Report of Maj. Albert J. Myer, Chief Signal Officer, U.S. Army, of the signal service in the Army of the Potomac, from August 14, 1861, to March 23, 1862, and of signal detachments in other commands.
O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 5 [S# 5]
OFFICE OF THE SIGNAL OFFICER,
Washington, D.C., October 21, 1862.
The ADJUTANT-GENERAL ARMY OF THE POTOMAC.
GENERAL: The Chief Signal Officer, then serving at headquarters Department of Virginia, was, by Special Orders, No. 26, directed to report for duty at the headquarters of the then Division of the Potomac, on August 14, 1861. This order was consequent upon information which had been received that our forces on the Upper Potomac needed intercommunication between the different divisions, and also to the fact that attention had been called at that part of our lines and along our front before Washington to the telegraphic field signals of the enemy. The general commanding the then Division of the Potomac required a signal line to connect the right of his army with the forces surrounding Washington. Orders to this effect were received on the same day, verbally, from the general commanding the army and by the letter herewith from the Assistant Secretary of War.
The organization of the signal corps of the Army of the Potomac was commenced on the issue of the order herewith. On this order officers and men were collected from various regiments and were gathered at small camps of instruction, which were formed at Poolesville, Md., then the headquarters of General Stone; on the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, a prominent mountain in Maryland, and at Hyatts-town, then the headquarters of General Banks. These camps were respectively in charge of Lieuts. Theodore S. Dumont, Fifth New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer; Evan Thomas, Fourth Artillery, U.S. Army, and acting signal officer, and Leonard F. Hepburn, Fourth New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer, who, instructed and previously serving at Fortress Monroe, Va., had been ordered to aid in the formation of this party. The course of instruction in signal duty was commenced at the camps mentioned while the officers there stationed had communication by signals between them.
On the 31st August, 1861, the central signal camp of instruction was established at Red Hill, Georgetown, D.C. The detachment of officers and men detailed for signal duty from the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps and on examination approved for instruction was the first received at this camp.
On the 12th of September, 1861, the approved officers and men of the detachments from the Upper Potomac were here concentrated. The next day the new camp was organized, the courses of instruction were decided upon, and the central signal camp of instruction in Georgetown became the school for all the acting signal officers of the Army.
For the successful management and control of this camp of instruction much credit is due to the efficient co-operation of the then First Lieutenant Samuel T. Cushing: Second Infantry, U.S. Army, acting signal officer, who, from the day of its formation until it was abandoned, associated with the Chief Signal Officer, labored zealously and with perseverance to fit the officers and men there under instruction to honorably bear their parts in the campaigns of the war then just opening.
The organizing, instructing, disciplining, and retaining for service the signal corps of the Army of the Potomac (from which all other detachments of the signal corps in the United States have directly or indirectly sprung) was attended with many circumstances of interest and many of difficulty. It was a work of no ordinary toil to originate and to put in the field in the time of such a war a corps before unknown. There were duties to be performed in the face of prejudices which were childish, and in spite of oppositions born of ignorance. The narrative of these early days and the recital of the modes in which step by step the signal corps won its way will form a part of a general report to the Chief Signal Officer.
At the signal camp of instruction the officers and men were taught the manual of the signal apparatus, and they were practiced to send messages of any kind and of any number of words by telegraphic signals. The apparatus used is now well known to the general commanding. It is sufficient, therefore, to say that, by the motions of a single flag, attached to a staff, held and worked by the hands of one man, in the day, or by the similar motions of a lighted torch, fastened to the staff instead of a flag, at night, a single man is converted into a semaphore, useful for any distances at which the signs made are visible either with the naked eye or with telescopes.
The officers were instructed in countersign signals, by which to distinguish friendly regiments, and in the employment of colored lights and rockets as signals. They were habituated by constant use to the management of the telescope. They were taught the drill of the flagman. They learned to ride, and were instructed how to provide for themselves and their parties in the field. They were taught some duties of reconnaissance. They were fresh from civil life; it was aimed to give them something of the feeling and habits of soldiers.
It was from the beginning the intention to place in charge of this corps the flying or field electric telegraphs, for use upon the field of battle or in the immediate presence of the enemy. These were to be similar in their general construction to those telegraphic trains at a later day brought into use on the Peninsula. The efforts to procure these trains were thwarted to some extent by the actions of persons who seemed to greatly desire that all the duties of electric telegraphy should be in the hands of civilians, and in part, perhaps, by the hesitation of officers in authority to become responsible by favoring it for the success of what was then an experiment in our service. I did all I could to obtain authority and the means to properly fit such trains to accompany the army on the march. In the early days of the war I could not obtain the asked permission to organize a party or to draw on the Departments for supplies. Later, when I submitted plans and further requests on this subject, they were either not answered or received non-committal replies. Estimates accompanying my annual report of November 10, 1862, were not acted upon.
With embarrassments of this nature the work could not be successfully carried on. It was only when the Army was fairly in the field that the plans began to receive some favorable attention and some support. One train was, however, partially completed, and the officers of the corps were familiarized with its use. This was the first movable telegraphic train of which there is record, as made for the United States Army.
On October 17, 1861, the order for the adoption of countersign signals in the Army of the Potomac was issued at the suggestion of the Chief Signal Officer. To acquire a thorough knowledge of the use of these signals, to procure and issue the necessary supplies, and to instruct the designated officers in the two hundred and fifty regiments and organizations comprised in the Army of the Potomac occupied much of the attention and employed much of the time of the forming corps until late in December. The theory of these signals was good; the apparatus was convenient; the modes of making the signals were practicable. Experience has shown, however, that in a new army these signals will not be safely used unless an organized corps of signal officers accompany such an army. The failure of Congress to organize a signal corps during the session of 1861-'62 led, on the recommendation of the Chief Signal Officer, to the suspension, in October, 1862, of the use of countersign signals in the Army of the Potomac. They were of practical use on some few occasions, and it is probable beneficially influenced the army, in so far as, by leading the men to presume that signals would always distinguish their enemies from their friends, they prevented the stampedes and panic firings which by their sad results had early in the war so moved the nation. I am of the opinion that, with the improving organization of the armies of the United States, this use, first tested in the Army of the Potomac, will be perfected and made general.
OUTPOST AND SCOUT SIGNALS.
In December, 1861, the Chief Signal Officer was ordered to prepare a plan for outpost and scout signals, or signs by which troops upon outposts and with scouting parties might recognize friendly forces. These signals were for some months used along the lines in front of and near Washington and after the army had taken the field on the Peninsula. The very general use attempted to be made of them in so great an army was always of doubtful value. There was danger that troops widely separated, of different intelligence and of different nations, could not be rightly instructed. The proper employment of signals of this character is for especial occasions and for especial troops. Their use (from the beginning neglected) was formally abandoned while the army was upon the Chickahominy, in June, 1862.
Early in January, 1862, the force at the signal camp of instruction, at Georgetown, D. C., was largely increased by a detail of 3 officers and 6 men, ordered from each brigade of the Army of the Potomac, which had not previously furnished its quota. Fifty per cent. of the officers thus ordered failed to report.
ORIGIN OF THE SIGNAL CORPS OF THE ARMY,
The officers and men detailed for signal service manifested interest in the study of their duties, and as a corps early attained an advanced preparation. The character of their employment attracted much attention. Small signal parties had been left stationed at Poolesville, on Sugar Loaf Mountain, and at Seneca, Md. These points were in daily communication. The simplicity of the apparatus with which the officers conversed; their power of communicating at distances of many miles and in the night as well as in the day; the incomprehensible orders given by the officers to the flagmen, and the seemingly more incomprehensible evolutions with flags and torches, were, in and out of the army, subjects of ceaseless comment.
Like comment was elicited by the work of officers sent out to practice in the vicinity of Washington, and who were found at all hours of the night as well as day scattered about the country, miles from camp, on towers or on prominent heights, busily telegraphing, and with airs of sage importance and mystery, messages as lessons of practice. In the newspaper histories of the war the signal camp of instruction will be found to have a special mention.
The organization of the signal corps of the Army of the Potomac (then the grand army of the United States) became a fact of general knowledge. As other armies were formed or expeditions were prepared, skilled officers and men sent from the parent camp formed with these armies, with other officers and men by them instructed, the different detachments of the acting signal corps which, serving in the various geographical departments, have carried the signal flag on so many fields in this war. The details for this purpose from the Army of the Potomac were as follows, viz:
Early in the month of October, 1861, the expedition of the combined land and naval forces, afterwards styled the "Port Royal Expedition," was contemplated. On the application of General Thomas W. Sherman commanding the expedition, the Chief Signal Officer was ordered to detail signal officers to accompany it. A party of 7 signal officers, with 14 men, equipped, commanded by Lieut. E. J. Keenan, Eleventh Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, and acting signal officer, joined the expedition for duty a few days before it sailed from Annapolis. The brilliant success of this party, achieved by the gallantry and the labor of the officers and men composing it, contributed to the success of the expedition and to the advancement of the corps. The detachment of the signal corps now serving in South Carolina had hence its origin.
In December, 1861, an application was made by Major-General Buell, then commanding the Department of the Ohio, for a detail of signal officers to be sent to him. There was some vacillation about the move-merit of this party, the order to send and to retain it being for a time alternated. At last, however, a detachment of 5 officers and 10 men, equipped, was sent to General Buell. The signal party now commanded by Capt. Jesse Merrill, Seventh Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, and acting signal officer, and serving with General Rosecrans in the Department of the Cumberland, took its origin from this detail. The difficulties encountered by this party, in the unfavorable character of the country, the situation and condition of the forces, the want of experience of the officers composing it, and the semi-official opposition of other officers, who knew nothing of its duties, have not been surpassed. That the corps through all its difficulties maintained its organization and has attained the position it now holds under General Rosecrans has proven some intrinsic value in its duties and much merit in the officers who organized and have composed it.
A few days before the sailing of the Burnside expedition for North Carolina there was received the application, made by General Burnside, for a signal party to be detailed to his army, and the order to make the detail. Three officers and 6 men, equipped, and commanded by Lieut. Joseph Fricker, Eighth Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, and acting-signal officer, reported at Annapolis to accompany this expedition. A class of 22 officers was there detailed and its instruction commenced. At this time there was in the hands of the signal officer, to supply the whole Army of the United States, the sum of $208.94. Such scanty equipment as could be gathered was hurried to this party as it was embarking from Annapolis. It accompanied the expedition. Twenty-five officers, with their men, were crowded in one small schooner. They were driven off the coast in the gale which so severely damaged the Burnside fleet, and among their earliest experiences in the service was that of a sea voyage of three weeks' duration from Fortress Monroe to Hatteras. Arriving at last at Hatteras, they were at once in action at Roanoke Island. The care with which the usefulness of this party was developed by General Burnside was repaid by their services in every engagement in his department. They originated the detachment of the signal corps now in North Carolina.
On the 10th of March, 1862, after the return of the Army of the Potomac to Alexandria, following the evacuation of Manassas, two detachments, each of 3 officers and 6 men, equipped and supplied with extra stores, were ordered to report, the one In charge of Lieut. J. B. Ludwick, Ninth Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, and acting signal officer, to Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck, then commanding the Department of the Mississippi at Saint Louis, the other in charge of Lieut. E. H. Russell, Ninth Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, and acting signal officer, to Maj. Gen. B. F. Butler, commanding the Department of the Gulf.
The party reporting to General Halleck formed under the orders of that officer a class of 20 officers and 40 men. This party was instructed, equipped, and prepared to take the field. A detachment from it served at Fort Saint Charles, White River.
At the time the whole party was reported for duty in the field and for some weeks after the Army of the Mississippi lay before Corinth. The country was unfavorable for their operations, and it was, perhaps, not contemplated that that army was to move, or that there might be service on the banks of the Mississippi and the incurrent rivers. The officers composing the party were ordered by the general commanding to rejoin their regiments, and the organization was thus on the 30th of June, 1862, broken up. The operations of the fall and winter of 1862-'63 have made it necessary to repeat the labor of the past spring, and to instruct and form anew the party of the Mississippi Valley.
The detachment detailed for the Department of the Gulf reached, after many delays, the headquarters of General Butler after the capture of New Orleans. A party was organized and instructed for service in this department. It served successfully at the battle of Bayou La Fourche. It constitutes now a part of the corps serving under General N. P. Banks.
From the date of the first order, in August, 1861, a party of 8 officers and 16 men, commanded by Lieut. W. W. Rowley, Twenty-eighth New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer, was left to serve with the forces under General Banks. During the fall and through the winter and until the advance of the force of that general into the valley of the Shenandoah, this party held stations of observation and communication on Maryland Heights, on the heights at Point of Rocks, on Sugar Loaf Mountain, at Poolesville, Md., and on the ridge at Seneca. The labors and the usefulness of this party elicited the thanks of the general under whom it served.
Early in February, 1869, a movement of the forces under General Hooker on the Lower Potomac was contemplated. They were,.it was said, to cross the river for an advance upon the enemy. A detachment of 8 officers and 25 men, equipped and mounted, commanded by Lieut. B. F. Fisher, Third Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, and acting signal officer, reported to General Hooker for service in the expected engagement. The enemy abandoned their batteries before an attack was made, and the river was crossed without opposition. The party rejoined the main Army of the Potomac in Alexandria in April, and accompanied it to the Peninsula.
MOVEMENT OF THE CORPS TO ACCOMPANY THE ARMY.
In the early days of March, 1862, the improving condition of the roads indicating that a movement of the army would be soon practicable, the corps was mobilized.
At midnight on the 9th of March, 1862, the order of the general commanding the army, directing the corps to take the field, was received at the signal camp of instruction.
At I a.m. on the 10th of March an order was received directing the field telegraphic train to be on the Little River turnpike, ready to move with the commanding general at daylight. This train had not been completed and was not ready for the field.
The camp was struck before daylight. On the evening of the 10th of March the different sections had either arrived at the points indicated in Special Orders, No. 41, or were so near those positions that the chiefs of sections had reported in person to the different generals. One section alone was prevented by impassable roads fi'om reporting before daylight on the morning of the 11th. The headquarters of the signal corps were established on the night of the 10th at Fairfax CourtHouse, Va.
On the morning of the 11th information was received that the enemy had evacuated Manassas and were rapidly falling back towards the Rappahannock. On the morning of the 12th signal stations were established on the heights at Centreville and among the ruins, yet smoking, at Manassas. The advance station at Manassas, in charge of Lieut. J. B. Ludwick, acting signal officer, was some miles beyond our pickets, and with no guard. These stations were held with some risk and much labor while the army lay at Fairfax CourtHouse.
An effort was made to connect Manassas Junction and Union Mills by a line of signals. The attempt failed because it was found that to do so would require more stations than officers could be spared to command.
In the reconnaissances made by signal officers of our army there was found a station occupied by the signal officers of the rebel army before and at the time of the first battle of Manassas. There is perhaps no country better formed by nature for the successful use of signal communication than on and near this battle-field. It was a subject of regretful remembrance that the Army of the United States had not secured for it in that battle such aid as signals might have given it.
On the 14th of March headquarters of the Army of the Potomac were established near Alexandria, Va. The detachments of the signal corps were quartered in that village.
BATTLE OF WINCHESTER.
While the army lay here the report of the battle of Winchester, fought by General Banks in the valley of the Shenandoah, was received. Mention of this battle is made in this report for the reason that the corps commanded by General Banks was at that time a part of the Army of the Potomac, and that the signal corps serving with him was a part of that originally formed for that army. Stations were established in this action on the right, the left, and the center of the line engaged, and also to the rear, communicating with the general commanding at Winchester. The full reports of Lieut. W. W. Rowley, Twenty-eighth New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer, and his officers, clearly define the positions taken by them on that field and the services they rendered. Lieutenant Rowley has mentioned in his report the names of Lieuts. D. A. Taylor, Third New York Artillery, and acting signal officer; S. D. By-ram, Sixteenth Indiana Volunteers, and acting signal officer; W. L. Larned, First Minnesota Volunteers, and acting signal officer; J. II. Spencer, First Minnesota Volunteers, and acting signal officer; J. H. Fralick, Thirty-fourth New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer; F. N. Wicker, Twenty-eighth New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer; I. J. Harvey, Second Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, and acting signal officer; B. N. Miner, Thirty-fourth New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer; E.A. Briggs, Forty-third New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer; E. L. Halsted, Fortieth New York Volunteers, and acting signal officer, for their parts at this battle.
The officers and men of this detachment again elicited the official commendation of General Banks on the retreat from the valley of the Shenandoah. This signal party, as was the case of that commanded by Lieutenant Wilson, acting signal officer, detailed to the corps commanded by General McDowell, served with the army corps to which they were attached throughout the summer and until (in September) the threes in front of Washington were consolidated in the Army of the Potomac for the defense of that city.
Very respectfully, general, your obedient servant,
ALBERT J. MYER, Signal Officer, Major U.S. Army,
and Chief Signal Officer Army of Potomac.
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