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Signal Service

Yes, there were flags in the army, which talked for the soldiers, and I cannot furnish a more entertaining paper than one which will describe how they did, when they did it, and what they did it for. True, all of the flags used in the service told stories of their own. What more eloquent than "Old Glory," with its thirteen stripes, reminding us of our small beginning as a nation, its blue field, originally occupied by the cross of the English flag when Washington first gave it to the breeze in Cambridge, but replaced later by a cluster of stars, which keep a tally of the number of States in the Union. What wealth of history its subsequent career as the national emblem suggests, making it almost vocal with speech. The corps, division, and brigade flags, too, told a little story of their own. But there were other flags, whose sole business it was to talk to one another, and the stories they told were immediately written down for the benefit of the soldiers or sailors. These flags were SIGNAL FLAGS, and the men who used them, and made them talk were known in the Service as the SIGNAL CORPS.

What was this corps for? Well, to answer that question at length would make quite a story, but, in brief, I may say that it was for the purpose of rapid and frequent communication between different portions of the army or naval forces. The army might be engaged with the enemy, on the march, or in camp, yet these signal men, with their flags, were serviceable in either situation, and in the former often especially so; but I will begin at the beginning, and present a brief sketch of the origin of the Signal Corps.

The system of signals used in both armies during the Rebellion originated with one man- Albert J. Myer, who was born in Newburg, N.Y. He entered the army as an assistant surgeon, and, while on duty in New Mexico, the desirability of some better method of rapid communication than that of messenger impressed itself upon him. One of the officers, whom Myer had instructed in signalling while in New Mexico, went over to the enemy when the war broke out and originated the corps for them. (E.P. Alexander)


As soon as the value of the idea had fairly penetrated the brains of those whose appreciation was needed to make it of practical value, details of men were made from the various regiments around Washington, and placed in camps of instruction to learn the use of the "Signal Kit". The chief article in this kit was a series of seven flags, varying from two to six feet square. Three of these flags, one six feet, one four feet, and one two feet square, were white, and had each a block of red in the center one-third the dimensions of the flag; that is, a flag six feet square had a center two feet square; two flags were black with white centers, and two were red with white centers. When the flags were in use, they were tied to a staff, whose length varied with the size of the flag to be used. If the distance to signal was great, or obstruction intervened, a long staff and a large flag were necessary; but the four-foot flag was the one in most common use.

It will be readily inferred that the language pf these flags was to be addressed to the eye and not the ear. To make that language plain, then, they must be distinctly seen by the persons whom they addressed. (see Line of Sight) Next I will explain why the flags were of different colors. In making signals, the color of the flag to be used depended upon the color of the background against which it was to appear. For example, a white flag, even with its red center, could not be easily seen against the shy as a background. In such a situation a black flag was necessary. With a green or dark colored background the white flag was used, and in fact this was the flag of the signal corps, having been used, in all probability, nine times out of every ten that signals were made.

Before the deaf and dumb could be taught to talk, certain motions were agreed upon to represent particular ideas, letters, and figures. In like manner, a key, or code was constructed which interpreted the motions of the signal flag, - for it talked by motions,- and in accord with which the motions were made. (see Myers Two Element Code)

Let us join a signal party for the sake of observing the method of communicating a message. Such a party, if complete, was comprised of three persons, viz., the signal officer (commissioned) in charge, with a telescope and fieldglass; the flagman, with his signal kit, and an orderly to take charge of the horses, if the station was only temporary, or to provide relief of the flagman, as may be required. The point selected from which to signal must be a commanding position, whether a mountain, a hill, a tree-top, or a house-top. The station having been attained, the flagman takes position, and the officer sweeps the horizon and intermediate territory with his telescope to discover another signal station, where a second signal party is posted.

Having discovered such a station, the officer directs his flagman to "call for attention" that station. This is done by signalling 1 and 2 repeatedly or by signalling the number of the station (as each station had a number), repeatedly until his signal is seen and answered. It was the custom at stations to keep a man on lookout, with a telescope, for signals constantly. Having got the attention of the opposite station, the officer sends his message. The flagman did not need to know the import of the message, which he waved out with his flag. The officer called the numerals, and the flagman responded with the required motions almost automatically, when well practiced (see: siganlling from a tower). There were a few words and syllables which were conveyed by a single motion of the flag; but, as a rule, the words had to be spelled out letter by letter, at least by beginners. Skilled signalists, however, used many abbreviations, and rarely found it necessary to spell out a word in full.


So much for the manner of sending a message. Now let us join the party at the station where the message is being received. There we simply find the officer sitting at his telescope reading the message being sent to him. Should he fail to understand any word, his own flagman signals an interruption or error, and asks for a repetition of the signal from the last word understood. Such occurrences were not frequent, however.

The services of the Signal Corps were just as needful and valuable by night as in daylight; but, as flags could not then talk understandingly, Talking Torches or lamps were substituted for them. As a "point of reference" was needful, by which to interpret the torch signals made, the flagman lighted a "foot torch", at which he stood firmly while he signalled with the "flying torch". This latter was attached to a staff of the same length as the flagstaff, in fact, usually the flagstaff itself. These torches were of copper, and filled with turpentine. At the end of a message the flying torch was extinguished.

The rapidity with which messages were sent by experienced operators was something wonderful to the uneducated looker-on. An ordinary message of a few lines can be sent in just a minute's time, and the rate of speed increases where officers have worked long together, and understand each other's methods and abbreviations.

Signal messages have been sent twenty-eight miles; but that is exceptional. The conditions of the atmosphere and the location of the stations were seldom favorable to such long distant signalling. Ordinarily, messages were not sent more than six or seven miles, but there were exceptions. Here is a familiar but noted one:

In the latter part of September, 1864, the Rebel army under Hood set out to destroy the railroad communications of Sherman, who was then at Atlanta. The latter soon learned that Allatoona was the objective point of the enemy. As it was onlyheld by a small brigade, whereas the enemy was seen advancing upon it in much superior numbers, Sherman signalled a despatch from Vining's Station to Kenesaw, and from Kenesaw to Allatoona, whence it was again signalled to Rome. It requested General Corse, who was at the latter place, to hurry back to the assistance of Allatoona. Meanwhile, Sherman was propelling the main body of his army in the same direction. On reaching Kenesaw, "the signal officer reported," says Sherman, in his Memoirs, "that since daylight he had failed to obtain any answer to his call for Allatoona; but while I was with him he caught a faint glimpse of the tell-tale flag through an embrasure, and after some time made out these letters:

"C - R - S - E - 3 -H - E - R"

and translated the message Corse is here. It was a source of great relief, for it gave me the first assurance that General Corse had received his orders, and that the place was adequately garrisoned."

It was later reported by General corse that the distance between the two stations was about sixteen miles in an air line. Several other messages later passed between these stations, among them this one, which has been often referred to:

ALLATOONA, Georgia, Oct. 6, 1864 - 2 P. M.

Captain L. M. DAYTON, Aide-de-Camp:-

I am short a cheek-bone and an ear, but am able to whip all hell yet. My losses are heavy. A force moving from Stilesboro to Kingston gives me some anxiety. Tell me where Sherman is.

JOHN M. CORSE, Brigadier-General

The occasions which called the Signal Corps into activity were various, but they were most frequently employed in reporting the movements of troops, sometimes of the Union, sometimes of the enemy. They took post on elevated stations, whether a hill, a tall tree, or the top of a building (See: cupola). Any position from which they could command a broad view of the surrounding country was occupied for their purpose. If nature did not always provide a suitable place for lookout, art came to the rescue, and signal towers of considerable height were built for this class of workers, who, like the cavalry, were the "eyes" of the army if not the ears. Several of these towers stood before Petersburg in 1864. They were of especial use there in observing the movements of troops within the enemy's lines, they stood from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet high. Although these towers were erected somewhat to the rear of the Union main lines, and were a very open trestling, they were yet a conspicuous target for the enemy's long-range guns and mortar-shells.
Matt Dale, 1st Section, US Signal Corps, Department of New York (SCARD)
2006 Tower Signalling
Reenactment- Macedon, NY

Sometimes the nerve of the flagman was put to a very severe test, as he stood on the summit of one of these frail structures waving his flag, his situation too like that of Mahomet's coffin, while the Whitworth bolts whistled sociably by him, saying "Where is he? Where is he?" or by another interpretation, "Which one? Which one?". Had one of these bolts hit a corner post of the tower, the chances for the flagman and his lieutenant to reach the earth by a new route would have been favorable, although the engineers who built them claimed that with THREE posts cut away the tower would still stand. But, as a matter of fact, no shot ever seriously injured one of the towers, though tons of iron must have been hurled at them. The roof of the Avery House, before Petersburg, was used for a signal station, and the shells of the enemy's guns often tore through below, much to the alarm of the signal men above.

Signalling was carried on during an engagement between different parts of the army. By calling for needed re-enforcements, or giving news of their approach, or requesting ammunition, or reporting movements of the enemy, or noting the effects of shelling, in these and a hundred kindred ways the corps made their services invaluable to the troops, and the war efforts. Sometimes signal officers on shore communicated with others on shipboard (see: Tug Signals), and in one instance, Lieutenant Brown stated that through the information he imparted to a gunboat off suffolk, in 1863, regarding the effects of the shot which were thrown from it, General Longstreet had since written him that the fire was so accurate he was compelled to withdraw his troops. The signals were made from the tower of the Masonic Hall in Suffolk, whence they were taken up by another signal party on the river bluff, and thence communicated to the gunboat by signal flag relay.

Not long since, General Sherman, in conversation, alluded to a correspondent of the New York "Herald" whom he had threatened to hang, declaring that had he done so his "death would have saved ten thousand lives". The relation of this anecdote brings out another interesting phase of signal corps operations. It seems that one of our signal officers had succeeded in reading the signal code of the confederates, and had communicated the same to his fellow officers. With this code in their possession, the Union Signal Corps was enabled to furnish valuable information directly from Rebel headquarters, by reading the Confederate Signal Corps flag, continuing to do so during the Chattanooga and much of the Atlanta campaign, when the Confederate signal flags were often plainly visible. Suddenly this source of information was completely cut off by the ambition of the correspondent to publish all the news, and the natural result was that the Confederates changed the code. This took place just before Sherman's attack on Kenesaw Mountain (June, 1864), and it is to the hundreds slaughtered there that he probably refers. General Thomas was ordered to arrest the reporter, and have him hanged as a spy; but Thomas' kind heart banished him to the north of Ohio for the remainder of the war instead. (See: Signal Corps Hoax Message)

When Sherman's headquarters were at Big Shanty, there was a signal station located in his rear, on the roof of an old gin-house, and the signal officer there, having the "key" to the Confederate signals, reported to Sherman that he had intercepted and translated this signal message from Pine Mountain to Marietta; "Send an ambulance for General Polk's body," which was the first tidings received by the Union that the fighting bishop has been slain. He was hit by a shell from a volley of artillery fired by order of General Sherman.

To the men in the other arms of the service, who saw this mysterious and almost continuous waving of flags, it seemed as if every motion was fraught with momentous import. "What could it all be about?" they would ask one another. A signal station was located, in '61-62, on the top of what was known as the Town Hall (since burned) in Poolesville, Md., within a few rods of a company camp, it seemed to the men their that not an hour of the day passed without flag-waving from that point. The men there did not seem at all fraternal, but kept aloof, as if they feared they might, in an unguarded moment, impart some of the important secret information, which had been received by them from the station at Sugar Loaf Mountain or Seneca. As history shows, their apparently excited and energetic performances were, for the most part, only practice between stations for the purpose of acquiring familiarity with the code, and facility in using it.

It may be thought that the duties of the Signal Corps were always performed in positions where their personal safety was never imperiled. But that was far from the fact. At the battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864, a signal officer had climbed a tall pine tree, for the purpose of directing the fire of a section of Union artillery, which was stationed at its foot, the country being so wooded and broken that the artillerists could not see the position of the enemy. The officer nailed a succession of cleats up the trunk, and was on the platform which he had made in the top of the tree, acting as signal officer, when the confederates made a charge, capturing the two guns, and shot the officer dead at his post. From the important nature of the duties, which they performed, the enemy (on both sides) could not look upon them with very tender regard, and this fact they made apparent on every opportunity.

When General Nelson's division arrived at Shiloh, Lieutenant Joseph Hinson, commanding the Signal Corps attached to it, crossed the Tennessee and reported to General Buell, after which he established a station on that side of the river, from which messages were sent having reference to the disposition of Nelson's troops, a crowd of stragglers soon arrived. Here is Lieut. Hinson's first hand account of the incident, depicted in the opening picture of this article:

Lieutenant Hinson

Our Station was on a high bank of the river, in the midst of a great crowd of stragglers, who troubled us a good deal by getting in our way. To avoid them we cleared a circular space about thirty feet in diameter, and pressed guards from among the stragglers, who were only to glad to have an excuse to be there, and to our short lieutenant (Hart) was delegated the duty of keeping the space clear, while messages were sent and received.

It was while receiving a message that Generals Grant and Buell rode down to the river to see how Nelson's troops were getting along, and Gen. Buell, either by accident or knowledge of our presence, rode off to one side, while Gen. Grant rode into the very center of our working space and deliberately stopped his horse to take a look across the river, the guards doubtless recognizing the commanding general offered no protest. Just at this moment Lieutenant Hart, turning suddenly from another direction, caught sight of a horse and boot-leg, and visions of straggling cavalrymen, who had already troubled him, gathered up before him, and he marched squarely up to the horse, and addressing the boot-leg, said "GIT OUT OF THE WAY THERE; AIN'T YOU GOT NO SENSE! DON'T YOU SEE YOU'RE IN THE WAY?"

Lieutenant Hart

The commanding general looked down and saw an officer in staff uniform, who seemed for some reason very anxious to have him "git out of the way," and apologizing in a very quiet manner, rode over beside Gen. Buell. The lieutenant, astonished at the apology, followed the line of vision from the boot-leg upward, and found he had been addressing a major-general, and for once in his life he had nothing to say. He admits there was a surprise at Shiloh.

After arriving before the assault on Fort McAllister, General Sherman sent General Hazen down the right bank of the Ogeechee to take the fort, and he himself rode down the left bank to a rice plantation, where General Howard had established a signal station to overlook the river and watch for vessels. The station was built on the top of a rice-mill. From this point the fort was visible, three miles away. In due time a commotion in the fort indicated the approach of Hazen's troops, and the signal officer discovered a signal flag about three miles above the fort, which he found was Hazen's, the latter inquiring if Sherman was there. He was answered affirmatively, and informed that Sherman expected the fort to be carried before night. Finally Hazen signalled that he was ready, and was told to go ahead. Meanwhile, a small Union steamer had been descried coming up the river, and, noticing the party at the rice-mill, the following dialogue between signal flags ensued:

Who are you?

General Sherman.

Is Fort McAllister taken?

Not yet; but it will be in a minute.

And in a few minutes it was indeed taken, and the fact signalled to the naval officers on the boat, who were not in sight of the fort, was yet another triumph for the use of signals.

During the battle of Gettysburg, or, at least while Sickles was contending at the Peach Orchard against odds, the signal men had their flags flying from Little Round Top;but when the day was lost, and Hood with his Texans pressed towards that important point, the signal officers folded their flags, and prepared to visit other less dangerous scenes. At that moment, however, General Warren of the Fifth Corps appeared, and ordered them to keep their signals waving as if a host were immediately behind them, which they did.

Little Round Top Signal Station

General E. P. Alexander, the officer referred to as having organized the Confederate Signal Corps, in the CENTRY MAGAZINE, January, 1887, describing "Pickett's Charge," says that he was "particularly cautioned, in moving the artillery, to keep it out of sight of the signal station upon Round Top." In a foot-note referring to this caustion he says:

"This suggests the remark that I have never understood why the enemy abandoned the use of military balloons early in 1863, after having used them extensively up to that time. Even if the observer never saw anything, they would have been worth all they cost, for the annoyance and delays thay caused us in trying to keep our movements out of their sight. That wretched little signal station upon Round Top that day caused one of our divisions to lose over two hours, and probably delayed our assault nearly that long. During that time a Federal Corps arrived near Round Top, and became an important factor in the action which followed."

In a note addressed to the historian of the Signal Corps Association, to whom General Alexander has furnished a sketch of the organization of the Confederate Signal Corps, he says:

"You are more than welcome to the compliment I paid the signal station on Round Top in my article in the January Century. I have forgiven all my enemies now; and though you fellows there were about the last that I did forgive, I took you in several years ago, and concluded to 'Let By-Gones Be By-Gones.'"

I shall close with the following poem, author currently unknown:
Thy work is done; along Virginia's river
No more thy signal flies;
From Georgia's hills by night no more the quiver
Of thy red torch shall rise.

There came a noon when from the bastions frowning
of every fort and bay
Flung out a banner; hurrying on and crowning
The mountains far away.

We left undecked no hamlet's little steeple
That loud with joy-bells rung;
And from the breasts of a too happy people
Its passion-flowers were hung.

We know its language; knew our work was over;
And hailed, while ours we furled,
The only Flag whose sovereign folds shall cover
Henceforth our Western world.

[Compiled Excerpts from "Hardtack & Coffee", by John D. Billings, "The Signal Corps in the War of the Rebellion", by J. Willard Brown, and "A Manual of Signals", by A.J. Myer. for The Signal Corps Association Reenactors Division SCARD, by Mark C. Hageman]