1860 ~ 1865

Flags, Lanterns, Rockets and Wires:
Signalling in the American Civil War

~ By ~

Lieutenant Colonel Iain Standen
British Army, Royal Corps of Signals.

Albert James Myer

Organized military signalling in the United States owes its birth to this man, one Albert James Myer.  Born in Newburgh, New York State on the 20th September 1827, Myer studied at Hobart College, Geneva, New York and in 1851 graduated as a Medical Doctor.  After practicing as a physician for three years he gained a commission in the Regular Army as an assistant surgeon.  He served in New Mexico and it is alleged that his ideas for a military signalling system were first formulated by watching Comanches making signals with their lances to other groups of Indians on adjacent hills.  His interest in the subject of signalling occupied much of his spare time and he eventually devised a system of signals for which he took out a patent.  In 1858 a board was convened to look at Myer’s ideas and as a result experiments were initiated by the Secretary of War.  In these trials Myer was helped by two Lieutenants, Walworth Jenkins and one Edward Porter Alexander (more of whom later.)

In 1859 the Secretary of War commended Myer’s system to Congress. As a result the following bill was passed:

‘For the manufacture or purchase of apparatus and equipment for field signals $2,000; 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.’[1]

Edward Porter Alexander

In July 1860 a General Order was issued appointing Major Myer the first signal officer in the US Army.  Myer gathered together a small nucleus of men and on 25th November 1860, having completed a course of instruction, he marched from Fort Defiance, Arizona to Fort Fauntleroy, New Mexico with a fledgling signal party consisting of himself, two other officers and sixteen men.  The purpose of the march was to practice and test the signalling procedures, and gave Myer the chance to continue their development.  He remained in New Mexico until June 1861 and his soldiers accompanied a number of patrols and expeditions, during which they had ample opportunity to practice and demonstrate the value of Myer’s signalling system.  In December 1860 a movement in force in the area below Zuni, New Mexico was planned.  The movement would be by two columns.  The first one, under a Colonel Canby, would be accompanied by Major Myer and a Lieutenant Wagner. The other column would be commanded by a Captain Lafayette McLaws of the 7th Infantry, and was accompanied by Lieutenant Rich as his signals officer.  This expedition gave McLaws the opportunity to see the signal troops in action and to gain first hand experience of their value, which was to prove significant some three years later at Gettysburg – but more of that later.

On the 6th May 1861 Myer was relived of his duties in New Mexico and ordered to proceed to Washington to make a report on his activities.  He duly reported to General Scott at the Headquarters of the Army in New York, but as Washington was about to become the base for future operations it was to there that he was directed and on 3rd May he set about establishing his base.  By June 1861 Myer had organized a Camp of Instruction at Red Hill in Georgetown in order to train signallers.  He also established an Executive Department or headquarters for the Chief Signals Officer at 158F Street.  The primary purpose of the Executive Department was as a place where the Chief Signal officer could work in peace away from the Camp of Instruction.  It eventually also appears to have acted as a recruiting office for the US Signal Corps when it was formally formed 2 years later.  However, between 1861 and then, the embryonic Corps progressed well, grew in size and its creation was formally recognised in an Act of Congress in March 1863. 

In parallel Edward Porter Alexander had resigned his commission in the US Army at the start of the war and joined the Confederate Army where he was initially placed in charge of its own emerging signal corps.  He would stay in this role until after First Manassas, but would ultimately go on to be the Chief of Ordnance of the Army and turned over his signalling duties to a Captain William Norris  (who would ultimately rise to the rank of Colonel).  The Confederate Army was in fact ahead of the Union Army in formally establishing a Signal Corps, and did so on the 19th April 1862 when the Southern Congress authorized the President to appoint ten lieutenants or captains and ten infantry sergeants to a signal corps, that could be attached either to the Engineer Corps or to the Adjutant and Inspector General’s Department, as he thought best (in fact the latter was chosen.)  As a result, Army Headquarters in Richmond issued General Order No. 40 on the 29th May 1862.  This declared that:

‘A signals officer will be attached to the staff of each general or major general in command of a corps, and of a major general in command of a division.  These signal officers will each be assisted by as many signals sergeants, and instructed non-commissioned officers and privates, selected from the ranks for their intelligence and reliability, as circumstances may require; and as many lance sergeants as are required may be appointed’[2]

On the 27th September 1862, the Confederate Congress authorized an increase in the Corps to include one major, ten first and ten second lieutenants, and 20 more sergeants.  All told during the Civil War, 61 officers were commissioned as signals officers, and some 1,500 men were detached from other branches to serve in the Confederate Signal Corps.  In the field they were formed into squads of three to five mounted men commanded by a lieutenant or sergeant, and assigned to an infantry division, cavalry brigade or corps headquarters.

The formation of signal corps in both the Union and Confederate armies was a significant step and put them both well ahead of other nations.  In the United Kingdom the first formal signalling organization was the Telegraph Battalion, Royal Engineer formed in 1884 following the success of ‘C’ Telegraph Troop Royal Engineers, which had been formed in 1870.  However, it was not until 1920 that a dedicated signalling organization, the Royal Corps of Signals would be formed.  In France a similar pattern emerged with the formation of the Engineers Telegraphic in 1871 but the formation of an independent Signal Service did not happen until one was created in the Vichy French Army in 1942.  Whilst in Germany many of the pre-unification states such as Prussia and Bavaria had formed telegraph detachments within their Engineers in the 1870s, but it was not until 1899 that the German Army has its own signal corps.

The organization of both signal corps was, in the early stages, somewhat erratic but as time developed a formal structure was put in place.  To give you an idea of the size of organization we are talking about, by 1863 a Union Army HQ of two or more corps would typically have:

  • One Captain, Chief Signal Officer of that Army
  • One Lieutenant, Adjutant and Officer in charge of Records
  • One Lieutenant, Quartermaster, Ordnance Officer and Property Officer
  • Three sergeants as clerks
  • Six First-Class Privates as assistant Clerks, flagmen and escorts
  • Two sergeants in charge of reserve camp, depot and stores
  • Four First-Class Privates in charge of stores and repairs
  • Second-Class Privates detailed, three from each Corps party,to guard the reserve camp and in charge of depot trains on the march

        A total of about 24 or so personnel

        An Army Corps would have:

  • One Captain, Chief Signal Officer of that Corps
  • One Sergeant Clerk
  • One Sergeant as Quartermaster and Commissary Sergeant of the Corps party and in charge of train
  • Eight Lieutenants (based on a three or four brigade division)
  • Five Sergeants
  • Ten First Class Privates
  • Thirty-four Second Class privates

        A total of some 60 personnel

        By the end of the war the US Signal Corps numbered some 300 officers and 2,500 men. 

There were essentially two types of signal organization in the Civil War: visual signalling using either flags, torches or rockets, and the telegraph – more of which later.  The former is, I suspect, what most people will be familiar with, and in particular flag signalling or in modern terms 'wig-wag'.  This was based on the concept of signal stations on high ground which could see each other and, by creating a chain along adjacent pieces of high ground, could pass messages swiftly from A to B to C and so on.  However the situation was somewhat more complex.  Signal stations took two forms: stations of observation whose purpose was to observe and report upon a particular piece of terrain or look out for the enemy, and stations of communication whose role was solely to pass messages.  The importance of the former cannot be overstated and is often overlooked.  As this quote from George Armstrong Custer in a letter dated December 1863, to Captain Lemuel Norton, then the Chief Signals Officer of the Army of the Potomac well illustrates, many Civil War generals were only too aware of the importance of their signal troops:

‘An army can have no better outpost, from which to watch the movements of the enemy, than a signal station; and with a practiced signal officer at such a position, no force can move without being detected.’ [3]

Custer clearly understood the value of properly deployed signal troops and numerous examples exist of how they were invaluable in this role.  Indeed a very early example happened at the First Manassas and involved the signal troops of the Confederate Army under the command of Edward Porter Alexander, who takes up the story:

William Norris

        ‘ I went to Manassas about the first of July, selected a set of clever young fellows, drilled them, and put the system into operation.

        Very early in the morning of the 21st, from my main station on the hill by Willcoxen’s house, in the rear of our right near Union Mills Ford, I was watching the flag of our station at Stone Bridge, when in the distant edge of the field of view of my glass, a gleam caught my eye.  It was the reflection of the sun (which was low in the east behind me), from a polished brass field piece, one of Ayres’s Battery.  Observing attentively, I discovered McDowell’s column in the open field north of Sudley’s Ford crossing Bull Run and turning our left flank, fully eight miles away, I think. I signalled Evans at once:

        “ Look out for your left. Your position is turned.”

        “ At the same time I sent a message of what I had seen to Johnston and Beauregard, who were at Mitchell’s Ford, on receipt of which (see Johnston’s report) Bee, Hampton, and Stonewall Jackson were all hurried in that direction. The history of the battle tells how they successfully delayed McDowell’s progress, till finally the tide was turned by the arrival of troops in the afternoon.’ [4]

First Manassas

        Beauregard’s own report of the battle echoes Alexander’s report:

        “ Capt. E. P. Alexander, C. S. Engineers, gave me seasonable and material assistance early in the day with his system of signals. Almost the first shot fired by the enemy (Ayres’s Battery) passed through the tent of his party at Stone Bridge, where they subsequently firmly maintained their position in the discharge of their duty - the transmission of messages of the enemy’s movements – for several hours under fire.” [5]

        You will note that at this stage Alexander is still referred to as a Confederate States Engineer as the Signal Corps had not been formally formed.  The key point to note here is that by virtue of his location and equipment (which we will look at in more detail shortly) Alexander and his men were very well placed to be the eyes of the Confederate Army on that day.

        Now let us look at exactly what equipment and procedures were used to carry out these signalling tasks. 

        Myer’s greatest success was his system of visual signalling. 

This system used flags by day and torches or lantern by night.  These were waved from side using a code that translated letters into numbers, which then corresponded to movements of the flags.  There were two different translation codes: a four element code and two element code



All Union signal officers had to memorize the four-element code, and were sworn to protect it.  The sergeant in a signal party, who had the responsibility of signalling with the flag, did so as the officer called out numbers indicating which way the signal flag was to be swung.  The sergeants were not given the code, but by mid-1863 many Union signalmen had learned it through repeated use!

The Confederate Signal Corps, which did not follow the Union practice of trying to limit knowledge of the code to just officers, had all signalmen instructed. (This enabled a detailed private to serve as Stonewall Jackson's signal "officer" at Harper's Ferry in Sept. 1862, when the captain was out of action--no Signal Seargent was needed to tell him what to do to send messagess, whereas, theoretically, a Union enlisted-man would have been incapable, if his officer were unavailable.)

The signalling was done with one of a number of different sorts of flags.  These were usually made of cotton or linen and were either 6, 4 or 2 feet square.  These in turn were either red, white or black with a contrasting square in the middle i.e. red on white, white on black or white on red.  The white flag was generally used in most conditions.  The Black flag was usually used when the signalman was working against a sky backdrop, whilst the red was usually used at sea.

Signal Flags and Equipment

You can see from this picture (Right), the equipment required to be carried by a signal party.

In particular you should note:

  • Flags - as already discussed.
  • Poles - 4 x Hickory poles, 4-ft long and jointed like a fishing rod.
  • Torch - Copper cylinder with reservoir for fuel and a wick.
  • Canteen and Service Can - for carrying tourch and lantern fuel in 1/2 and 5 gallon amounts.
  • Case and haversack - for storage.
  • Funnel, pliers, wormer and shears - for filling and trimming torches.
  • And finally the kit case - to house it all.

In selecting a signal station it was chosen principally for its characteristics as a place of communication.  The flagman would ideally be operating against a background of the same colour all round so that a watching station had the best opportunity to read his signal.  This would generally lead the signal parties to choose high exposed rocky outcrops or hills where they could get above the line of the treetops.  Signal stations could be ad hoc with the signallers finding themselves a suitable piece of terrain or building from which to work.  Good examples of this are the Union Signal Corps use of Little Round Top, and the use by both sides of Lutheran Seminary, during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Painting of Confederate Signal Station at Gettysburg

This picture (Left) of a modern painting shows the use of the Lutheran Seminary by Confederate signallers.  Indeed it was used by both sides during the battle and well illustrates the initiative and opportunism that was necessary amongst signal troops in order to find the best location from which to both observe and signal.  In other circumstances when more time was available, or a station was to be of a more permanent nature, a more substantial structures would be constructed.  Picture (Below Right) shows the Union signal station on Elk Mountain, Maryland during the Antietam campaign of 1862, which has clearly been constructed from logs found locally.  If a station was to occupy a location for an extended period of time an even more permanent structure may be employed.  The tower shown here was constructed at Cobbs Hill Virginia in 1864 and shows to what lengths the signallers would go in order to provide communications and observation.  Finally we have the Central Signal Station on the Winder Building in Washington DC, where a purpose built hut was located on an existing building.

Union Elk Mountian, Maryland, Signal Station

You should note the exposed position the Signal Corps would have to adopt to, in order to be seen by the receiving station.

As mentioned earlier, at night the flags were replaced by torches or lanterns, fuelled by turpentine, which were moved in the same manner as the flags. A foot tourch was used as a referance point, fixed directly in front of the flagman. As you can imagine, the so called ‘Flying Torches’ made an impressive sight, although I cannot help thinking that the impact on the human eye might have been somewhat like that on the camera, with waves of the torch merging, and making the reading of the message very difficult!

This might of course have been helped by the use of telescopes and glasses.  Indeed in order to see the signals from a distant station Signal Corps officers were issued with powerful telescopes.  These telescopes were the best that were available at the times, with a focal length of 26 inches and 30 times magnification and it is claimed that they could read the flag signals from distant stations up to 20 miles away on a good day.  When carrying out an observation role rather than just acting as a communications station signal officers would use binoculars which although less powerful allowed them a wider field of vision with which to watch their designated area of observation.  Again it has been claimed that even using binoculars signal officers could observe signals from other stations up to 10 miles away on a clear day.

Cobbs Hill signal tower, Cobb Hill, Virgina, 1864 Central Signal Station, Washington
Signal Corps Telescope

PART I        PART II        PART III

[1]               The Signal Corps in the War of Rebellion by  J Willard Brown, US Veteran Signal Corps Association, 1896, page 21.


[2]               Brown, page 208.

[3]               Ibid, page 198.

[4]               Ibid, page 43.

[5]               Ibid, page 45.

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