The Signal Corps almost didn’t happen. In 1859, United States Army surgeon A. J. Myer began experimenting with a system of long distance lineof sight communication called wigwag. Wigwag signalers used torches at night and color flags during the day to communicate. Like many new technologies, this was controversial and legislators battled incessantly over whether we needed it, whether or not it should its own Army Corps, and who would be in charge. This political football ended in the arbitrary dismissal of the first two chiefs, and ended up in the purview of a Colonel B. F. Fisher who was never actually confirmed by the senate.
Soon enough war broke out and the work of Myer and West Point Professor Edward Porter Alexander manifested in a mostly civilian unit that had 2500 members, hoisted up into trees, rooftops, watch towers, telegraph poles and horseback waving flags. The communication was simple and perfunctory. Holding the flag straight up in the air meant “one”. Up in the air and once to the left and back up again meant “two”. Torches were used at night. Black flags when snow was on the ground and white flags otherwise. The vocabulary grew and abbreviations grew and soon enough there were encryption codes that worked on a small disc that had to be synchronized across an army front. These encryption devices were some of the first coded messages in combat.
The signaler was a quick target for opposing armies and while historians differ on their combat fatality figures, it seems that signalers drew massive rifles and musket fire, and also fire from artillery units. Suffice it to say, they died quickly.
Appomattox, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Chancellorsville, Kennesaw Mountain, Richmond and many more battles were affected by the
SignalCorps. At Vicksburg, Grant was able to surround the town on land and communicate with his naval batteries with signal flags. The message he sent on July4th 1863 was succinct: ” 4.30 A.M. 4: 1863. Admiral Porter: The enemy has accepted in the main my terms of capitulation and will surrender the city, works and garrison at 10 A. M. . . . U. S. Grant, Major-General, Commanding.”
Union Signal Corps Lieutenant Miner was posted at Sugar Loaf, the highest altitude area in Maryland. In 1862, he caught the advance guard of Lee’s army and sent messages down the communication line and probably saved Washington from capture.
It should mentioned that the codes were not always indecipherable and sometimes, in the fog of war, signalers used codes the other side could read, and just hope that they didn’t read them. So signalers often interpreted messages from enemy signalers and passed the information back through the command line.
The stories of signalers in the Civil War are endless. Towards the end of the war the Army made the corps permanent. Today Signal Corps consists of extremely advanced electronic signaling devices, complex intelligence gathering and command and control. Signal Corps is now an integral part of all US combat command operations. In fact, what was once treated to the lowest technology at the time (sticks waving in the air) to the most advanced technology available today Sigint, milsats, lasers, HAARP, computer encryption codes and more