talking flags and Torches.
Ho! my comrades, see the signal
Waving through the sky;
Re-enforcements now appearing,
Victory is nigh.
Yes, there were flags in the army which talked for the soldiers, and I cannot furnish a more entertaining chapter than one which will describe how
they did it, when
they did it, and what they did it for. True, of the flags used in the service told stories of their own. What more eloquent than “Old glory,” with its thirteen stripes, reminding us of our small beginning as a nation, its blue field, originally occupied by the cross of the English
flag when Washington
first gave it to the breeze in Cambridge
, but replaced later by a cluster of stars, which keep a tally of the number of States in the Union
What wealth of history its subsequent career as the national emblem suggests, making it almost vocal with speech!
The corps, division, and brigade flags, too, told a little story of their own, in a manner already described.
But there were other flags, whose sole business it was to talk to one another, and the stories they told were immediately written down for the benefit of the
soldiers or sailors.
These flags were Signal
flags, and the men who used them and made them talk were known in the service as the Signal Corps
What was this corps for?
Well, to answer that question at length would make quite a story, but, in brief, I may say that it was for the purpose of rapid and frequent communication between different portions of the land or naval forces.
The army might be engaged with the enemy, on the march, or in camp, yet these signal men, with their flags, were serviceable in either situation, and in the former often especially so; but I will begin at the beginning, and present a brief sketch of the origin of the Signal Corps.
The system of signals used in both armies during the Rebellion
originated with one man — Albert J. Myer
, who was born in Newburg, N. Y.
He entered the army as assistant surgeon in 1854, and, while on duty in New Mexico
and vicinity, the desirability of some better method of rapid communication than that of a messenger impressed itself upon him. This conviction, strengthened by his previous lines of thought in the same direction, he finally wrought out in a system of motion telegraphy.1
Recognizing to some extent the value of his system, Congress created the position of Chief Signal Officer
of the army, and Surgeon Myer
was appointed by President Buchanan
to fill it. Up to some time in 1863 Myer
was not the Chief Signal Officer
alone, but the only
signal officer commissioned as such, all others then in the corpsand there were quite a number — being simply acting signal officers
on detached service from various regiments.
One of the officers in the regular army, whom Surgeon
had instructed in signalling while in New Mexico
, went over to the enemy when the war broke out and organized a corps for them.
From this small beginning of one man grew up the Signal Corps.
As soon as the value of the idea had fairly penetrated the brains of those whose appreciation was needed to make it of practical value, details of men were made from the various regiments around Washington
, and placed in camps of instruction to learn the use of the “Signal kit,” so called.
The chief article in this kit was a series of seven flags, varying from two feet to six feet square.
Three of these flags, one six feet, one four feet, and one two feet square, were white, and had each a block of red in the centre one-third the dimensions of the flag; that is, a flag six feet square had a centre two feet square; two flags were black with white centres, and two were red with white centres.
When the flags were in use, they were tied to a staff, whose length varied with the size of the flag to be used.
If the distance to signal was great, or obstructions intervened, a long staff and a large flag were necessary; but the four-foot flag was the one in most common use.
It will be readily inferred that the language of these flags was to be addressed to the eye and not the ear. To make that language plain, then, they must be distinctly seen by the persons whom they addressed.
This will explain why they
were of different colors.
In making signals, the color of flag to be used depended upon the color of background against which it was to appear.
For example, a white
flag, even with its red centre, could not be easily seen against the
sky as a background.
In such a situation a black
flag was necessary.
With green or darkcolored backgrounds the white
flag was used, and in fact this was the
flag of the signal service, having been used, in all probability, nine times out of every ten that signals were made.
Before the deaf and dumb could be taught to plate 3.
made. Let me illustrate these motions ing cuts.
talk, certain motions were agreed upon to represent particular ideas, letters, and figures.
In like manner, a key, or code
, was constructed which interpreted the motions of the signal flag,--for it talked by motions,--and in accord with which the motions were by the accompany-
Plate 1 represents a member of the Signal Corps in position, holding the flag directly above his head, the staff vertical, and grasped by both hands.
This is the position from which all the motions were made.
Plate 2 represents the flagman making the numeral “2” or the letter “i.”
This was done by waving the flag to the right and instantly returning it to a vertical position.
To make “1” the flag was waved to the left, and instantly returned as before.
See plate 3.
This the code translated as the letter “t” and the word “the.”
“5” was made by waving the flag directly to the front, and returning at once to the vertical.
The signal code most commonly used included but two symbols, which made it simple to use. With these, not only could all the letters of the alphabet and the numerals be communicated, but an endless variety of syllables, words, phrases, and statements besides.
As a matter of fact, however, it contained several thousand combinations of numerals with the significance of each combination attached to it. Let me illustrate still further by using the symbols “2” and “1.”
Let us suppose the flagman to make the signal for “1,” and follow it immediately with the motion for “2.”
This would naturally be read as 12, which the code showed to mean O. Similarly
, two consecutive waves to the right, or 22, represented the letter N. Three waves to the right and one to the left, or 2221, stood for the syllable tion
. So by repeating the symbols and changing the combinations we might have, for example, 2122, meaning the enemy are advancing
; or 1122, the cavalry have halted;
or 12211, three guns in position
; or 1112, two miles to the left
,--all of which would appear in the code.
Let us join a signal party for the sake of observing the method of communicating a message.
Such a party, if complete, was composed of three persons, viz., the signal officer
(commissioned) in charge, with a telescope and fieldglass;
the flagman, with his kit, and an orderly to take charge of the horses, if the station was only temporary.
The point selected from which to signal must be a commanding position, whether a mountain, a hill, a tree-top, or a house-top.
The station having been attained, the flagman takes position, and the officer sweeps the horizon and intermediate territory with his telescope to discover another signal station, where a second officer and flagman are posted.
Having discovered such a station, the officer directs his man to “call” that station.
This he does by signalling the number of the station (for each station had a number), repeating the same until his signal is seen and answered.
It was the custom at stations to keep a man on the lookout, with the telescope, for signals, constantly.
Having got the attention of the opposite station, the officer sends his message.
The flagman was not supposed to know the import of the message which he waved out with his flag.
The officer called the numerals, and the flagman responded with the required motions almost automatically, when well practised.
At the end of each word motion “5” was made once; at the end of a sentence “55” ,; and of a message “555.”
There were a few words and syllables which were conveyed by a single motion of the flag; but, as a rule, the words had to be spelled out letter by letter, at least by beginners.
Skilled signalists, however, used many abbreviations, and rarely found it necessary to spell out a word in full.
So much for the manner of sending
Now let us join the party at the station where the message is being received
. There we simply find the officer sitting at his telescope reading the message being sent to him. Should he fail to understand any word, his own flagman signals an interruption, and asks a repetition of the message from the last word understood.
Such occurrences were not frequent, however.
The services of the Signal Corps were just as needful and
valuable by night as in daylight; but, as the flags could not then talk understandingly, Talking Torches
were substituted for them.
As a “point of reference” was needful, by which to interpret the torch signals made, the flagman lighted a “foot torch,” at which he stood firmly while he signalled with the “flying torch.”
This latter was attached to a staff of the same length as the flagstaff, in fact, usually the flagstaff itself.
These torches were of copper, and filled with turpentine.
At the end of a message the flying torch was extinguished.
The rapidity with which messages were sent by experienced operators was something wonderful to the uneducated looker-on.
An ordinary message of a few lines can be sent in ten minutes, and the rate of speed is much increased where officers have worked long together, and understand each other's methods and abbreviations.
Signal messages have been sent twenty-eight miles; but that is exceptional.
The conditions of the atmosphere and the location of stations were seldom favorable to such longdistance signalling.
Ordinarily, messages were not sent more than six or seven miles, but there were exceptions.
Here is a familiar but noted one:--
In the latter part of September, 1864, the Rebel
army under Hood
set out to destroy the railroad communications of Sherman
, who was then at Atlanta
The latter soon learned that Allatoona
was the objective point of the enemy.
As it was only held by a small brigade, whereas the enemy was seen advancing upon it in much superior numbers, Sherman
signalled a despatch from Vining's Station to Kenesaw
, and from Kenesaw
, whence it was again signalled to Rome
It requested General Corse
, who was at the latter place, to hurry back to the assistance of Allatoona
was propelling the main body of his army in the same direction.
On reaching Kenesaw
, “the signal officer reported,” says Sherman
, in his Memoirs
, “that since daylight he had failed to obtain any answer to his call
; but while I was with him he caught a faint glimpse of the tell-tale flag through an embrasure, and after much time he made out these letters
and translated the message ‘Corse
It was a source of great relief, for it gave me the first assurance that General Corse
had received his orders, and that the place was adequately garrisoned.”
has informed me that the distance between the two signal stations was about sixteen miles in an air line.
Several other messages passed later between these stations, among them this one, which has been often referred to:--
The occasions which called the Signal Corps into activity were various, but they were most frequently employed in reporting the movements of troops, sometimes of the Union
, sometimes of the enemy.
They took post on elevated stations, whether a hill, a tall tree, or the top of a building.
Any position from which they could command a broad view of the surrounding country was occupied for their purpose.
If nature did not always provide a suitable place for lookout, art came to the rescue, and signal towers of considerable height were built for this class of workers, who, like the cavalry, were the “eyes” of the army if not the ears.
I remember several of these towers which stood before Petersburg
They were of especial use there in observing the movements of troops within the enemy's lines, as they stood, I should judge, from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet high.
Although these towers were erected
somewhat to the rear of the Union
main lines, and were a very open trestling, they were yet a conspicuous target for the enemy's long-range guns and mortar-shells.
Sometimes the nerve of the flagman was put to a very severe test, as he stood on the summit of one of these frail structures waving his flag, his situation too like that of Mahomet's coffin, while the Whit-
worth bolts whistled sociably by him, saying, “Where is he?
Where is he?”
or, by another interpretation, “Which one?
Had one of these bolts hit a corner post of the lookout, the chances for the flagman and his lieutenant to reach the earth by a new route would have been favorable, although the engineers who built them claimed that with three
posts cut away the tower would still stand.
But, as a matter of fact, I believe no shot ever seriously injured one of the towers, though tons weight of iron must have been hurled at them.
The roof of the Avery House
, before Petersburg
, was used for a signal station, and the shells of the enemy's guns often tore through below much to the alarm of the signal men above.
Signalling was carried on during an engagement between different parts of the army.
By calling for needed reenforce-ments, or giving news of their approach, or requesting ammunition, or reporting movements of the enemy, or noting the effects of shelling,--in these and a hundred kindred ways the corps made their services invaluable to the troops.
Sometimes signal officers on shore communicated with others
on shipboard, and, in one instance, Lieutenant Brown
told me that through the information he imparted to a gunboat off Suffolk
, in 1863, regarding the effects of the shot which were thrown from it, General Longstreet
had since written him that the fire was so accurate he was compelled to withdraw his troops.
The signals were made from the tower of the Masonic Hall
, whence they were taken up by another signal party on the river bluff, and thence communicated to the gunboat.
Not long since, General Sherman
, in conversation, alluded to a correspondent of the New York Herald whom he had threatened to hang, declaring that had he done so his “death would have saved ten thousand lives.”
The relation of this anecdote brings out another interesting phase of signalcorps operations.
It seems that one of our signal officers had succeeded in reading the signal code of the
enemy, and had communicated the same to his fellowoffi-cers.
With this code in their possession, the corps was enabled to furnish valuable information directly from Rebel headquarters, by reading the Rebel
signals, continuing to do so during the Chattanooga
and much of the Atlanta campaign
, when the enemy's signal flags were often plainly visible.
Suddenly this source of information was completely cut off by the ambition of the correspondent to publish all
the news, and the natural result was the enemy changed the code.
This took place just before Sherman
's attack on Kenesaw Mountain
(June, 1864), and it is to the hundreds slaughtered there that he probably refers.
was ordered to arrest the reporter, and have him hanged as a spy; but old “Pap” Thomas
' kind heart banished him to the north of the Ohio
for the remainder of the war, instead.
's headquarters were at Big Shanty, there was a signal station located in his rear, on the roof of an old gin-house, and this signal officer, having the “key” to the enemy's signals, reported to Sherman
that he had translated this signal from Pine Mountain
,--“Send an ambulance for General Polk
's body,” --which was the first tidings received by our army that the fighting bishop had been slain.
He was hit by a shell from a volley of artillery fired by order of General Sherman
To the men in the other arms of the service, who saw this mysterious and almost continuous waving of flags, it seemed as if every motion was fraught with momentous import.
“What could it all be about?”
they would ask one another.
A signal station was located, in ‘61-2, on the top of what was known as the Town Hall
(since burned) in Poolesville, Md.
, within a few rods of my company's camp, and, to the best of my recollection, not an hour of daylight passed without more or less flag-waving from that point.
This particular squad of men did not seem at all fraternal, but kept aloof, as if (so we thought) they feared they might, in an unguarded moment, impart some of the important secret information which had been received by them from the station at Sugar Loaf Mountain
Since the war, I have learned that their apparently excited and energetic performances were, for the most part, only practice between stations for the purpose of acquiring familiarity with the code, and facility in using it.
It may be thought that the duties of the Signal Corps were always performed in positions where their personal
safety was never imperilled.
But such was far from the fact.
At the battle of Atlanta
, July 22, 1864, a signal officer had climbed a tall pine-tree, for the purpose of directing the fire of a section of Union artillery, which was stationed at its foot, the country being so wooded and broken that the artillerists could not certainly see the position of the enemy.
The officer had nailed a succession of cleats up the trunk, and was on the platform which he had made in the top of the tree, acting as signal officer, when the Rebels
made a charge, capturing the two guns, and shot the officer dead at his post.
From the important nature of the duties which they performed, the enemy could not look upon them with very tender regard, and this fact they made apparent on every opportunity.
Here is an incident which, I think, has never been published:--
When General Nelson
's division arrived at Shiloh
, Lieutenant Joseph Hinson
, commanding the Signal Corps attached to it, crossed the Tennessee
and reported to General Buell
, after which he established a station on that side of the river, from which messages were sent having reference to the disposition of Nelson
The crowd of stragglers (presumably from Grant
's army) was so great as to continually obstruct his view, and in consequence he pressed into service a guard from among the stragglers themselves to keep his view clear, and placed his associate, Lieutenant Hart
, in charge.
Presently General Grant
himself came riding up the bank, and, as luck would have it, came into Lieutenant Hinson
's line of vision.
Catching sight of a cavalry boot, without stopping to see who was in it, in his impatience, Lieutenant Hart
sang out: “Git out of the way there!
Ain't you got no sense?”
very quietly apologized for his carelessness, and rode over to the side of General Buell
When the lieutenant found he had been addressing or “dressing” a major-general, his confusion can be imagined.
After arriving before Fort McAllister
, General Sherman
sent General Hazen
down the right bank of the Ogeechee
to take the fort by assault, and himself rode down the left bank to a rice plantation, where General Howard
had established a signal station to overlook the river and watch for vessels.
The station was built on the top of a rice-mill.
From this point the fort was visible, three miles away.
In due time a commotion in the fort indicated the approach of Hazen
's troops, and the signal officer discovered a signal flag about three miles above the fort, which he found was Hazen
's, the latter inquiring if Sherman
He was answered affirmatively, and informed that Sherman
expected the fort to be carried before night.
signalled that he was ready, and was told to go ahead.
Meanwhile, a small United States
steamer had been descried coming up the river, and, noticing the party at the rice-mill, the following dialogue between signal flags ensued:--
“Who are you?”
“ General Sherman
“Is Fort McAllister
“ Not yet; but it will-be in a minute.”
And in a few minutes it was
taken, and the fact signalled to the naval officers on the boat, who were not in sight of the fort.
During the battle of Gettysburg
, or, at least, while Sickles
was contending at the Peach Orchard
against odds, the signal men had their flags flying from Little Round Top
; but when the day was lost, and Hood
with his Texans pressed towards that important point, the signal officers folded their flags, and prepared to visit other and less dangerous scenes.
At that moment, however, General Warren
of the Fifth Corps appeared, and ordered them to keep their signals waving as if a host were immediately behind them, which they did.
General E. P. Alexander
, the officer referred to as having organized the Rebel
Signal Corps, in an article in the
for January, 1887, describing “Pickett
's charge,” says that he was “particularly cautioned, in moving the artillery, to keep it out of sight of the signal-station upon Round Top
In a foot-note referring to this caution he says:--
This suggests the remark that I have never understood why the enemy abandoned the use of military balloons early in 1863, after having used them extensively up to that time.
Even if the observer never saw anything, they would have been worth all they cost, for the annoyance and delays they caused us in trying to keep our movements out of their sight.
That wretched little signal-station upon Round Top that day caused one of our divisions to lose over two hours, and probably delayed our assault nearly that long.
During that time a Federal corps arrived near Round Top, and became an important factor in the action which followed.
In a note addressed to the historian of the Signal Corps Association, to whom General Alexander
has furnished a sketch of the organization of the Rebel
Signal Corps, he says:--
You are more than welcome to the compliment I paid the signal-station on Round Top in my article in the January Century. I have forgiven all my enemies now; and though you fellows there were about the last that I did forgive, I took you in several years ago, and concluded to “let by-gones be by-gones.”
Thy work is done; along Virginia's river
No more thy signal flies;
From Georgia's hills by night no more the quiver
Of thy red torch shall rise.
There came a noon when from the bastions frowning
Of every fort and bay
Flung out a banner; hurrying on and crowning
The mountains far away.
We left undecked no hamlet's little steeple
That loud with joy-bells rung;
And from the breasts of a too happy people
Its passion-flowers were hung.
We knew its language; knew our work was over;
And hailed, while ours we furled,
The only Flag whose sovereign folds shall cover
Henceforth our Western world.