Signal Corps

Signal Corps

Signal Corps
Bill Cameron says:

Several Pennsylvania College teachers and students (along with some others) formed a Signal Corps detachment which served the Department of the Susquehana. They were organized in February 1864 and trained near Chambersburg. In June of that year, they deployed to Harper's Ferry. They served in the Shenandoah Valley with signal stations near Charlestown, Shepherdstown, Winchester and numerous other sites. They were returned from the Department of West virginia and came back to the Department of the Susquehanna near Greencastle. They set up signal stations near Williamsport and Fairview where they could gather intelligence along the Potomac. It goes on and on. At one point Capt. Norton, who was the Chief Signal Officer for the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg, headed this detachment. I wonder if the folks at Gettysburg College know anything about this. Anyone have a POC there for such things?


Another interesting issue is the Union failure to utilize the field telegraph in support of tactical operations during the battle. They had the opportunity to connect the Headquarters at the Leister House with each Corps headquarters and they did not. Meade elected to use the Field Telegraph as a contingency to connect the corps with the general headquarters to be located at Frizzleburg if the Army fell back to Pipe Creek. [OR 27, 3, p. 459] Norton brought the telegraphic trains up to Frizzleburg and they sat there during the entire battle. [OR 27, 1, p. 202] Neither Norton or Meade or Butterfield ordered them forward to Gettysburg after the decision was made not to fall back on Pipe creek. It was a lost opportunity. They could have had modern communications between all points of the interior lines of the defense. Meade could have had telegraphic communications between himself and all of the Corps commanders. It would have increased efficiency significantly. Bill

>Hi, Bill,

> > It is my impression from reading your work that the signal corps did >not get the credibility it should have, and messages concerning troop >movements at the Burg were either ignored or not followed up on. Was the >situation with the telegraph similar? Was it considered at this point in >the war a supplement not to be fully trusted in communications? Would it >have been an unusual thing for a commander to order telegraphic connections >within the interior lines? Was Meade equipped to implement this if he so chose?

Hi Dennis,

Couple of issues here. I obviously have a Signal Corps bias but the truth is, they had some performance problems earlier in the year that didn't help them and they also had Dan Butterfield who didn't understand their capabilities, didn't trust their information, and didn't have the vision to use them properly. Meade, on the other hand, generally was progressive when utilizing their capability. Remember the Power's hill situation where he moved his headquarters on the assumption that he had flag signal communications with the old headquarters during Pickett's Charge. The Chief's job in controlling the flow of communications and intelligence during the battle was key and I believe communications would have been much better if Warren had accepted the Chief job when Meade offered it to him. Warren was extremely progressive in the use of the Signal Corps and used them to advantage.

Part of the problem at Gettysburg was that Capt. Lemmuel Norton was brand new to the job and it had devolved to him when his boss, Capt. Ben Fisher, was captured near Aldie on June 17. Meade was using good sense when he ordered the telegraph trains to Frizzleburg. However, it was just a case of nobody stepping in and bringing them forward when it became clear that they would not execute the Pipe Creek plan. I think that Ben Fisher would have approached Meade or at least Butterfield and brought them up or perhaps done so on his own volition. Norton was timorous in his actions during the battle but a young Capt. brand new to a tremendous responsibility can not be blamed too severely for not being overly aggressive. The signal officer was not in the "in crowd", did not attend Councils of War, did not command a lot of respect, and was not the most informed individual on the battlefield.

It was routine to have telegraphic communications between the corps at this time in the war. At both Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville, the major headquarters generally had telegraphic communications connecting them which was provided by the Signal Corps. There is a ton of stuff in the OR for these two battles. Also, after Gettysburg, during the pursuit, the Corps were for the most part connected telegraphically. However, Norton was joined by an astute, aggressive signal Captain from Washington by the name of William Nicodemus and he really took over a lot of the control of the communications structure during the pursuit. Norton performed much better with the help and during that phase, the Army had a truly outstanding communications system comprised of flag signals, field telegraph and the Military Telegraph. Intelligence on the battlefield in front of Boonsboro and Funkstown was signalled to Turners Gap and telegraphed all the way to Washington in a matter of minutes. When Sedgwick went forward toward Funkstown, he had telegraphic connectivity back to Meade's headquarters.

At Gettysburg, they had the concept, equipment, and expertise, but they didn't have a Chief of Staff that believed in them and they had a young Chief Signal Officer who was too timid to grab him and tell him to get the darn telegraph forward. Poor Meade had his hands full and I sure don't want to blame him for it.

Bill. (Tom Desjardin) says:


Maybe you can answer this question (or already have in a long-past post). In the movie GETTYSBURG, Gen. Meade passes a signalman frantically waving his flag in the dooryard of the Leister House. Meade steps inside and says words to the effect that "Its so dark out there I can't see a thing!"

Q. - Than what is that signalman waving at? Did they practice in the evening hours? Did they have night-vision? (Bill Cameron) says:

Hi Tom,

Another GETTYSBURG movie goof-up! That station was signalling at night but they were using torches. The Little Round Top station was signalling to Taneytown via a station on the mountain (Indian lookout) behind Emmitsburg [OR 27, 1, p. 202] and relaying to David Castle at the Leister House station. Don't have any idea why the reenactors didn't protest the night flag scene (surely they knew better). I help out the Signal reenactor group (Signal Corps Association 1860-1865) as a sort of technical advisor and they are a pretty accurate group but I suspect the director said "do it" and they did it.

That Brady photo showing the signal rock shows what I believe is a torch stain on the rock. Look at page 83 of the War College Guide. See that dark spot on the rock just down from the tree. That's where they laid the torch on the rock. It's a soot stain from the burning oil. If you look at a better quality copy, you can really see it. The rock is still there. It's the one with the crack that is visible in the photo just to the right (facing the wheat field) of the rock with the signal plaque. There is nothing on that part of the rock to cause a shadow.