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During the American Civil War, large armies of men marched and fought over vast areas of the country. The need for a method of long-distance communication was essential and quickly recognized. Although the electromagnetic telegraph wires, of Samuel F. B. Morse and others, was considered highly innovative, the development of a system of visual signals proved much more useful during the Civil War. This system was developed in the 1850's by Albert James Myer, an assistant surgeon in the United States Army. Myer recruited a graduate of West Point, Second Lieutenant of Engineers Edward Porter Alexander, to assist him in its development.

It was the Georgia native, Alexander, who first organized the corps of signalers for the Confederacy. The corps was attached to the Adjutant General's Department and handled signaling, telegraphy, and secret-service work. With a supportive President, Alexander was able to steal the march on his mentor, Myer, and signaled a crucial warning at the first battle at Manassas (Bull Run). Thus, with the official formation of the Confederacy's Signal Corps in 1862, the first independent branch of professional signalmen in the military history of the world was formed.

Initially set at ten officers and ten sergeants, it was expanded later to 61 men in all. This force was augmented by enlisted men, who served throughout the war in this capacity. But since a captaincy offered little to Alexander, who had graduated from West Point with that same rank, he continued his field duty as an artilleryman, rising to the rank of brigadier general and Chief of Artillery.

The senior position of the signal corps then went to a Yale-trained lawyer, William Norris, who was serving as signal officer on the staff of Brigadier-General John B. Magruder. Norris later organized what was to become called the "Secret Line," which was a courier network for covert activities.

Aside from the regular Signal Corps, a two-company unit called the Independent Signal Corps operated under a Major James F. Milligan. This corps, along with the regular corps, provided men for what was to become known unofficially as the Marine Signal Corps. Some 1,500 men are estimated to have served the Confederacy as signalmen.(CT)

The Washington War Department, while appointing Myer as "Signal Officer of the Army" in 1860, rejected his proposal to have a separate corps of signal specialists.(CT) Myer was essentially a one-man show for Washington until 1864, when a separate corps was formerly organized. Despite the bureaucratic slows, the signal corps eventually grew to some three hundred officers and twenty-five hundred men.

On both sides, signaling was done using various techniques, such as flags, torches, rockets and flares. High points of land or wooden towers were used to gain vantage points from which messages could be relayed back and forth. The distinct drawback to this method of communication was weather conditions, such as fog, rain or snow.

To send a message, signalmen would wave a signal flag, or torch, from up to the right to left and back (one) or down to the right and up (two). (JC) Combinations of the numbers stood for letters, phrases or numbers. Flags used were generally white, with a red square; black; or red with a white square, depending on the various weather conditions.

Working as a signalmen proved to be a dangerous job, as they became the favorite targets of snipers or artillery fire. It is estimated that one out of twelve operators were killed, wounded or captured.(CT)

Since the waving of flags or torches could be seen by the enemy, as well as the person receiving the message, they were seldom sent in "clear," and codes or ciphers were often used. To cipher a message, many used an item referred to as a "cipher disc." However, a code, which represents an entire message, phrase or sentence, could only be read by the use of a code book. Codes and ciphers were constantly being changed, due to cryptographers working to interpret their opponents messages. Ironically, the Union was often able to break down the Southerner's communications, while the Confederates rarely, if ever, broke down a single Federal communication. (JC)

The following is a breakdown of the alphabet, numerals and code signals, which was adopted later in the Civil War:

11 1221 212 111 21 1112 1122 221 2 2211 1212 112 2112 22 12
P Q R S T U V W X Y Z & tion ing ed
2121 2122 122 121 1 221 2111 2212 1211 222 1111 2222 2221 1121 1222

Other Instructions:

Wait a moment = 12221
Are you ready? = 21112
I am ready = 11211
Use short pole and small flag = 11121
Use long pole and large flag = 11112
Work faster = 21111
Did you understand? = 22111
Use white flag = 22221
Use black flag = 22122
Use red flag = 11111

The telegraph, which proved invaluable to both armies, was largely ran by civilian personnel and private companies. While the service fell under the control of the Signal Corps for the Confederacy, the North operated it as a separate bureau, the United States Military-Telegraph Corps. Rigidly controlled, commissioned officers of this service were rarely accountable to anyone with the exception of the Secretary of War. This issue caused a great deal of friction between field officers and the government - most notably the spat between Grant and the War Department in Washington.

During the war, thousands of miles of telegraph cable were strung, and during the last year of the war over one and three-quarter million messages were transmitted over the Federal System. (JC)


Reference Sources:

(JC) Coggins, Jack; "Arms And Equipment of the Civil War," Doubleday & Company, Inc. New York, 1962

(CT) Taylor, Dr. Chas. E.; "The Signal and Secret Service of the Confederate States," Toomey Press, Maryland, 1986