Lanterns, Rockets and Wires:
Signalling in the American Civil War
~ By ~
Colonel Iain Standen
British Army, Royal Corps of Signals.
In the same way as aerial telegraphy ~ flagging and the other visual signalling methods required
some form of cipher, so did the telegraph. This was particularly important
as the telegraph was not beyond being intercepted. In September 1864 a rebel
operator got on a Union line pretending he was the regular USMT employee. Because
the interloper’s key signature was different, a USMT operator at another station
recognised what had happened and alerted the commanding officer. The latter
then fed the enemy operator misinformation about nearby Union forces. However,
to combat such attacks various methods of encryption were employed. In many
case considerable ingenuity and imagination were employed.
Below is one example thought to have been invented
by Lincoln himself.
“HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE U.S., CITY POINT (VA)
8:30 A.M., April 3, 1865
To CHARLES A. TINKER, War Dept., Washington, D. C.:
A Lincoln its in fume a in hymn to start I army treating
there possible if of cut too forward pushing is he so all Richmond aunt confide
is Andy evacuated Petersburg reports Grant morning this Washington Sec’y War.
(Signed) S. H. Beckwith.” 
At first glance a jumble of words but when the main text is
read backwards with emphasis on the phonetics of the words rather than their
spelling all is revealed:
Other codes were also employed including the Court Cipher
we saw earlier, in a constant battle to keep secrets secret!
War Secretary, Washington
This morning Grant reports Petersburg evacuated Andy (and he) is confide
aunt (confident) Richmond all so (also). Is pushing forward too (to) cut of
(off) if possible there treating (their retreating) army. I start to hymn (him)
in a fume in its (few minutes).
Whatever method was used to send a message, be it flags, lantern, rockets,
or telegraph there was still the issue of getting the message from the signal
station to the intended recipient. Therefore in order to disseminate the messages
there was a need to for local distribution capability. This invariably took
the form of couriers who would usually be mounted and would gallop off to the
appropriate headquarters to distribute a message once received and so complete
the deliver of the information process.
Having looked at the how signalling developed and how it was undertaken,
the following will now pick out a number of examples of the use of signalling
during the Civil War in order to illustrate how the various aspects so
far discussed all worked together. Then, concluding this section with a slightly
longer look at the Battle of Gettysburg and the use of signalling during it.
First an example from the valley, and from the Confederate
Signal Corps. The Official Records of the Civil war include an interesting
debrief of a Master Sergeant S. A Dunning a confederate signal sergeant, who
surrendered to Federals in the Shenandoah valley in February 1865. I will read
the opening section of his debriefing and using this map try to highlight the
locations to which he refers:
Statement of Sergt. S. A. Dunning, Signal
Corps, C. S. Army, attached to General Early's headquarters:
I entered the Federal lines Thursday,
February 2. I had with me another man at Pitman Point, at the extreme end of
the Massanutten Mountain, near Strasburg. Have been there about two months.
We had a very fine glass (captured from the Federal Army), with which we could
look into the streets of Winchester. No force can leave Winchester or go to
Strasburg, Front Royal, Ashby's Gap, or Snicker's Gap, or in any direction,
without being seen, except at night or rainy weather. We were on post from 8
a.m. until 3 p.m. Usually we boarded with Mr. Braush Mackintosh, near the signal
station. My companion will think that I am captured, as I told him I was going
on a scout.
There is a chain of signal stations,
all connecting with New Market, from which place a telegraph goes to General
Early's headquarters [This was at Sperryvillle]; There is a station;
on the mountain at Ashby's Gap, one at Hominy Hollow, on Bock's Hill, near Front
Royal; one at Burnt Springs, on Fort Mountain, opposite Honeyville, at Ed. Browman',
between Burnt Springs and New Market Gap, and the station at Pitman Point. I
am perfectly familiar with the rebel signal code.’
It would appear that he had a 24 man signal detatchment, which operated
from Pitman Point (sometimes referred to as Signal Knob) on Massanuttan Mountain
above Strasburg. They appeared to work in three shifts daily. Those not on
duty lived in a hotel at Burner's Springs (now 7 Fountains) in the Fort Valley
inside Massanuttan. The Warren County Historical Society once had the hotel
register wherein the proprietor kept an account for these troops for reimbursement
from the Confederate government. Here we see an excellent example of a fully
integrated intelligence gathering and communications system making use of both
visual signalling and telegraph.
It is perhaps worth making the point here that the Confederate
telegraph system was much less organized than the Union’s. There was a Military
Telegraph organization but like the Union’s staffed by civilians. It came under
the jurisdiction of the Postmaster General who for strategic reasons was put
in charge of all the commercial telegraphs within the Confederate States. In effect
the military telegraph just supplemented the existing telegraph infrastructure.
Unlike the Union, the Confederate Army did not have field telegraph capability.
The second example is the
Vicksburg Campaign. The following will briefly run through how the
Union Signal Corps supported the Union Army in that campaign.
|The Vicksburg Campaign - 1863|
On 7 April a line was opened from Grants HQ at Millikens’ bend through MacPherson’s
HQ to Osterhaus’ HQ at Richmond, and another pushed forward to New Carthage
. This system was used until the move forward to Grand Gulf. At this stage
all communication was by flag and in early May the senior Signal Corps officer,
Captain Ocran Howard telegraphed Myer for six signal trains i.e. field telegraph.
They were duly sent but did not arrive until after the fall of Vicksburg in
July 1863. On May 1st as the Battle of Port Gibson was being fought
a party of eight signal officers followed the Army forward and established signal
stations at Hard Times Landing, Bruinsburg and the shore opposite and ultimately
Grand Gulf. This network was put into immediate use supporting 17th
Army Corps’ crossing.
|Signal Deployment ~ Vicksburg|
Having consolidated itself in the bridgehead the Union Army moved out in a
North-Easterly direction. During this advance the US Signal Corps was very
much in the vanguard in its recent role. As the combat troops moved forward,
so did the signallers reporting back to their commanders and establishing stations
as they went at Raymond, Champions Hill and Bovina. Finally as the siege was
established round Vicksburg so a network of signal stations was also created
as we see here. These continued to provide important links between the various
parts of the Union force until the end of the siege on 4 July 1863. For its
work in this campaign the signal corps, and particular officers, received considerable
praise from the Union commanders.
My final example is the battle of Gettysburg, and I shall
look particularly at the US Signal Corps’ contribution in a little more detail.
Early on the morning of July 1st 1863 Lieutenant Aaron B. Jerome the signal
officer of Brigadier General John Buford’s lst Cavalry Division stood alone
in the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. He had arrived
in town the day before having travelled north with the division, providing intelligence
by observation, and communications through his signal detachment’s use of signal
flags. Buford had arrived in Gettysburg the previous day and had sent Jerome
to watch for the enemy. On the 30th June he used the large cupola
of the Pennsylvania College but on the 1st July chose to occupy the
smaller, higher cupola at the Lutheran Seminary. From this vantage point he
had an excellent field of view and spotted the advanced pickets of Major General
Henry Heth's Confederate division as they approached from Cashtown. He immediately
sent one of his couriers with word of the advance to Buford, who then joined
him in the cupola to watch the approaching Rebels.
Leaving Jerome to his duties, Buford, realising the importance of the position,
placed his two cavalry brigades on both sides of the Cashtown Road, in a line
blocking the advance of Heth's division. Jerome was an experienced young officer
who had served at Antietam, where he helped man the Elk Ridge Signal Station
(a picture of which we saw earlier), to Chancellorsville, where his signal party
had swum the Rappahannock River, carrying field telegraph wire. His value to
Buford was such that on 27 August 1863 in his post-Gettysburg report the general
wrote the following:
‘Lieutenant [Aaron B.] Jerome, signal corps, was ever on
the alert, and through his intrepidity and fine glasses on more than one occasion
kept me advised of the enemy's movements when no other means were available.’
He again reiterated
the same in a letter to Jerome in November 1863:
‘I have taken occasion to notice the practical working of the Signal Corps,
field, and regard it as a valuable auxiliary to an army. With the aid of their
powerful glasses, acting as both scouts and observers, the officers who have
acted with me have rendered invaluable service when no other means could be
availed. I regard their permanent organization as a matter of the first importance.’
As the battle progressed, Buford’s troopers, fighting dismounted on the ridges
to the North-West of the town, held there own but were in danger of being overrun
by the superior numbers of Heth's infantrymen. Jerome, now rejoined by Buford,
spotted a large body of Union infantry approaching from the south on Emmitsburg
Road and identified it to Buford as Major General John F. Reynolds' First Corps
by, allegedly, reading the Corps' flag through his glass. Reynolds was accompanied
by a few staff officers and quickly went about the business of deploying his
troops. He had just placed Brigadier General James Wadsworth's division in
the line near the McPherson farm, when he was killed by a sharpshooter's bullet.
Jerome later recalled that Buford wrote a dispatch to Meade in the lieutenant's
‘for God's sake send up Hancock, everything is going at odds, and we need
a controlling spirit’
Later, from the cupola, Jerome could see Major General Oliver Howard's headquarters
party on Cemetery Hill, having just arrived and assuming command of the field.
He then saw Robert E. Rodes' Confederate division approaching Oak Hill from
the north and threatening to flank the First Corps' right. He therefore sent
the following message to Howard’s signallers
Over a division of the rebels
is making a Bank movement on our right; the line extends over a mile, and is
There is nothing but cavalry
to oppose them.
A. B. Jerome 
As Union forces retreated through the town Jerome moved position to the steeple
on the Gettysburg Courthouse from where he could see the signal station supporting
Howard's Eleventh Corps position on East Cemetery Hill. This station was maintained
by Captains Paul Babcock and Thomas. R. Clarke and subsequently moved to the
western part of Cemetery Hill, where Hall's battery was located, and on the
evening of July 1st became the central station in the network of
stations supporting Meade’s army.
During the 1st July the Chief Signal Officer of the Army of the Potomac, Captain
Lemuel Norton, remained at the Army headquarters near Taneytown. He had been
instructed by Meade to:
"…examine the line thoroughly, and at once upon the commencement of
the movement extend telegraphic communications from each of the following viz,
general headquarters, near Frizeliburg, Manchester, Union Mills, Middleburg,
and Taneytown road." 
Norton made arrangements to send the field telegraph trains forward, but they
were never deployed onto the battlefield. It should be remembered that at this
stage the Signal Corps still had control of its own telegraph capability. Norton
was keen to get to the battlefield in order to place the various corps signal
parties about the field. The signal parties had been assigned to each of the
seven corps in order to facilitate their movement north from Virginia. Norton
also had a reserve of eight officers with their non-commissioned officers and
couriers that he could place where he could best influence proceedings. However,
before he could carry out any deployments he was directed by Meade's Chief of
Staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, that at dawn on July 2nd
he was to use this reserve to support the newly established headquarters.
In order to link the rear of the Army with the advanced headquarters near Cemetery
Hill he had posted a signal party at Indian Lookout, on the mountain behind
Emmitsburg, Maryland. Unfortunately because of the haze it was 11 p.m. before
communications were established, by torch, with the party on Little Round Top.
Meanwhile late on the night of July 1, a signal line was established from Emmittsburg
to Little Round Top, and on to Cemetery Hill. Early the following morning,
Lieutenant Jerome climbed the rocky northern edge of Little Round Top. Geary's
division had been removed to Culp's Hill and the signal party that had sent
torch signals to Emmitsburg had packed up and left with them. Jerome quickly
understood the importance of the position for signals and observation. Standing
on a large rock, he could see the Emmitsburg Road, Jack's Mountain, Cemetery
Hill, and General Meade's headquarters. Even without the use of his glass,
he could see signal parties occupying stations on Cemetery Hill and at Meade's
As Buford's troopers were occupying the area in front of Little Round Top and
serving as the screen for the left flank of Meade's army, Jerome could keep
his division commander informed of what he saw. However, he also realised the
importance of reporting anything significant to the signal party at the headquarters
station. He therefore began to observe the ground whilst his sergeant established
contact with the other two stations. Whilst Jerome was watching the battlefield,
Norton had arrived at the headquarters signal station, bringing the reserve
signal officers who had been at Taneytown. But upon arrival he found was pleased
to find that all the key sites on the battlefield had already been occupied
by officers who had arrived that morning or the day before in support of the
various corps. Therefore by midmorning on July 2nd, there were signal
officers on the Culp's Hill spur (now known as Stevens' Knoll), Power's Hill
where Major General Henry Slocum had his right wing headquarters, Cemetery Hill,
Little Round Top, and by the Widow Liester house where Meade’s headquarters.
The Headquarters was becoming very active as numerous couriers arrived with
messages from all parts of the field whilst General Butterfield, Meade’s Chief
of Staff, attempted to sort through the large amount of information as it arrived.
Meanwhile from his position on Little Round Top, Jerome continued to observe
the battlefield and shortly before midday saw Confederate skirmishers emerge
from the woods along Seminary Ridge. What he saw was three regiments of Alabamans
from Wilcox's brigade of Anderson's division. Jerome immediately told his sergeant
to send the following message to Butterfield:
2, 1863,11.45 A.M.
Enemy Skirmishers are advancing
from the west, one mile from here.
Minutes later Jerome saw Berdan's Sharpshooters under Lt. Col. Casper Trepp
come into contact with Wilcox's brigade. Jerome watched as Berdan's men fell
back toward the Union line and sent a second message to the headquarters:
Top Mountain Signal Station
2, 1863, 11.55 A.M.
The rebels are in force, and
our skirmishers give way. One mile west of Round Top Signal station the woods
are full of them.
Shortly after Jerome sending this message, he and his party left with General
Buford, who had been ordered to Westminster and played no further part in the
battle. At about the same time Captain Norton began moving about the field
to ensure that all the necessary points were covered and accompanied by Captain
Peter A. Taylor, who had been assigned to the 11th Corps, went to
Little Round Top.
With the departure of Jerome they found Little Round Top unoccupied and began
to scan the field. They observed the movement of the rest of Anderson's division,
which had been camped a mile west of Herr Ridge, and sent the following information
to Captain Hall who was with HQ 11th Corps:
Top Mountain Signal Station
Saw a column of the enemy's infantry
move into woods on ridge, three miles west of the town, near the Millerstown
road. Wagon teams, parked in open field beyond the ridge, moved to the rear
behind woods. See wagons moving up and down on the Chambersburg pike, at Spangler's.
Think the enemy occupies the range of hills three miles west of the town in
[P.S.]-This is a good point for
Shortly after receiving the message, Hall joined Taylor on Little Round Top,
and Norton left to go back to the headquarters station. Hall was the senior
signal officer for the Eleventh Corps and as such took charge of the signal
station, and remaining there made significant observations during the afternoon.
At this time Major General Lafayette McLaws and his division were leading the
long column of Lieutenant General James Longstreet's Corps, closely followed
by Major General John B Hood's division.
The column marched along Black Horse Tavern Road. McLaws was proceeding along
with Captain S. R. Johnston, the guide provided to show the way around the flank
of the Union Army. However, shortly after Blackhorse Tavern Road crosses the
Fairfield Road, it ascends the crest of Herr Ridge. As McLaws rode to the top
of the ridge he immediately halted the column. He could see the large white
flag that the signal detachment was waving on Little Round Top.
Indeed if you travel that route today it is still very obvious just what a
commanding view the signal station on Little Round Top actually had. McLaws
therefore quickly looked for another route and not finding one rode back to
the column where he found Longstreet and said:
‘Ride with me and I will show you that we can't go on this route, according
to instructions, without being seen by the enemy.’
This they did and McLaws insisted that the only way to avoid being seen by
the signal station was to counter- march. According to Col. E. P. Alexander,
now serving as Longstreet's artillery chief, this counter-march to avoid the
signal station cost the Confederates more than two hours in getting into position
opposite the Federal left. However, of all the officers in the Army of Northern
Virginia no two officers could be more qualified to realize the ability of the
signal station to obtain and transmit intelligence than Alexander and McLaws.
As you will recall Alexander had been a student of Albert Myer and had organized
the provisional Confederate Signal Corps, whilst McLaws had commanded a unit,
which Myer’s fledgling Signal Corps had supported during the western field trials
of the signal system in New Mexico in 1860.
At about 1.30 p.m Hall from his
vantage point at the Little Round Top signal station, spotted a large body of
"moving from opposite our extreme left toward our right." 
He signalled the information
to Butterfield at Meade’s headquarters. Some forty minutes later, he signalled
again with more information:
‘Those troops were passing on a by-road from Dr. Hall's House to Herr's Tavern,
on the Chambersburg Pike.’
What Hall appears to have been observing was elements of Longstreet's command,
very probably McLaws' division, counter-marching. It is not clear whether Butterfield
or Meade understood the significance of this piece intelligence, since it indicated
that the movement was toward the Federal right and not in the direction from
which the attack eventually come.
At 4 p.m. Hall sent another message
to Meade’s headquarters stating that:
‘The only infantry of the enemy
visible is on the extreme left; [that is Federal left] it has
been moving toward Emmitsburg.’
In his post-war report Brig.
Gen. Evander M. Law claims that this movement was the advance of his troops
into position just prior to his attack against Little Round Top.
At just after 4 p.m. Captains Hall and Taylor were alone with their signal
party on Little Round Top. They were then joined by Brigadier General Gouverneur
K. Warren, with his aides, Lieutenants Chauncey B. Reese and Ronald S. Mackenzie.
At his own suggestion Warren had been sent by Meade to recce the Round Tops.
It is not clear whether the messages about troop movements opposite the Federal
left had an impact on Meade's decisions to send Warren, but it certainly appears
that the by now he had considerable evidence that there was movement on his
Two very different accounts exist of what actually took place on Little Round
Top that afternoon. The most quoted source is a letter from Warren to a Captain
Porter Farley dated July 13, 1872 in which Warren recalls that, with the exception
of a signal station, there were no troops on Little Round Top. He also states
‘…this was the key of the whole position and that our troops in the woods
in front of it could not see the ground in front of them, so that the enemy
would come upon them before they would be aware of it.’
Warren then states that he requested
that a rifled battery in front of the position (Smith's 4th New York) to fire
a shot and when they did so, Warren could see the
"glistening of gun barrels and bayonets of the enemy's line of battle."
He makes no mention of the messages sent from Hall to Meade, or Butterfield,
or the fact that the signal officers told him that the woods were occupied by
Longstreet's men. The other version of events is provided by J. Willard Brown,
historian of the U.S. Veteran Signal Corps Association, and a friend and associate
of James Hall. According to Brown’s monumental history of the Signal Corps,
Hall had a difficult time trying to convince Warren there were Confederate troops
opposite the position, and I quote Hall’s version of events:
‘While the discussion was in progress the enemy opened on the station. The
first shell burst close to the station, and the general, a moment later, was
wounded in the neck. Captain Hall then exclaimed, 'Now do you see them?’ 
Conflicts in the accounts of survivors of Civil War battles were common, indeed
this is the case for most wars. Many of you will, I am sure, all recall Wellington’s
comment on the subject
‘The history of a battle in not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals
may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle
won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact
moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value
or importance.’ 
In truth the answer is probably somewhere in the middle of the two versions.
I find it difficult to believe Warren would come to the signal station and Hall
would not tell him of the troop movements he had observed. However, it would
not be unreasonable for a general to check this information by personal observation.
Regardless of which version is correct the fact is that Warren stayed near the
signal station as the battle for Little Round Top opened. Hall would leave
the position later that afternoon having been ordered to report to Major General
In the meantime the other signal stations were also busy reporting intelligence
to the headquarters. At 4:35 p.m., Lieutenant. N. Henry Camp, who was set up
near HQ of Wadsworth’s Division on Cemetery Ridge reported sharpshooters in
the woods at the foot of Culp's Hill. He also reported at least two batteries
of artillery, which were not yet in position. Captain Edward C. Pierce and Lt.
George J. Clarke had marched from Westminster, Maryland, with the Sixth Corps
and arrived at Gettysburg at about 2 p.m. After waiting for some three hours,
the corps was positioned in support of the Federal left. Pierce learned that
the signal station on Little Round Top had been abandoned and decided to occupy
it. He and his men positioned themselves on the rocks (to the right of Hazlett's
battery) in the same spot Hall had occupied. As night fell on 2nd
July the battlefield, all of the key positions for signalling were again occupied.
At dawn on the 3rd July Captain Pierce and his party started observing the
field and began sending messages by couriers to Meade and various corps commanders.
The party could not use flags to signal because of the devastatingly accurate
fire from sharpshooters positioned behind the rocks at Devil's Den. Pierce
reported that seven men, including some officers, were killed or wounded near
the signal station. The Sixth Corps signal party was later joined by Lieutenants
J. C. Wiggins and N. H. Camp from the First Corps who also helped make observations
and used their couriers to send messages. Brigadier General Warren returned
to the signal station about 2 p.m. and tasked the signal officers with watching
specific points and reporting back to General Meade. Thus as Longstreet's soldiers
began to come out of the woods on Seminary Ridge to commence what is now known
as ‘Pickett’s Charge’ couriers from the signal station reported it to Meade's
headquarters which as a result of the Confederate cannonade was eventually forced
to move from the Leister House to Powers Hill.
After the repulse of the Pickett’s Charge, several corps commanders and Meade
visited Pierce and his signal party on Little Round Top. Indeed the station
was to remain active until July 6. Later in the evening of July 3, Meade again
moved his headquarters. It was established in a strip of woods on the Taneytown
Road, and a signal station was established there to maintain contact with the
other stations on the field. As the battle closed Captain Norton was busy placing
his signal parties so that they could make observations of the enemy and on
July 4, Hall moved into the town with Sergeants Chemberlin and Goodnough, and
climbed to the top of the courthouse steeple. He later moved to the cupola
on the Pennsylvania College and at 5:40 a.m. on July 5 he reported
‘…that the enemy had evacuated the position they held yesterday’ 
Norton terminated all of the signal stations with the exception of Little Round
Top, the Courthouse, Cemetery Hill, and Meade's headquarters and on July 6 all
the stations were discontinued as the army moved south toward Frederick. The
closure of the last signal station marked the end of signal activity at the
Battle of Gettysburg, although the signalmen would later make a significant
contribution near Boonsboro in support of the Army of the Potomac's pursuit
of the Confederates south of Hagerstown.
The Union Signal Corps' contribution during the Battle of Gettysburg
has been generally underestimated. It has long been agreed upon, that fear of observation,
from the Little Round Top signal station was the reason for Longstreet's counter-march
on the 2nd July. However the intelligence that the signal parties
provided to the senior commanders all over the battlefield is often not fully
appreciated. What is also important to remember is that the senior signals
officer present was only a captain and that considerable motivation, cooperation,
and dedication on the part of the signalmen was necessary in order to provide
the command structure with intelligence and command and control communications.
~ Lieutenant Colonel Iain Standen