The Signal Corps At Gettysburg ~ A Communicator's Guide


       This paper was written in 1988-89 while I was a student at the U.S. Army War College. It was written to fulfill a writing requirement for the course. During the fall of 1988, I had the good fortune to meet Professor Jay Luvaas and Colonel (now Brig. Gen. Retired) Harold Nelson. They were the authors of the U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg. Jay, who recently retired, is a distinguished historian and had served as the War College history "guru" for many years. Col. Nelson was the Army's top historian in uniform and he went on to become the Chief of Military History and received a promotion to General Officer. After touring Gettysburg with Luvaas and Nelson, I approached Col. Nelson and told him I wanted to do something on the Signal Corps at Gettysburg. He encouraged me to write a signal corps battlefield guide and I spent the next several months working on it. I received a lot of help and encouragement from Jay Luvaas and Jay and I used the guide to give the signal officer students at the War College a tour of the battlefield for the next several years. The primary research done for this paper was also used to write a number of articles for Gettysburg Magazine. ~ Bill Cameron is a retired U.S. Army Colonel, Lufkin, Texas.

       The original introduction contained a lot of material intended to relate the guide to the professional development needs of modern Signal Officers. I have removed that for this edition. I also updated the driving instructions which were written prior to the change in the flow of traffic on Hancock Avenue. Dennis Lawrence, made some excellent changes to make the document fit the electronic format. [additional formatting, graphics, and web presentation were made in 2004 by The Signal Corps Association 1860~1865] Other than those changes, the document is as it was written in 1988.

       This paper was not intended to "stand alone" and assumes the reader has a general knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg. If you are a member of the Gettysburg Discussion Group, you should have no problem using the guide. If you are not familiar with the battle, I suggest you read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and one of the general works on the battle. Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command is an excellent choice.

       The paper was written in the format of Luvaas and Nelson's guide and whenever possible uses the first hand accounts of the participants from the Official Records (OR) to describe the action. Walking the ground and standing on the actual sites of the signal stations while reading the accounts of the signal officers who manned them gives a perspective you cannot get from reading a book alone.

       This guide loosely follows the chronology of the battle once the various corps arrive on the battlefield. While it does not detail the signal stations used during the movement of the Army of the Potomac from Virginia to Pennsylvania, the tour does encompass the primary stations used as the Army of the Potomac followed the Army of Northern Virginia south to the Potomac River.

       The exact location of some of the signal stations is not known, but most of them are well documented. The guide will tell you when the locations are approximate. A compass and a pair of field glasses are a necessity in order to view the various stations, some of which are well over ten miles apart.

       The guide will tell you if the station was used as a station of communication, or observation, or both. Signal officers had two distinct functions in the Civil War. One was to provide communications by various means; and the other to provide information on the location and movements of the enemy. Due to the necessary elevation of the signal stations, many served both functions. There are numerous examples in this guide where signal officers provided key information to tactical commanders during this campaign. A detailed description of the observation function is provided in Col. Myer's words at Stop 8.

       The tactical and operational level communications function was primarily performed by flag signals. The Signal Corps owned a field telegraph service which was used to extend the commercial lines to the various headquarters, but most of the long distance telegraph service was provided by commercial companies which had been federalized and placed under the auspices of the Military Telegraph Service. That service was not a part of the Signal Corps, but was a civilian bureau attached to the Quartermaster's Department. A detailed description of the flag signal equipment is at Appendix I.

       In analyzing the available message traffic in the Official Records, it is difficult to distinguish messages thatwere sent via flag signal from those written and sent those that were sent by courier. Other than the obvious mention of a signal station or having been signed by a signal officer, there are few clues. Most signal messages do not include typical embellishments of the day such as "Very respectfully, your obedient servant" or simply "Very respectfully". Signal messages also tended to be written in a straightforward manner with simpler text than written notes. This guide uses only those messages than can be tied directly to the Signal Corps. However, that can leave a false impression. In reviewing the traffic published in this guide, you can get the idea that the preponderance of the traffic was simply signal officers reporting their observations to various headquarters. The problem is that messages sent from and to commanders by flag signals are not necessarily identified as such. Signal messages were used in command and control, but at the time of Gettysburg the practice was in a fledgling state. Meade would not displace his headquarters from the Leister House to Power's Hill until it was brought to his attention that a signal officer was present at the new location. (George G. Meade, Letter to John Bachelder, Descriptive Kev to the Paintincr of the Repulse of Longstreet's Assault at the Battle of Gettysburg, New York, John B. Bacheider, 1870, p. 61)

       The consequences of how the signal assets were assigned is an interesting study in this campaign. During the portion of the campaign conducted on the battlefield, signal officers were assigned to the various corps and tended to select sites based upon their own reconnaissances. In his role as Chief Signal Officer of the Army of the Potomac, Captain Lemuel B. Norton apparently exercised minimum control as to the selection and conduct of the various signal stations. The signal system employed on the Gettysburg battlefield could be referred to as a "command system" in modern signal terminology. The signal officers were,under the direct control of the supported corps and moved with the corps. In Norton's case, there appeared to be little "system" planning or control. That he had been in the position for less than one month and was the same rank as the corps signal officers certainly could have been contributing factors.

       As the Army of the Potomac moved south through Frederick, at the close of the campaign, signal assets were deployed and controlled differently.

       On 6 July, Captain William Nicodemus was ordered by the Chief Signal officer of the Union Army, Colonel Albert Myer, to take 12 officers and 27 enlisted men and report to the Army of the Potomac which on the 7th was located at Frederick, Maryland. [O.R., XXVII, Part I, p. 207.] Captain Nicodemus established a tightly controlled "area" signal system which this staff ride will examine in detail. The differences in the systems employed by Norton and Nicodemus make an interesting comparison.

       Because this guide is not in strict chronological order, the following brief overview of the Signal Corps involvement in the campaign is provided.

       On the 14 June 1863, the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac commenced its initial move out of Falmouth Virginia. On 24 June, the Confederates were reported crossing the Potomac near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Signal Corps attached to the Army of the Potomac under Captain Norton provided observation and communication services as the Army moved north eventually meeting the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. Norton and the various corps signal parties supported the Army of the Potomac during the Battle of Gettysburg and continued to provide communication and observation services as the Army moved south through Frederick, Maryland, following the Confederates into the Boonsborough Valley. On 7 July, a detachment of signal officers and enlisted men under Captain William Nicodemus, was ordered from Washington by Colonel Myer, to support Captain Norton and provide communication services to the Army of the Potomac. This detachment supported the Army during what was primarily a cavalry action, as the bulk of the Army of the Potomac moved toward contact with the Army of Northern Virginia south of Hagerstown, Maryland prior to the Confederates recrossing the Potomac River.


Signal Corps At Gettysburg
A Communicator's Guide

First Stop