THE SIGNAL CORPS OF THE ARMY DURING
By Captain W. W. Rowley, U. S. V.
(Read May 3, 1893.)
The acquiring of knowledge is always accompanied with satisfaction, but the imparting it to others is to the ordinary man a far greater satisfaction. When this cannot be done by personal intercourse, other means have to be resorted to.
From the earliest history of man, and indeed I believe I can safely say from the first gleam of intelligence in created beings, signals have been used to convey desires, whenever, from any cause, it could not be done by speaking. Even in personal contact, how much is conveyed by a glance of the eye, shrug of the shoulder, or motion of the hand! In olden times, during the combats of the gladiators, with what intense interest the signal from the monarch was looked for, which would give life or death to the fallen athlete, and how many a heart has been raised to ecstatic joy, or plunged into depths of despair, by the wave of a fan or the flirt of a handkerchief.
In the more serious relations of life, we are told how fires were lighted on one hill top, then another and another, until the whole land in this manner would be notified of some important event, and, if necessary, the whole country would be aroused to meet the threatened danger.
For a long time marine signals have been in use, both by naval and merchant ships to communicate with each other, and to such an extent has this been carried, that a uniform and comprehensive system has been adopted by the leading nations of the world, called "The International Code of Signals," by which messages can be transmitted from ship to ship, as well as to stations on the coast, which have the code. It is by this means that a ship coming in sight of a light-house station, signals its name to the station, which is by the latter transmitted by telegraph to the agents on the main land, who in turn announce to the public the arrival of the vessel many hours in advance of her reaching the dock. A short time previous to 1861, during the campaign of Colonel Canby (afterwards General) against the Navajo Indians in New Mexico, there were serving on his staff, Dr. A. J. Meyer, Assistant Surgeon, and Lieutenant Alexander of the Engineer Corps. The idea of forming a code of signals to use with the army was thought to he practicable by these two officers, and they, with the approval of the commanding officer, at once set to work to demonstrate its feasibility. To assist them they obtained the services of two Lieutenants, S. B. Cushing, 2d Infantry, and W. J. L. Nicodemus, 10th Infantry. To the work of these officers on the sunburnt plains of New Mexico are we indebted for that arm of the service known as the "Signal Corps."
Upon the breaking out of hostilities between the North and South they had so far perfected the system of signaling that Dr. Meyer was enabled to present to the War Department a somewhat crude but complete system of signals, which was looked upon with so much favor that, on the 15th day of June, 1861, General B. F. Butler was authorized to organize the first Signal Corps, which was done at Fortress Monroe by detailing eleven officers as acting signal officers, to report to Major Meyer at that point. There were detailed with each officer two enlisted men; stations were established for instruction and practice by Major Meyer, so that after a few weeks these officers were qualified to teach the system to the different divisions of the army during the summer of 1861. Subsequently a camp of instruction was established at Georgetown, D. C., from which acting signal officers and men were furnished to the army by order of the War Department. The Signal Service was not made a separate bureau until some time in the year 1863. Meanwhile the Southern army was organizing a Signal Corps upon the same system. Of the two officers who, first formulated the code on the plains of New Mexico, one, Dr. Meyer, upon the breaking out of the hostilities, remained loyal to the Union, and became Chief Signal Officer of the United States Army, with the rank of Colonel. The other, Lieutenant Alexander, cast his fortunes with the Confederacy, and became Chief Signal Officer of. the "Lost Cause." The result of this was an equitable division of the skilled corps of the old army between the Northern and Southern armies, giving each an opportunity to signalize itself.
The code at this time consisted of the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, with which, by their various combinations, any message could be transmitted. To accomplish this a flag was used by day and a torch by night; the flags were all of the same size but of different colors, the color being of no significance in conveying the message, but was selected simply to give the most marked contrast to the background. In sending a message, the flag man would stand facing the receiving station, holding the staff in an upright position, upon the end of which was attached the flag or torch, the movement from thence to the left describing a quarter of a circle and return to vertical signified the numeral "one," similar movement to the right, " two," movement one-half circle from right to left, "three," from left to right, "four."
When the army was in camp for any length of time permanent stations would be established, bringing the whole line into communication with the General commanding. Upon each of these stations it was customary to put two officers and four men. The signal outfit for each officer consisted of two enlisted men, one telescope, one field glass, one set of flags and one torch, the officers and men being well mounted. On the march, or changing stations, the officer carried the telescope and field glass; the flag-staff, which could be disjointed, together with the flags and torch, were put in a kit made to hold them, which was arranged to be carried slung over the shoulder of one of the men. An officer thus equipped could at any moment establish a signal station and do effective work.
Upon a station the telescope was at all times kept trained upon the communicating stations, which were watched by a man, day and night. The men were divided into reliefs and were on duty two hours at a time. This enabled the calling up any communicating station at any time, which was done by waving the flag or torch to and fro until the station replied. Whenever the army was on the march in the vicinity of the enemy, a signal officer would frequently be sent to some point commanding a view of the country, and from there would report by signals whatever he saw of interest. Whenever a battle was imminent, the officer in command would station a signal officer on the eligible points of the battle field for the purpose of watching and reporting movements of the enemy, as well as of our own troops, but seldom could more than one message be sent from such a station, owing to the constant changes of the lines of either army. At such times the officer kept his flag flying, which was watched by a man at headquarters, who was especially selected for that purpose. It is manifest how difficult and perilous was the duty of an officer on such occasions. Signal officers not required for signal duty would be used by the General commanding as personal aides. When on the march it was no uncommon thing to see, away to the front, frequently in advance of the skirmish line, a few mounted men, with the little signal flag flying, on their way to spy out the land. At first their appearance created great wonderment among the troops, who were sorely puzzled to make out their purpose, but soon it came to be a familiar sight, and whenever the little flag, fluttering in the air, swiftly borne onward by the gallant officer and men towards the front, was seen, the soldiers were sure to keep watch of it--for they understood that if any danger was imminent, it would be reported at once by the flag. Whenever the Army co-operated with the Navy, the Signal Corps became very useful in keeping open communication between the two arms of service. The officer perched in the cross-trees could easily send or receive any message to or from the signal officer on shore.
At the time when Commodore Farragut, the "Nelson" of our Navy was preparing to run the batteries at Port Hudson on the Mississippi River, he asked for two signal officers to accompany him. Upon going on board the flag-ship "Hartford," they reported personally to the Commodore. One of the officers being apparently overcome by his surroundings, with more zeal than wisdom, remarked to the "Old Sea Dog" that "orders are orders, and must be obeyed, if it takes the last cow in the yard." Probably he did not relish the outlook of the near future, when he would be perched in the crow's-nest, midst the storm of iron bail through which the gallant old war-ship must pass. It is only fair to say that both these officers did their duty faithfully, for which they were commended by the Commodore, and when the paymaster next visited the camp they were on hand to draw their pay quite as prompt as any of their comrades.
In establishing stations, the highest accessible points would be selected, and if the country was a plain, where no "mountain lifts its green head to the sky," the top of some large tree, or roof of a high building would be utilized. If a tree, a few boards or rails would be placed upon the topmost branches for the flagman to stand upon, and just below stood the officer with his glass. Such improvised stations were frequently made use of for many days at a time, but if the station was to be used for any length of time, the platforms on the tree would be made quite secure, and ladders arranged for easy ascent and descent.
When several signal stations were established to open up a line of communication, it was practicable to locate them about eight miles apart, though under favorable conditions messages have been transmitted over fifteen miles, but this was exceptional. For ordinary work the distance of eight miles was as far as messages could readily be transmitted. One would be surprised to see how quickly messages were thus transmitted, with two officers accustomed to work together. Four to six words a minute was nothing unusual, and often much better results were obtained from the abbreviation of familiar words.
Under the management of Lieutenant Alexander, the Southern army organized a Signal Corps about the same time and upon the same system as that of our army. Whenever they made use of this corps in the vicinity of our lines it was no unusual occurrence for our officers to obtain their code by watching them. As the messages were usually directed to the General in command, the combinations used in sending his name would give a key, so that after a little time the entire code would be obtained. I have no doubt but that the Southern Signal Officers obtained our code in the same manner. At all events, to prevent such an occurrence, Colonel Meyer adopted a disk which could be set to any number, each officer being furnished with one. When an officer wished to send a message, he would first send the number upon which the disk would be set, which served as a key to the entire message. No one, however well skilled he might be, could decipher the words without having the disk before him, especially as no two messages were sent upon the same key.
Some of our officers developed great talent and became experts in reading messages of the enemy, and it was surprising to see with what facility they would pick up the code. In doing that work, the officer was frequently exposed to great danger from the sharpshooters of the enemy, who were ever on the alert for a target. No one, unless possessed of personal bravery and a clear, cool head, could well succeed in such a business. The officers composing the Signal Corps were, as a body, bright, active young men, fully alive to the possibilities of the corps, and always ready to do any work or take any risk that might be of service to the army. Indeed, many of them, with the reckless enthusiasm of youth, would incur greater risks than were necessary.
With his little flag flying, he made a special target for the enemy, and to capture him was deemed a great prize, for there was always the hope of finding in his possession some orders or papers which would give information of movements of troops, or some knowledge which could be taken advantage of by the captors.
Though several officers were taken prisoners during the war, no information of any value was in that way obtained, for the officers were strictly ordered to destroy all papers, together with the code of signals, whenever there might be any chance of their capture.
The lot of the signal officer was comparatively pleasant. His occupation gave him a latitude of freedom which many officers of higher grade did not enjoy. He was often located on stations far removed from the troops, and with his brother officer and four or five men would constitute a little camp, as free and unrestrained as any fisherman's camp of the north woods in summer. It rarely became monotonous, for there was always enough danger to make it interesting and sometimes exciting. When stationed upon some far-off mountain top, it would be quite necessary to cultivate friendship with the occupants of the nearest farm-house, for not only could much-needed supplies be obtained from that quarter, such as butter, eggs and milk, but it frequently involved his personal safety. So, usually, after getting his station well established, he would begin to cultivate the friendship of his neighbor. To do this, frequently required a good bit of diplomacy. If friendly approaches, accompanied with pleasant talk, failed to overcome the stubborn prejudice of the head of the house, a little coffee, with compliments to the madam, was pretty sure to bring a smile of welcome, which once being obtained, very easily grew into real friendship. The hatred and dislike of the Southerner for the Northerner was, as a rule, held against the latter as a body, and did not extend to individuals, so, when approached by one in the garb of friendly intercourse, he was ready to make it an exception and extend the old-time hospitality to the friendly foe, and, if circumstances required, would protect him from any danger by timely warning. The signal station was always an attractive spot for visitors, and many an hour has been most agreeably spent with the ladies of the vicinity who were kind enough to gladden the signal camp with their presence, and the horse-back rides, taken in their company, will ever remain in the memory of the signal officer like the bow of promise on a storm-rent cloud.
In the war of the future (if there is to be one) the lot of the signal officer will be quite different.
Instead of the free, independent life which left him at liberty to roam over the country, looking for
mountain summits from whose heights woodland and plain, rivers and valleys were spread out
beneath him in Nature's rich display, he will be confined in the car of some balloon tethered to the
earth, with the consciousness, "Thus far cans't thou go and no farther."
(Source: War Papers, Wisconsin MOLLUS, volume 2, pages 221-229)