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The Confederate Secret service

John W. Headley, Captain, Confederate States Army

Unconscious allies of the Confederacy— newspaper correspondents in the field with the Union army, whose movements were many times revealed by newspaper despatches supplying information to the Southerners.


The Confederate States had no such secret-service organization as was developed and used by the Federal Government during the Civil War, and yet it is probably true that, in the matter of obtaining needed military information, the Confederacy was, on the whole, better served than was the North. Of course, many uses of the Federal Secret Service were not necessary in the South. The Government at Washington had to face at once the tremendous problem of separating in the non-seceding States loyalty from disloyalty to the idea that the Union formed under the Constitution was a unit and could not be divided. Thousands of citizens in the North not only denied the right of the Federal Government to invade and coerce the South, but in this belief many stood ready to aid the Confederate cause.

From such conditions as these the Southern States were practically free. They contained nothing that the North needed for the coming conflict, while the latter had much to give. The prevention of assistance to the North was not one of the problems of existence. So, while a certain class of spies and detectives for the Union and the Confederacy operated on both sides of the dividing line, the Confederacy needed none of these in its own territory. Capable devotees of the South readily volunteered for Secret Service within the Federal military lines or territory, while the United States Government was compelled to organize and employ several classes of spies and detectives all over the North, for the purpose of suppressing bounty-jumpers, fraudulent discharges, trade in contra- [287]

Nancy Hart the Confederate guide and spy The women of the mountain districts of Virginia were as ready to do scout and spy work for the Confederate leaders as were their men-folk. Famous among these fearless girls who knew every inch of the regions in which they lived was Nancy Hart. So valuable was her work as a guide, so cleverly and often had she led Jackson's cavalry upon the Federal outposts in West Virginia, that the Northern Government offered a large reward for her capture. Lieutenant-Colonel Starr of the Ninth West Virginia finally caught her at Summerville in July, 1862. While in a temporary prison, she faced the camera for the first time in her life, displaying more alarm in front of the innocent contrivance than if it had been a body of Federal soldiery. She posed for an itinerant photographer, and her captors placed the hat decorated with a military feather upon her head. Nancy managed to get hold of her guard's musket, shot him dead, and escaped on Colonel Starr's horse to the nearest Confederate detachment. A few days later, July 25th, she led two hundred troopers under Major Bailey to Summerville. They reached the town at four in the morning, completely surprising two companies of the Ninth West Virginia. They fired three houses, captured Colonel Starr, Lieutenant Stivers and other officers, and a large number of the men, and disappeared immediately over the Sutton road. The Federals made no resistance.

[288] band goods, and contract frauds, thus maintaining a large force which was prevented from doing any kind of secret service within the Southern lines or territory.

The personality, the adventures, and the exploits of the Confederate scouts and spies are seldom noted in the annals of the war, and yet these unknown patriots were often a controlling factor in the hostilities. Generals depended largely on the information they brought, in planning attack and in accepting or avoiding battle. It is indeed a notable fact that a Confederate army was never surprised in an important engagement of the war.

Apart from the military service in the field, the State Department at Richmond maintained a regular line of couriers at all periods between the capital and Maryland, and thus kept familiar with every phase of the war situation at Washington and in the North. The operations of these skilful secret agents gave constant employment to the detective force of the Federal Middle Department. One efficient means of securing information was through agents at Washington, Baltimore, New York, and other Northern points, who used the cipher and inserted personals in friendly newspapers, such as the New York News, Express, and Day Book. These journals were hurried through to Richmond. At the opening of the war many well-known people of Baltimore and Washington were as hostile to the Federal Government as were the inhabitants of Richmond and New Orleans, and these were of great service to the Southern armies.

Colonel Thomas Jordan, adjutant-general of the Confederate forces under General Beauregard at Manassas, made arrangements with several Southern sympathizers at Washington for the transmission of war information, which in almost every instance proved to be extremely accurate. On July 4, 1861, some Confederate pickets captured a Union soldier who was carrying on his person the returns of McDowell's army. ‘His statement of the strength and composition of [289]

Old capitol prison, Washington, in the early days of the war

This historic building once the temporary Capitol of the United States, played a large part in the workings of the Federal secret service; its superintendent, William P. Wood, was a special secret agent of the War Department. It was used for the incarceration of many Confederate prisoners of war, suspects and political offenders. Mr. Wood frequently subjected his wards to searching examination. Information thus gained was immediately forwarded to the Secretary of War. Mrs. Greenhow, Belle Boyd, Mrs. Morris, M. T. Walworth, Josiah E. Bailey, Pliny Bryan, and other famous Confederate spies spent some time within its walls. The advantage gained by the Confederate secret agents was often nullified through the counter information secured by the Federal scouts. The photograph shows one of Colonel Sharpe's trusted men, a private of the Third Indiana Cavalry, who would often lead out a party of scouts to get information as to the location and strength of the various parts of the Army of Northern Virginia. These men would go forward until they discovered the line of Confederate pickets, and then use all their trained powers of observation to find out what was behind it. Citizens in the neighborhood were closely questioned, and all the information procurable was turned in to Colonel Sharpe

Old capitol prison, Washington, in the early days of the war

Daniel Cole, a Federal scout

[290] that force,’ relates Beauregard, in ‘Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,’ ‘tallied so closely with that which had been acquired through my Washington agencies . . . that I could not doubt them. . . . I was almost as well advised of the strength of the hostile army in my front as its commander.’

Not only that, but Beauregard had timely and accurate knowledge of McDowell's advance to Manassas. A former government clerk was sent to Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow, at Washington, who was one of the trusted friends of the Confederacy and most loyal to its cause. She returned word in cipher immediately, ‘Order issued for McDowell to march upon Manassas to-night,’ and the vitally important despatch was in Beauregard's hands between eight and nine o'clock on that same night, July 16, 1861. Every outpost commander was immediately notified to fall back to the positions designated for this contingency, and Johnston in the Valley, who had likewise been informed by careful scouting parties that Patterson was making no move upon him, was able to exercise the option permitted by the Richmond authorities in favor of a swift march to Beauregard's assistance.

Thus ‘opportunely informed,’ the Confederate leader prepared for battle without orders or advice from Richmond. The whole of these momentous Confederate activities were carried out through the services of couriers, spies, and scouts. In the opening of the war, at least, the Confederate spy and scout system was far better developed than was the Federal.

As the war went on, each commanding general relied upon his own spies and the scouts of his cavalry leader. Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston was a nephew of Albert Sidney Johnston and served on General Bragg's staff from Stone's River to Chattanooga. All through this important campaign he had charge of the secret-service orders and reports. He has related how he always utilized soldiers of known intelligence, honor, and daring as spies, without extra compensation, and employed the cavalrymen of Wheeler, Morgan, and Forrest [291]

Belle Boyd—a famous secret agent of the Confederacy This ardent daughter of Virginia ran many hazards in her zeal to aid the Confederate cause. Back and forth she went from her home at Martinsburg, in the Valley, through the Federal lines, while Banks, Fremont, and Shields were trying in vain to crush ‘StonewallJackson and relieve Washington from the bugbear of attack. Early in 1862 she was sent as a prisoner to Baltimore. However, General Dix, for lack of evidence, decided to send her home. This first adventure did not dampen her ardor or stop her activities. Since she was now well known to the Federals, her every movement was watched. In May she started to visit relatives in Richmond, but at Winchester happened to overhear some plans of General Shields. With this knowledge she rushed to General Ashby with information that assisted Jackson in planning his brilliant charge on Front Royal. On May 21st she was arrested at the Federal picket-line. A search showed that she had been entrusted with important letters to the Confederate army. About the 1st of August Miss Boyd was taken to Washington by order of the Secretary of War, incarcerated in the Old Capitol Prison and was afterward sent South.

[292] as scouts. It was the same with Lee and the commanders in the Trans-Mississippi Department.

In ‘StonewallJackson's 1862 campaign against Banks. Fremont, and Shields in the Valley of Virginia, the Federal forces were defeated, within a month, in five battles by an army that aggregated one-fifth their total, though divided, numbers. This great achievement must not be attributed entirely to the genius of Jackson and the valor of his army. A part of the glory must be given to the unknown daring spies and faithful scouts of Ashby's cavalry, who were darting, day and night, in all directions. Their unerring information enabled Jackson to strike and invariably escape. On the other hand, the Federal generals had no such means of gathering information, and they seem never to have been protected from surprise or advised of Jackson's movements.

Among the most noted bands of Confederate scouts was one organized by General Cheatham, over which one Henry B. Shaw was put in command. Shaw, who had been a clerk on a steamboat plying between Nashville and New Orleans, had an accurate knowledge of middle Tennessee, which in the summer of 1863 was in the hands of the Federal army, owing to Bragg's retreat from Tullahoma. He assumed the disguise of an itinerant doctor while in the Federal lines, and called himself Dr. C. E. Coleman. In the Confederate army he was known as Captain C. E. Coleman, commander of General Bragg's private scouts. The scouts dressed as Confederate soldiers, so that in case of capture they would not be treated as spies. Nevertheless, the information they carried was usually put into cipher.

Shaw was finally captured and sent to Johnson's Island. The command of the famous scouts devolved upon Alexander Gregg, who continued to sign despatches ‘C. E. Coleman,’ and the Federal authorities never knew that the original leader of the daring band was in safe-keeping in Sandusky Bay.

On April 7, 1864, President Davis, at Richmond, sent the [293]

New York herald headquarters in the field, 1863 The Confederate Secret Service worked through the Northern newspapers to an extent little appreciated. Without any disloyalty on the part of the newspaper men, this was necessarily the case. The North swarmed with spies, special correspondents, paid agents, Southern sympathizers by the score, and ‘copperheads’ innumerable. It followed that Richmond often knew pretty much everything worth knowing of the disposition and preparation of the Union forces, and even of their carefully guarded plans. The Northern newspaper correspondent with the armies incurred practically all the perils that fell upon the soldier himself, and the more enterprising and successful he became, the less he ingratiated himself with the commanding generals, whose plans he predicted and whose conduct he criticised in newspaper leaders. But it was necessary that the people at home, whose money was paying for the armies in the field, should be kept informed how those armies fared, and it is safe to contend that a great debt was due to the American war-correspondents. While they were a source of information to the South on occasions, they were also active and indefatigable allies of the Northern Government, in that they persuaded the people at home to submit to the extraordinarily heavy taxation necessary to support the large and costly armies and prosecute the war to the end.

[294] following telegram to the Honorable Jacob Thompson, in Mississippi, ‘If your engagements permit you to accept service abroad for the next six months, please come here immediately.’ Thompson was a citizen of Oxford, Mississippi, and said to be one of the wealthiest men in the South. He was, besides, a lawyer and a statesman, had served in Congress, and in the cabinet of President Buchanan as Secretary of the Interior.

The reason of the sending for Thompson was that the Confederate Government had decided to inaugurate certain hostile movements in Northern territory. Clement C. Clay, Jr., of Alabama, was selected as Mr. Thompson's fellow commissioner to head the Department of the North. Both were among the foremost public men of the Confederacy. Their mission was one of great secrecy, and if one of their projects could be successfully accomplished there was no doubt, in the opinion of the Southern Government, that the war would be brought to a speedy conclusion. Negotiations looking toward peace were opened with men like Horace Greeley and Judge Black, but the correspondence with Greeley was made public, and the matter reached an untimely end.

There existed in the Northern States an essentially military organization known as the Sons of Liberty, whose principle was that the States were sovereign and that there was no authority in the central Government to coerce a seceding State. It was estimated that the total membership of this society was fully three hundred thousand, of whom eighty-five thousand resided in Illinois, fifty thousand in Indiana, and forty thousand in Ohio. The feeling was general among the members that it would be useless to hold the coming presidential election, since Mr. Lincoln held the power and would undoubtedly be reelected. Therefore it was planned to resort to force. Plans for a revolution and a new Confederacy were promoted, in all of which the Southern commissioners took a most active interest.

The grand commander of the Sons of Liberty was C. L. [295]

Vespasian Chancellor: one of ‘JebStuart's keenest scouts The scouts were the real eyes and ears of the army. From the very beginning of the war the Confederate cavalry was much used for scouting purposes, even at the time when Federal commanders were still chiefly dependent upon civilian spies, detectives, and deserters for information as to their opponents' strength and movements. They saw the folly of this, after much disastrous experience, and came to rely like the Confederates on keen-witted cavalrymen. The true scout must be an innate lover of adventure, with the sharpest of eyesight and undaunted courage. Such was Vespasian Chancellor, one of the most successful scouts in General J. E. B. Stuart's cavalry command. He was directly attached to the general's headquarters.

[296] Vallandigham, a sympathizer with the South, who in 1863 had been expelled from Federal territory to the Confederacy. He managed, however, to make his way to Canada, and now resided at Windsor. The prominence of his attitude against the further prosecution of the war led to his receiving the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Ohio, and, braving rearrest, he returned home in June, 1864, ostensibly to begin the campaign, but with a far deeper purpose in view.

In brief, Vallandigham purposed by a bold, vigorous, and concerted action, engineered by the Sons of Liberty, to detach the States of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio from the Union, if the Confederate authorities would, at the same time, move sufficient forces into Kentucky and Missouri to hold those lukewarm Federal States. The five commonwealths would thereupon organize the Northwestern Confederacy upon the basis of State sovereignty, and the former Federal Union would now be in three parts, and compelled, perforce, to end the contest with the South. The date for the general uprising was several times postponed, but finally settled for the 16th of August. Confederate officers were sent to various cities to direct the movement. Escaped Confederate prisoners were enlisted in the cause. Thompson furnished funds for perfecting county organizations. Arms were purchased in New York and secreted in Chicago.

Peace meetings were announced in various cities to prepare the public mind for the coming revolution. The first one, held in Peoria, was a decided success, but the interest it aroused had barely subsided when the publication of the Greeley correspondence marked the new Confederacy as doomed to stillbirth. The peace party in the Union was won over to the idea of letting the ballot-box in the coming presidential election decide the question of war or peace. The Sons of Liberty, none too careful as to who were admitted to membership, inadvertently elected a number of Federal spies to their ranks. Prominent members were arrested. The garrison at Camp [297]

Federal precautions against surprise. As photographed by a secret-service adversary The Confederates, kept out of their former stronghold at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by the Union army of occupation, still obtained knowledge of the state of affairs there through Lytle, the photographer, who sent pictorial evidence of the Federal occupation in secrecy to the Southern leaders. The industrious and accommodating photographer, who was willing to photograph batteries, regiments, camps, headquarters, fortifications, every detail, in fact, of the Union army, did not limit himself to sending this exact knowledge through to the Confederate Secret Service. With flag and lantern he used to signal from the observation tower on the top of the ruins of the Baton Rouge capitol to Scott's Bluff, whence the messages were relayed to the Confederates at New Orleans. Here is pictured the wreckage of private houses torn down by Colonel Halbert E. Paine, in order that the Federal batteries might command the approaches to the town and prevent a surprise. In August, 1862, General Butler, fearing an attack on New Orleans, had decided to concentrate all the forces in his department there and ordered Colonel Paine to bring troops from Baton Rouge. The capital of Louisiana accordingly was evacuated, August 21st. Paine left the Essex and Gunboat No. 7 in the Mississippi with instructions to bombard the city in case the Confederate army, then in the neighborhood, should make any attempt to enter. The citizens promised that Breckinridge's troops would not do so, and thus the town was spared.

[298] Douglas, Chicago, was increased to seven thousand. The strength of the allies was deemed insufficient to contend with such a force, and the project was abandoned. The Confederates returned to Canada.

Before the prospects of the Northwestern Confederacy had begun to wane, Captain Charles H. Cole, one of Forrest's cavalrymen, confined as a prisoner on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay, made his escape. Reporting in Canada to Mr. Thompson, plans were made at once for the seizure of the United States gunboat Michigan, which was guarding Johnson's Island, and the release of the prisoners. The plot developed rapidly, and the services of Captain John Y. Beall of the Confederate navy were added in carrying out the scheme. The Confederates on the island were ready to overpower their guards as soon as the Michigan and her fourteen guns were in Beall's hands. The 19th of December was decided on for the date of the seizure. Cole, who had become very friendly with the Michigan's officers, was to go on board and give the signal for Beall and a boat-load of Confederates to approach and surprise the vessel. Beall, who had mustered some twenty Confederates at Windsor, was approaching Sandusky Bay in the steamer Philo Parsons, which he had seized, when seventeen of his men mutinied, and he was obliged to turn back. To make the failure complete, Cole fell under suspicion and was arrested even while waiting for Beall to appear.

The latter was arrested at the Suspension Bridge railway station, about the middle of December, while working on a plan to rescue seven captured Confederate generals, as they were being transferred from Johnson's Island to Fort Lafayette. He was hanged in New York, February 24, 1865, by order of a military court, for the seizure of the steamer Philo Parsons.

The active commissioners were also attempting to carry out an economic policy which had been suggested by Secretary of State Benjamin and developed by a Nashville banker, John [299]

Photographs that furnished valuable secret-service information to the Confederates

The clearest and most trustworthy evidence of an opponent's strength is of course an actual photograph. Such evidence, in spite of the early stage of the art and the difficulty of ‘running in’ chemical supplies on ‘orders to trade,’ was supplied the Confederate leaders in the Southwest by Lytle, the Baton Rouge photographer-really a member of the Confederate Secret Service. Here are photographs of the First Indiana Heavy Artillery (formerly the Twenty-first Indiana Infantry), showing its strength and position on the arsenal grounds at Baton Rouge. As the Twenty-first Indiana, the regiment had been at Baton Rouge during the first Federal occupation, and after the fall of Port Hudson it returned there for garrison duty. Little did its officers suspect that the quiet man photographing the batteries at drill was about to convey the ‘information’ beyond their lines to their opponents.

The first Indiana heavy artillery at Baton Rouge

The first Indiana heavy artillery at Baton Rouge

[300] Porterfield by name. It was hoped thereby to work great damage to, and bring much distrust upon, the Federal finances. The Southern sympathizers in the North had, in obedience to request, converted much paper money into gold and withdrawn it from circulation. This, however, caused the price of gold to rise until it reached 290, which great figure naturally caused a change of policy. When the precious metal had fallen as low as 180, Mr. Porterfield went from Montreal, his temporary residence, to New York and began purchasing and exporting gold, selling it for sterling bills of exchange, and reconverting this into gold, the amount lost in trans-shipment being met out of the funds placed at his disposal by the commissioners. About two million dollars was thus exported, but before any perceptible disaster had been wrought upon the national finances, General Butler, in New York, arrested a former partner of Porterfield, and the latter prudently returned to Montreal.

About the 1st of September, Thompson's force of secret workers in the Southern cause had been joined by Colonel Robert M. Martin, who had been a brigade commander in Morgan's cavalry, and myself, who had served on Martin's staff. We had been detached for this service by the Secretary of War. We expected to take an active part in an attempt by the Sons of Liberty to inaugurate a revolution in New York city, to be made on the day of the presidential election, November 8th. Thompson sent Martin with seven selected Confederate officers, myself included, to report for duty to the leaders. Martin was in charge of the whole thing. The plot was exposed by Northern secret-service agents, and General Butler with ten thousand troops arrived, which so disconcerted the Sons of Liberty that the attempt was postponed. We remained in the city awaiting events, but the situation being chaotic we had nothing to do.

When Sherman burned Atlanta, November 15th, Martin proposed to fire New York city. This was agreed to by [301]

A reconnaissance by means of the camera

Lytle, the Confederate secret agent at Baton Rouge, sent photographs of the Federal occupation from time to time to his generals. Thus they could determine just where the invading troops were located. The position of the large camps north of the State House, behind the penitentiary and near the Methodist Church, their relation to the avenues of approach, could be noted through the photographs. One of General Banks' first acts on assuming command of the Department of the Gulf had been to order the reoccupation of Baton Rouge. On December 17, 1862, General Grover arrived with forty-five hundred men. About five hundred Confederates who were in the town immediately departed, and Grover prepared for an attack which did not come. Baton Rouge suffered less than might have been expected during the war. Butler gave orders for its destruction in August, 1862, but on account of the many institutions it contained these were rescinded. The State House was burned December 28, 1862, but this was due to a defective flue and not to an incendiary's vandal torch.

How the Federal Camp lay by the road of approach

The Camp near the penitentiary

The Camp in front of the Methodist church

[302] Thompson, and the project was finally undertaken by Martin and five others, including myself.

on the evening of November 25th, I went to my room in the Astor House, at twenty minutes after seven. I hung the bedclothes over the foot-board, piled chairs, drawers, and other material on the bed, stuffed newspapers into the heap, and poured a bottle of turpentine over the whole mass. I then opened a bottle of ‘Greek fire’ and quickly spilled it on top. It blazed instantly. I locked the door and went downstairs. Leaving the key at the office, as usual, I passed out. I did likewise at the City Hotel, Everett House, and United States Hotel. At the same time Martin operated at the Hoffman House, Fifth Avenue, St. Denis, and others. Altogether our little band fired nineteen hotels. Captain Kennedy went to Barnum's Museum and broke a bottle on the stairway, creating a panic. Lieutenant Harrington did the same at the Metropolitan Theater, and Lieutenant Ashbrook at Niblo's Garden. I threw several bottles into barges of hay, and caused the only fires, for, strange to say, nothing serious resulted from any of the Hotel fires. It was not discovered until the next day, at the Astor House, that my room had been set on fire. Our reliance on ‘Greek fire’ was the cause of the failure. We found that it could not be depended upon as an agent for incendiary work. Kennedy was hanged in New York, march 25, 1865.

we left New York on the following Saturday over the Hudson River Railroad, spent Sunday at Albany, and arrived in Toronto on Monday afternoon.

every Confederate plot in the North was fated to fail. The Federal Secret service proved to be more than a match for the Sons of Liberty and the Confederates. Captain T. H. Hines, another daring officer of Morgan's command, had undertaken an even more extensive plot in Chicago for November 8th, election night. He had to assist him many escaped prisoners of war, Confederate soldiers, and members of the [303]

The fate of a Confederate spy before Petersburg 1864 the photograph gives an excellent idea of a military execution of a Confederate spy within the Federal lines. The place was in front of Petersburg; the time August, 1864. it is all terribly impressive: the double line of troops around the lonely gallows waiting for the unfortunate victim who is about to suffer an ignominious death. Many devoted Sons of the South met their fate by accepting duty in the Secret service and performing the work of a spy. The penalty of capture was certain death on the gallows, for the real spy wore civilian clothes and consequently could not claim the protection of the uniform. Many men refused to do most kinds of Secret-service work, scouting and gathering information, unless they were permitted to wear the insignia of their calling, but sometimes it was absolutely impossible to appear in uniform, and then the worst penalty was risked. Many men, Federals and Southerners too, actuated by the most patriotic and self-denying motives, thus met death not only in shame, but also completely severed from all that was dear to them; for in their anonymity had lain the large part of their usefulness. Their names will not be found on any roll of honor. Their place is among the unknown heroes of history.

[304] Sons of Liberty. The plot involved not only the overpowering of the little garrison at Camp Douglas, and the release of over eight thousand military prisoners, but the cutting of telegraph wires, the seizure of banks, the burning of the railroad stations, the appropriation of arms and ammunition within the city, in fact, the preparation for a General uprising in favor of terminating the war.

the Federal Secret service, however, forestalled the conspirators' plans, and one hundred and six of them were arrested on November 7th. They were subsequently tried by a military court at Cincinnati, and many were sent to penitentiaries for terms ranging from three years to life.

such were the last of the Confederate operations from Canada. The considerable force collected there gradually returned to the Confederacy. Martin and I left during the first week of February, 1865. we went from Toronto to Cincinnati and Louisville, where we attempted to kidnap the Vice President elect, Andrew Johnson, on his way to the inauguration. This failing, about ten o'clock on the morning of march 1st we went to a stable where Major Fossee of General Palmer's staff kept three fine horses. Two of these we seized, locked the surprised attendants in the stable and rode away to the South. We were at Lynchburg when Lee surrendered at Appomattox, eighteen miles away.

as we came to Salisbury, North Carolina, we met two gentlemen strolling alone in the outskirts. Martin recognized them as President Davis and Secretary of State Benjamin. We halted, and Mr. Benjamin remembered Martin. He enquired for Colonel Thompson. Continuing South, we fell in at Chester, South Carolina, with Morgan's old brigade under General Basil W. Duke, and marched in President Davis' escort as far as Washington, Georgia, where he left us all behind, and the Confederacy perished from the earth. [305]

central station Washington signalling across the Potomac

The signal service


A quiet evening, before the dangerous work began: signal Camp of instruction, at red hill, Georgetown, 1861. Fashionable folks from Washington have come to the signal Camp to look at what seems a strange new pastime of the soldiers, playing with little sticks and flags and entertaining themselves at night with fireworks. But now the shadows lengthen, and the visitors are mounting their horses and about to take their places in the waiting barouche to depart. In the foreground the signal-men are lounging comfortably, feet in the air, or drowsing against the sides of their tents. Their work is done, unless practice is ordered with the rockets and lights after the nightfall. A few months from now they will be in a place where the patronizing visitors will be loth to follow. With Confederate shells shrieking about them on the Peninsula, [307] the men with the flags will dip and wave and dip again, conveying sure information to ‘Little Mac’ more speedily than the swiftest courier. Who would grudge them these few moments of peaceful comfort at twilight when he learns that the ratio of killed to wounded in the Signal Corps was one hundred and fifty per cent., as against the usual ratio of twenty per cent. in other branches of the service? Many found their fate in Confederate prisons. Sense of duty, necessity of exposure to fire, and importance of mission were conditions frequently incompatible with personal safety—and the Signal Corps paid the price. In no other corps can be found greater devotion to duty without reward.


Experts of the United States signal service photographed in 1861: chief signal officer A. J. Myer, with a group of his subordinates at red hill. General (then Major) Myer is distinguishable, leaning against the table on the right-hand page, by the double row of buttons on his field-officer's coat. The group comprises Lieutenant Samuel T. Cushing, Second United States Infantry, with seventeen officers selected for signal duty from the noted Pennsylvania Reserve Corps. Most of the enlisted men were from the same volunteer organization. It is interesting to examine the field paraphernalia with which the corps was provided. Every man has a collapsible telescope, or a powerful field-glass. Leaning against the table is a bunch of staffs, to which the flags were attached, for wig-wagging signals. One of the signal flags is lying in front of the group, and another is extended in the breeze behind. White flags with a red center were most frequent. In case of snow, a [309] black flag was used. Against a variegated background the red color was seen farther. In every important campaign and on every bloody ground, these men risked their lives at the forefront of the battle, speeding stirring orders of advance, warnings of impending danger, and sullen admissions of defeat. They were on the advanced lines of Yorktown, and the saps and trenches at Charleston, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson, near the battle-lines at Chickamauga and Chancellorsville, before the fort-crowned crest of Fredericksburg, amid the frightful carnage of Antietam, on Kenesaw Mountain deciding the fate of Allatoona, in Sherman's march to the sea, and with Grant's victorious army at Appomattox and Richmond. They signaled to

Porter clearing the central Mississippi River, and aided Farragut when forcing the passage of Mobile Bay.


Signaling from the Cobb's Hill tower by the Appomatox.

In this second view of the Cobb's Hill signal tower, appearing in full length on the opposite page, the signalman has dipped his flag forward in front of him—signifying ‘Three.’ Signal messages were sent by means of flags, torches, or lights, by combinations of three separate motions. With the flag or torch initially held upright, ‘one’ was indicated by waving the flag to the left and returning it to an upright position; ‘two’ by a similar motion to the right; and ‘three’ by a wave or dip to the front. One or more figures constituted a letter of the alphabet, and a few combinations were used for phrases. Thus 11 indicated ‘A,’ 1221 ‘B,’ 212 ‘C,’ and so on. 12221 meant ‘Wait a moment’; 21112 ‘Are you ready?’ And 3 meant the end of a word, 33 the end of a sentence, and 333 the end of a message. Where a letter was composed of several figures, the motions were made in rapid succession without any pause. Letters were separated by a very brief pause, and words or sentences were distinguished by one or more dip motions to the front; one, signifying the end of a word; two, the end of a sentence; and three, the end of a message. The tower shown in this photograph, 125 feet high, was first occupied June 14, 1864. It commanded a view of Petersburg, sections of the Petersburg and Richmond Railway, and extended reaches of the James and Appomattox Rivers. Its importance was such that the Confederates constructed a two-gun battery within a mile of it for its destruction, but it remained in use until the fall of Petersburg.


‘Three’—signaling from the Cobb's hill tower by the Appomattox—1864

‘Three’—signaling from the Cobb's hill tower by the Appomattox—1864


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Tennessee (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Sutton, Mass. (Massachusetts, United States) (1)
Stone River (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Scotts Bluff (Washington, United States) (1)
Salisbury, N. C. (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Richmond (Virginia, United States) (1)
Peoria (Illinois, United States) (1)
Oxford (Mississippi, United States) (1)
Mobile Bay (Alabama, United States) (1)
Missouri (Missouri, United States) (1)
Mississippi (United States) (1)
Maryland (Maryland, United States) (1)
Martinsburg (West Virginia, United States) (1)
Lynchburg (Virginia, United States) (1)
Louisville (Kentucky, United States) (1)
Louisiana (Louisiana, United States) (1)
Kentucky (Kentucky, United States) (1)
Kenesaw Mountain (Georgia, United States) (1)
Front Royal (Virginia, United States) (1)
Fredericksburg, Va. (Virginia, United States) (1)
Edgefield (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Douglass (Nevada, United States) (1)
Chester, S. C. (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Chattanooga (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Chancellorsville (Virginia, United States) (1)
Atlanta (Georgia, United States) (1)
Allatoona (Georgia, United States) (1)
Alabama (Alabama, United States) (1)

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