always used them; because, almost invariably when they were most needed, the view was cut off by intervening trees, or by mists and fogs." The one notable exception was at Allatoona "when the signal flags carried a message of vital importance over the heads of Hood's army." Sherman placed his faith in the magnetic telegraph and felt that the commercial lines would "always supply for war enough skillful operators."96

During the war years not all signal parties operated against the Confederates. In the spring of 1865 signal officers accompanied the Powder


River expedition to Wyoming and Montana, commanded by Brig. Gen. Patrick E. Connor. Seeking out Indians who were attacking travel and communication lines, Connor used signals to communicate between the troop columns.97

Because of the nature of its duties, the Signal Corps provided fewer opportunities for heroic acts of bravery on the battlefield of the type for which medals are usually bestowed. While perhaps not glamorous, signal duty proved to be especially hazardous, with a ratio of killed to wounded of 150 percent.98 The Signal Corps had one Medal of Honor winner, Pvt. Morgan D. Lane, who entered the Signal Corps in 1864 as a second-class private and served with the Army of the Potomac. In the spring of 1865 he was attached to Headquarters, V Corps, as the orderly of Lt. P H. Niles, a Signal Corps officer. On 6 April 1865, near Jetersville, Virginia, during Lee's retreat from Petersburg, Niles, Lane, and an engineer officer captured several members of the crew of the Confederate gunboat Nansemond. In the process, Lane captured the Nansemond's flag, a feat that during the Civil War warranted recognition by the Medal of Honor.99 Three days after Lane's accomplishment Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, bringing the war to an end.

The Confederate Signal Corps

The Signal Corps of the United States Army and its rival the Military Telegraph did not monopolize the field of Civil War communications. The Confederate Army had a signal corps of its own, thanks to the knowledge possessed by Edward P Alexander, Myer's able assistant in his early testing of wigwag. Alexander was a native of Georgia and ranked third in his class of 1857 at West Point. When the Civil War broke out, he resigned his commission in the United States Army and accepted one in the Confederate Army as a captain of engineers. Because Jefferson Davis was aware of Alexander's work with Myer, he sent the talented captain to Manassas, Virginia, to set up a system of signals for the forces under the command of Brig. Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard.100

Alexander selected four locations in the vicinity of Bull Run as signal stations. With men detailed to him for signal instruction and duty, Alexander prepared for the clash that would come when Union forces attempted to dislodge the rebel threat to Washington. Serving as signal officer on Beauregard's staff during the battle on 21 July, Alexander successfully used Myer's system to warn of a federal attempt to turn the Confederate left.101 In his report of the victory, Beauregard cited the "seasonable and material assistance" rendered by Alexander and his signals.102 Shortly afterward, however, Alexander was named chief of ordnance of the Army of Northern Virginia. Although he retained his position as signal officer, his other duties took precedence.

In April 1862 the Confederate Congress authorized the establishment of a signal corps-a year before the US Congress passed such legislation. Alexander apparently declined an offer to lead the new organization, and Capt. William Norris, a Yale-educated lawyer from Maryland, took command.103 Norris had pre-


viously served as a volunteer civilian aide on Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder's staff. Norris had impressed Magruder by setting up a signaling system on the Peninsula employing flags and balls set on poles, similar to marine signals. Attached to the Adjutant and Inspector General's Department, the Confederate Signal Corps initially comprised ten officers not exceeding the rank of captain and ten sergeants. A subsequent augmentation elevated Norris to the rank of major and added ten first and ten second lieutenants as well as twenty sergeants, for a total strength of sixty-one officers and men. Additional personnel could be detailed for service as required. A signal officer was authorized for the staff of each corps and division commander.104 The Confederate Signal Corps remained considerably smaller than that of the Union. All told, approximately 1,500 men served the Confederate Army as signal soldiers.105

In general, the Confederate Signal Corps performed communication duties similar to those of its Union counterpart. Its use of electric telegraphy, however, remained confined to strategic communications because the Confederacy lacked both supplies of telegraph wire and a pool of experienced telegraphers.106 An important distinction between the two organizations was the Confederate Signal Corps' additional role as its government's secret service. While signaling and intelligence are closely connected functions, and the Union Army's Signal Corps can be said to have provided certain intelligence related services, such as reconnaissance, the Confederate Signal Corps also worked in the realm of espionage. In its capacity as a secret service bureau, the corps administered the covert operations of the Secret Line, an information network that ran between Richmond and the North and extended into Canada. Norris himself may have served as an agent, since he was often absent from Richmond on trips of an undetermined nature.107

As for equipment and methods, the Confederate Signal Corps closely paralleled those of the Union. Both organizations used flags that were similar in design and size.108 Alexander apparently made some minor modifications in Myer's alphabet code, and he may also have reversed the flag motions. Alexander's brother, Capt. James H. Alexander, prepared a classified manual of instruction that preceded Myer's publication by two years. Despite the use of various cipher systems, however, the Confederates could not keep the Union from reading their messages.109

Because of its clandestine nature, much of the work of the Confederate Signal Corps is shrouded in secrecy. Moreover, most of the documentary record of its activities has been lost. The Confederate government burned its records upon the fall of Richmond, and a subsequent fire at Norris' home destroyed most of his personal papers.110

The Signal Corps Survives Its Baptism of Fire

In its wartime debut, the Signal Corps did not contribute significantly to the Union's victory. Yet its presence on the battlefield was important, because it


marked the beginning of a new era in military communications. The Signal Corps' birth in 1860 coincided with technological advances that were drastically altering the nature of warfare and would ultimately make communications an integral part of the combat team. The increased range and accuracy of rifled weapons enlarged the killing zone and made close-order tactics suicidal. With his troops widely dispersed, a commander could no longer control them with his voice alone. Transmitting orders by messenger was slow, and couriers were extremely vulnerable to enemy action. The situation demanded new methods of tactical signaling, and Myer's wigwag system helped to bridge this communication gap. Before the invention of the telephone and the radio, the soldier possessed no tactical communication device that he could carry onto the battlefield. Wigwag, despite its limitations, enabled signalmen to communicate between prominent points on or near the battlefield and the commander's headquarters. The portability of the equipment permitted its use on horseback and on shipboard as well.

While the electric telegraph had received some combat testing by European armies, it had by no means been perfected as a tactical communication device in 1861. With his development of the field telegraph train, Myer attempted to adapt the telegraph to the needs of a mass, mobile army. At the same time, the creation of the Military Telegraph, of which Secretary of War Stanton tightly held the reins, placed a powerful competitor in the field. No doubt Stanton's inability to control the operations of the Signal Corps contributed to his stormy relationship with Myer. Moreover, the Signal Corps could not expect to compete with the established commercial lines for strategic communications, and its Beardslee machines proved no match for the Morse instruments used by the civilian operators. Consequently, the Corps lost both Myer and electrical communications after November 1863. Yet, with the end of the war, the Military Telegraph ceased to exist and the Signal Corps survived.111

Albert Myer may have been stubborn and contentious, but he was also resourceful. Through determination and hard work he succeeded in establishing an important branch of the Army. At the outset, the Signal Corps' birth may have seemed premature: Both Congress and the Army resisted the idea. No other army in the world contained such an organization, and the need for a specialized communications branch was not generally recognized. As with many novel endeavors, Myer's efforts met with mixed results, but they were not futile. Although the Signal Corps' military role and mission remained largely undefined when the Civil War ended in 1865, the foundation for its future achievements had been laid. The Civil War experience made possible the expansion of an organization consisting of a signal officer and temporary assistants into a Signal Corps that was part of the permanent military establishment.


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