top of page

Flags, Lanterns, Rockets and Wires

Report by John Murray

Signalling in the Civil War was the subject of Lt. Col. lain Standen's talk at the National Army Museum on 12 October 2002.

lain began with the history, organisation and equipment of the signalling systems used. Before the war, Albert James Myer, who had been a medical doctor for three years and an assistant surgeon in the campaign against Comanches in New Mexico, developed a signalling system that he patented. In this he was assisted by a certain Lt. Edward P Alexander.

At the start of the Civil War, Myer reported to General Scott in New York while Alexander joined the Confederate forces. On 19 April 1862, the Confederate Congress authorised the President to appoint officers and men to a signals corps. Alexander was in charge of the Signals Corps established on 29 May 1862 under General Order 40 and it consisted in all of 61 officers and 1500 men.

Originally there were two types of signalling: flags (or torches or lanterns at night) and rockets. Bain code symbols (with only two elements used compared with the four used by Morse code over the telegraph) were employed. High ground or signals stations were used for both observation and signals communication. Alexander at First Manassas was described as "well placed as the eyes of the Confederacy that day".

lain displayed a replica signals flag and described the wigwagging of the flags and the different codes employed. lain gave examples of signals stations such as Little Round Top and the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg.

Signallers on hills could be seen by the enemy. With signallers watching each other, the use of ciphers was developed.

The telegraph and Morse code were used and lain cited the example of Fredericksburg. However, this required a good deal of maintenance. The telegraph got strong support from Sherman and Stanton.

The second part of lain's talk focused on campaign examples beginning with Sergeant Dunning of the Confederate Signals Corps and his 24 man team. In February 1865, above Strasbourg in the Shenandoah Valley, they were located at a local hotel and used a combination or visual signalling and the telegraph.

In the Vicksburg campaign, messages were passed by wigwag from Milliken's Bend to New Carthage.

Gettysburg provided several examples of the use of signals. Lt. Jerome of the Union Signals Corps recognised the arrival of Reynolds' Corps from his perch in the Lutheran Seminary Cupola. He also saw the advance of Rodes' troops. Jerome went to the Gettysburg Court House and then to Cemetary Hill where signals parties were assigned to VII Corps. Little Round Top was a particularly good observation point, which forced McLaws to countermarch in order to avoid being seen.

For a fuller version of this presentation, click here for the article by Ian Standen presented on the website of the 'Signal Corps Association' of the United States (by permission). Please note the article is best viewed using MS Internet Explorer.


bottom of page