Signal Genealogy



(Purchase information at the end of this book review)

Read Chapter 1 "Origins of the Corps"

       Who were "the ablest, coolest, and most daring men in the Army"?  This was the term applied by George Ward Nichols, in his Story of the Great March. Was he referring to dashing cavalry raiders -- sharp-shooters -- topographic engineers -- pioneers -- scouts? No, that was his description of the men of the signal corps, probably the least known and least appreciated body of men in the Civil War.

       The ability to communicate rapidly on the battlefield and with higher headquarters -- anticipating radio in the Twentieth Century -- came about through the ingenuity, vision, and persistence of one man, Albert James Myer of New York. A pre-Civil War assistant surgeon in the army, Myer became the world's first signal officer in 1860. Through a cruel irony of fate, his brain-child -- a corps of technical military specialists -- was first realized by his opponents, and their success used to goad Federal authorities into action.

       Simple in concept (a single flag waved to the left or right; torches at night), the Myer system was cheap, easily manufactured or even improvised, and could be carried by a single man. Using elevations that afforded extended line-of-sight (a hillock, tree, steeple or cupola, or a tower for the purpose), signaling was practicable over distances of ten miles or more in good visibility, and could be extended through relays to create networks. Although slow in comparison with the electromagnetic telegraph, it was free of wires, arching over the heads of the soldiers. A better comparison of capability would be made with the speed of couriers moving on horseback. From their lofty perches, aided by field glasses and 30-power telescopes, signal officers became a valued source of intelligence through their observations. In time they would augment that contribution by learning to "read" the signals of their opponents.

       But Myer had several strikes against him: he was "non-academy," a civilian (and a medical doctor at that) in uniform. His persistence in promoting his vision, even to the extent of politicking with members of Congress, irritated and angered his chain-of-command, who combined with skeptics toward any new-fangled ideas to frustrate or thwart him. The Southern leadership, from their pre-war positions in government and the military, took his ideas with them into the Confederacy and jumped the gun on the inventor by using his system at First Manassas while Myer was struggling to get to the field. A year later, after Shiloh, Sherman was asked by Thomas, "Where is your Signal Corps?" and responded, "A Signal Corps, what is that?" (Brown, pp. 465-466). It was not until 1863, after two years of improvising with borrowed resources, that Myer became head of the provisional, wartime organization. Even then he found himself in conflict with Secretary of War Stanton over control of Morse telegraphy. Myer was "canned," "sent to Siberia" in the Department of the Gulf, and only restored after the war.

       This epic of one man's struggle against bureaucracy and apathy, and the organization and military capability he introduced to warfare, both directly and (through his pre-war student and colleague, Edward Porter Alexander, CSA) indirectly in the Civil War, is not nearly as well known as it should be, nor the roles played by the signalmen. Most careful students of the war will have encountered the chapter in Miller's Photographic History, seen occasional references to signaling, or perhaps even encountered a monograph or article. But the story was once told, and told exceedingly well, in a book that, even in a 1974 reprint (minus the roster and index), is not well known, and in the original commands a price of $350 or more. This is the book that the Signal Corps Association, 1860 - 1865 ( an association of researchers, re-enactors and publishers of the Signal Cipher), has made available again in a "very" limited printing. Faithful to the original (except for two plates in color in the 1896 edition), hard bound on acid free paper, even to the extent of the attractive gold stamping on spine and cover, this edition restores the exhaustive roster, so useful to researchers and genealogists.

       The author, Joseph Willard Brown, historian of the Veteran Signal Corps Association, embarked on a personal narrative in the late 1870s. Persuaded that a fuller story was merited, he approached Myer (back again as Chief Signal Officer), but was told that an official history was planned. The death of Myer a few years later (1880) may have prevented that, so the veterans undertook the task themselves, asking Brown to head a committee with four other veterans. With access to the records in Washington and full support from the Signal Service, they spent a decade in research and correspondence. Lacking the unit integrity of, say, a regiment, members of the signal corps served in small detachments (signal parties, or signal corps) scattered throughout the army and even aboard ships. Few officers were acquainted with one another, except through training schools (Myer was perhaps the first to establish strict pre-requisites, formal technical training schools or camps, and pre-entry testing) and chance assignments. Thanks to Myer's insistence on routine reporting of activities, they found a wealth of data in the files, but, as is usually the case with "our war," far better documentable for the East than the West. They compensated for this by years of correspondence and interviews, even as the Official Records were being produced. The result is an unmatched record of individual service (with over 600 photographs, including most of the officer corps), personal narratives, and technical detail found nowhere else, amplified by 49 maps and 164 line drawings, many by the author's talented son, the roster and index. It was largely through such details that a new generation, re-enactors of the 1970s, were re-introduced to Brown and his colleagues Photocopies were circulated. Forcing recognition by re-enactment planners (much as Myer had had to do through an uncooperative bureaucracy), they have caused the presence of the signal corps to come to the fore (witness the signalman at work at Meade's headquarters in TNT's Gettysburg and the station in the opening scene of Andersonville). Far less reason now to have to explain that Civil War signalling (after the war known as "wig-wag") did not involve two small flags, one in each hand!

       The book treats the wartime history of the corps under two sections, the first devoted to background, initial organization, training, and administration, details the equipment and techniques, includes a chapter on the field telegraph and even an entire chapter on their Confederate counterparts. The second part is divided by all twelve military departments, and incorporates a wealth of personal detail and recollection useful to any historian. (A favorite example: Trying to convince newly summons General Warren that there were Confederates down in the woods below Little Round Top, and frustrated by his response that he couldn't see them, the signal officer was evidently not displeased when rebel gunners opened on them, nicking Warren in the neck. "Now do you see them?" he asked.)

       Books of this nature can be expected to be heavy with praise and slighting of negative aspects. Surprisingly, the signal veterans were frank in admission of shortcomings and inadequacies. One negative having to do with their book is the lack of an "adequate" index. This conceals the wealth of data it contains, but makes the finding of "jewels" all the more rewarding from a careful reading.

       The final transmission of the wartime signal corps was from the roof of army headquarters (the extant Winder Building in Washington, D.C.) to a single station of the once proud Army of the Potomac, across the river: "Sic transit gloria mundi," "thus passes the glory of the world." The glory of their wartime performance can be relived in this volume so essential to any re-enactor, such a valuable addition to the bookshelf (or to facilitate access while preserving a precious original). The Signal Corps Association 1860 - 1865 is to be commended for again making available this story of the signal corps.

- David Winfred Gaddy

(A co-author of Come Retribution: the Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, Mr. Gaddy is at work on a book about the Confederate Army's Signal Corps.)

       A co-author of the award-winning Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, David Winfred Gaddy is a long time student of Civil War signaling, telegraphy, cryptography, and secret service activities. His specialty is the Confederate side. He edited the Toomey Press reprint of Charles E. Taylor's The Confederate Signal and Secret Service and wrote "William Norris and the Confederate Signal and Secret Service" (Maryland Historical Magazine, reprinted in Paul J. Scheips, ed., Military Signal Communications). His articles have appeared in Civil War Times Illustrated, Gettysburg, Manuscripts, the Maryland Historical Magazine, and other publications. He was consultant to the Time-Life Civil War series volume, Spies, Scouts and Raiders and appeared on the A&E channel's Civil War series, dealing with espionage. He has lectured before the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Virginia Historical Society, and numerous other groups, and is a past president of the District of Columbia Civil War Round Table. A biographical sketch is contained in Contemporary Authors, vol. 129 (1990). p. 162.

Purchase information:

The Signal Corps, U.S.A., in the War of the Rebellion. J. Willard Brown. Illustrated, roster,index, 916 pp., 1996 centennial limited edition reprint.

Signal Corps Association 1860 - 1865 c/o Walter F. Mathers, 13 Beach Road, Glen Burnie, Md 21060. $64.50 postage paid, Maryland Residents include 5% sales tax. No credit card orders. Foreign orders extra.

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