THE STORY OF THE SIGNAL CORPS
(Purchase information at the end of this book review)
Read Chapter 1 "Origins of the Corps"
Who were "the ablest, coolest, and most daring men in the Army"? This
was the term applied by George Ward Nichols, in his Story of the Great March. Was he
referring to dashing cavalry raiders -- sharp-shooters -- topographic engineers --
pioneers -- scouts? No, that was his description of the men of the signal corps, probably
the least known and least appreciated body of men in the Civil War.
The ability to communicate rapidly on the battlefield and with higher headquarters --
anticipating radio in the Twentieth Century -- came about through the ingenuity, vision,
and persistence of one man, Albert James Myer of New York. A pre-Civil War assistant
surgeon in the army, Myer became the world's first signal officer in 1860. Through a cruel
irony of fate, his brain-child -- a corps of technical military specialists -- was first
realized by his opponents, and their success used to goad Federal authorities into action.
Simple in concept (a single flag waved to the left or right; torches at night), the
Myer system was cheap, easily manufactured or even improvised, and could be carried by a
single man. Using elevations that afforded extended line-of-sight (a hillock, tree,
steeple or cupola, or a tower for the purpose), signaling was practicable over distances
of ten miles or more in good visibility, and could be extended through relays to create
networks. Although slow in comparison with the electromagnetic telegraph, it was free of
wires, arching over the heads of the soldiers. A better comparison of capability would be
made with the speed of couriers moving on horseback. From their lofty perches, aided by
field glasses and 30-power telescopes, signal officers became a valued source of
intelligence through their observations. In time they would augment that contribution by
learning to "read" the signals of their opponents.
But Myer had several strikes against him: he was "non-academy," a civilian
(and a medical doctor at that) in uniform. His persistence in promoting his vision, even
to the extent of politicking with members of Congress, irritated and angered his
chain-of-command, who combined with skeptics toward any new-fangled ideas to frustrate or
thwart him. The Southern leadership, from their pre-war positions in government and the
military, took his ideas with them into the Confederacy and jumped the gun on the inventor
by using his system at First Manassas while Myer was struggling to get to the field. A
year later, after Shiloh, Sherman was asked by Thomas, "Where is your Signal
Corps?" and responded, "A Signal Corps, what is that?" (Brown, pp.
465-466). It was not until 1863, after two years of improvising with borrowed resources,
that Myer became head of the provisional, wartime organization. Even then he found himself
in conflict with Secretary of War Stanton over control of Morse telegraphy. Myer was
"canned," "sent to Siberia" in the Department of the Gulf, and only
restored after the war.
This epic of one man's struggle against bureaucracy and apathy, and the organization
and military capability he introduced to warfare, both directly and (through his pre-war
student and colleague, Edward Porter Alexander, CSA) indirectly in the Civil War, is not
nearly as well known as it should be, nor the roles played by the signalmen. Most careful
students of the war will have encountered the chapter in Miller's Photographic History,
seen occasional references to signaling, or perhaps even encountered a monograph or
article. But the story was once told, and told exceedingly well, in a book that, even in a
1974 reprint (minus the roster and index), is not well known, and in the original commands
a price of $350 or more. This is the book that the Signal Corps Association, 1860 - 1865 (
an association of researchers, re-enactors and publishers of the Signal Cipher), has made
available again in a "very" limited printing. Faithful to the original (except
for two plates in color in the 1896 edition), hard bound on acid free paper, even to the
extent of the attractive gold stamping on spine and cover, this edition restores the
exhaustive roster, so useful to researchers and genealogists.
The author, Joseph Willard Brown, historian of the Veteran Signal Corps Association,
embarked on a personal narrative in the late 1870s. Persuaded that a fuller story was
merited, he approached Myer (back again as Chief Signal Officer), but was told that an
official history was planned. The death of Myer a few years later (1880) may have
prevented that, so the veterans undertook the task themselves, asking Brown to head a
committee with four other veterans. With access to the records in Washington and full
support from the Signal Service, they spent a decade in research and correspondence.
Lacking the unit integrity of, say, a regiment, members of the signal corps served in
small detachments (signal parties, or signal corps) scattered throughout the army and even
aboard ships. Few officers were acquainted with one another, except through training
schools (Myer was perhaps the first to establish strict pre-requisites, formal technical
training schools or camps, and pre-entry testing) and chance assignments. Thanks to Myer's
insistence on routine reporting of activities, they found a wealth of data in the files,
but, as is usually the case with "our war," far better documentable for the East
than the West. They compensated for this by years of correspondence and interviews, even
as the Official Records were being produced. The result is an unmatched record of
individual service (with over 600 photographs, including most of the officer corps),
personal narratives, and technical detail found nowhere else, amplified by 49 maps and 164
line drawings, many by the author's talented son, the roster and index. It was largely
through such details that a new generation, re-enactors of the 1970s, were re-introduced
to Brown and his colleagues Photocopies were circulated. Forcing recognition by
re-enactment planners (much as Myer had had to do through an uncooperative bureaucracy),
they have caused the presence of the signal corps to come to the fore (witness the
signalman at work at Meade's headquarters in TNT's Gettysburg and the station in the
opening scene of Andersonville). Far less reason now to have to explain that Civil War
signalling (after the war known as "wig-wag") did not involve two small flags,
one in each hand!
The book treats the wartime history of the corps under two sections, the first devoted
to background, initial organization, training, and administration, details the equipment
and techniques, includes a chapter on the field telegraph and even an entire chapter on
their Confederate counterparts. The second part is divided by all twelve military
departments, and incorporates a wealth of personal detail and recollection useful to any
historian. (A favorite example: Trying to convince newly summons General Warren that there
were Confederates down in the woods below Little Round Top, and frustrated by his response
that he couldn't see them, the signal officer was evidently not displeased when rebel
gunners opened on them, nicking Warren in the neck. "Now do you see them?" he
Books of this nature can be expected to be heavy with praise and slighting of negative
aspects. Surprisingly, the signal veterans were frank in admission of shortcomings and
inadequacies. One negative having to do with their book is the lack of an
"adequate" index. This conceals the wealth of data it contains, but makes the
finding of "jewels" all the more rewarding from a careful reading.
The final transmission of the wartime signal corps was from the roof of army
headquarters (the extant Winder Building in Washington, D.C.) to a single station of the
once proud Army of the Potomac, across the river: "Sic transit gloria mundi,"
"thus passes the glory of the world." The glory of their wartime performance can
be relived in this volume so essential to any re-enactor, such a valuable addition to the
bookshelf (or to facilitate access while preserving a precious original). The Signal Corps
Association 1860 - 1865 is to be commended for again making available this story of the
- David Winfred Gaddy
(A co-author of Come Retribution: the Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination
of Lincoln, Mr. Gaddy is at work on a book about the Confederate Army's Signal Corps.)
A co-author of the award-winning Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and
the Assassination of Lincoln, David Winfred Gaddy is a long time student of Civil War
signaling, telegraphy, cryptography, and secret service activities. His specialty is the
Confederate side. He edited the Toomey Press reprint of Charles E. Taylor's The
Confederate Signal and Secret Service and wrote "William Norris and the Confederate
Signal and Secret Service" (Maryland Historical Magazine, reprinted in Paul J.
Scheips, ed., Military Signal Communications). His articles have appeared in Civil War
Times Illustrated, Gettysburg, Manuscripts, the Maryland Historical Magazine, and other
publications. He was consultant to the Time-Life Civil War series volume, Spies, Scouts
and Raiders and appeared on the A&E channel's Civil War series, dealing with
espionage. He has lectured before the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Virginia
Historical Society, and numerous other groups, and is a past president of the District of
Columbia Civil War Round Table. A biographical sketch is contained in Contemporary
Authors, vol. 129 (1990). p. 162.
The Signal Corps, U.S.A., in the War of the Rebellion. J. Willard Brown. Illustrated,
roster,index, 916 pp., 1996 centennial limited edition reprint.
Signal Corps Association 1860 - 1865 c/o Walter F. Mathers, 13 Beach Road, Glen Burnie,
Md 21060. $64.50 postage paid, Maryland Residents include 5% sales tax. No credit card
orders. Foreign orders extra.