The Signal Corps in the Confederate States army.
The beginnings of the Signal Service in the Confederate army were about simultaneous in the Peninsular command of General John B. Magruder and in the Army of Northern Virginia under General Beauregard. Captain Norris, a member of General Magruder's staff — a gentleman of scientific education and of some nautical experience-called the attention of the General to the advantages to be derived from a system of signals connecting his outposts and his headquarters with Norfolk. Magruder forthwith gave Captain Norris the necessary authority to establish the service, and appointed him Signal Officer to the command. The signals used by Captain Norris were similar to the marine signals in use by all maritime nations. Poles were erected on which were displayed flags and balls, the combinations of which indicated various phrases, such as were conceived to be most in demand to express the exigencies likely to arise. Captain Norris (hereinafter to be spoken of as Colonel1 William Norris, Chief of the Signal Corps, Confederate States army,) caused to be made copper stencils, from which colored plates of the combinations were made, and upon the same page of the book which contained the plates were written the meanings of the combinations. The plates were colored by Miss Belle Harrison, of ‘Brandon,’ and Miss Jennie Ritchie, of Richmond. The system was from time to time improved by Colonel Norris, and this was one of the beginnings of the signal service in the Confederate States army. The other was at Beauregard's headquarters at Manassas Junction at about the same time — in the summer of 1861. Captain (afterwards General) E. P. Alexander, attached to the staff of General Beauregard,  was one of the officers who had been detailed by the Secretary of War (United States) to test and report upon the signal system of Dr. (Brigadier-General) Myer, and was consequently completely master of the system. He organized it efficiently, and thoroughly instructed a number of men selected from the ranks for their intelligence and good character. Most of these men afterwards became commissioned officers in the Signal Corps. The service was in full operation at the time of the first conflict at Bull Run, and the third shot from Ayres' battery in front of Stone Bridge went through one of Alexander's signal tents, in front of which the flags were being actively plied. General Alexander, in reply to a letter asking for information respecting the services rendered by the signal men under his direction, writes as follows:
Though communicating by signal and in cipher is as old as the time of Polybius, its application to military correspondence and messages on the field of battle had been so little systematized and developed when you were put in charge of the Confederate Signal Corps, that the art might, for practical purposes, be regarded as a new one. By judicious arrangement and administration it attained a high efficiency, and to you largely belongs the credit for that result.
Perhaps the most important service rendered by the Signal Department in the first year of the war was at the battle of Bull Run, and was in a great measure accidental. Very early in the morning of the 21st, I was on the hill by Wilcox's House, in rear of our right, and watching the flag of our station at the Stone Bridge, when, in the distant edge of the field of view of my glass, a gleam caught my eye. It was the reflection of the sun (which was low in the east behind me) from a polished brass field-piece, one of Ayres' battery, and observing attentively, I discovered McDowell's columns in the open fields, north of Sudley's Ford, crossing Bull Run and turning our left flank, fully eight miles away, I think,—but you can look at the map—from where I was. I signalled Evans at once, “Look out for your left, your position is turned.” Just as he got my message his pickets made their first report to him of cavalry driving them from Sudley's Ford. At the same time I sent a message of what I had seen to Johnston and Beauregard, who were at Mitchell's Ford, on receipt of which (see Johnston's report) Bee, Hampton and Stonewall Jackson were all hurried in that direction, and the history of the battle tells how they successfully delayed McDowell's progress, till finally the tide was turned by troops arriving in the afternoon. The rocket incident referred to I had almost forgotten. It was only that one night, on reports, that rockets were seen in the enemy's lines by our stations, that they were ordered by General Beauregard to send up rockets themselves. It was done simultaneously at many distant points, and in such a manner as to appear to indicate some important and general movement; and from what appeared afterwards in Northern papers, it seemed that McClellan had something on foot  which was disconcerted by it, he believing that his plans had been betrayed. The Munson's Hill and Washington telegraph was never actually worked, because General Johnston withdrew from the advanced and dangerous position at Munson's Hill Fort before the day fixed for it to open. Bryan was in Washington city, and was selecting a suitable room to rent, not on Pennsylvania Avenue, but in an elevated part of the city from which Munson's Hill could be seen. He was to take the bearing of the hill by compass from his window, and communicate it to us by an agreed-upon advertisement in a daily paper, which we received regularly. This would give us the bearing on which to turn our powerful telescope, loaned for the purpose by a Charleston gentleman, and in position on Munson's Hill. Then we would identify his window by finding a coffee-pot in it, and by motions of the coffee-pot, and opening and shutting the blinds, etc., he would send his messages, and we would reply, if necessary, by a large flag and by firing guns.Captain Pliny Bryan, an ex-member of the Maryland Legislature, who, on the commencement of hostilities, had volunteered in the Maryland Line, so-called, composed of Maryland volunteers in the service of Virginia, and afterwards turned over to the Confederate States. He was detailed for the Signal Service, and went to Washington, accredited to the secret friends of the Confederate States there, and with instructions that may be inferred from General Alexander's letter. In February, 1862, General Beauregard took command of the Army of the Mississippi, and assigned to duty as Chief Signal Officer Captain E. H. Cummins, of the Engineer Corps, Confederate States army. This officer advertised for spy-glasses, as there were none to be had by purchase in the department, and repairing to Madrid Bend (then occupied by Major-General J. P. McCown with his forces) with a small squad of men, who had been selected and instructed by Captain E. P. Alexander, and a very poor outfit, set up the necessary stations to establish communication between the batteries and intrenchments at New Madrid, Tiptonville, and Island No.10. The extracts following, from official sources, show that, though under manifold disadvantages, the signal men gave a good account of themselves in the first struggle for the possession of the Mississippi river. In his report of the attack upon Battery No. 1, by Commodore Foote's fleet, and attempt to destroy it by an overwhelming superiority  of fire, March 17th, 1862, Brigadier-General Trudeau, commanding the Confederate States artillery, says:
At 9 P. M. Captain Cummins, of the Signal Service, went to Battery No. 1 and established there a signal station, which proved of great service during the various engagements.Further on in his report, the General says: ‘Besides the officers already mentioned, who were conspicuous for their bravery and coolness under a galling fire, I will mention Signal Officers E. Jones and S. Rose, who never left their posts one minute. While shot and shell were tearing everything to pieces, Signal Officer E. Jones had his flag-staff shot from his hands; he coolly picked up the flag and continued to communicate his message.’ Captain (afterwards General) Ed. Rucker, commanding the battery, says: ‘E. Jones and Samuel Rose, of the Signal Corps, were engaged with me the whole day in defence of the redan, and bore themselves with great coolness and gallantry. Signal Officer Jones having the staff of his flag shot away thrice during the engagement, seized the flag in his hand, without looking around to listen to exclamations, and continued his important message to headquarters.’ The flag was probably knocked out of Mr. Jones' hands by the mud, tons of which flew in the air every time the heavy projectiles from the fleet struck the parapet. Captain Rucker says: ‘Many shot and shell fell immediately in rear of our guns, while others passed through the parapet, ploughing up the earth and destroying much of the work.’ This explanation is suggested because, while it eliminates the marvellous element from the story, it detracts nothing from the credit due Mr. Jones for his gallant conduct. It may seem presumptuous to question the literal truth of reports penned upon the spot by superior officers, and which, by lapse of years, have passed into the domain of history, but it should be remembered that official reports, written immediately after a lively action, are worded under excitement, which has not had time to cool, and in great part upon reports of others, for nobody is able at such times to see everything; besides which, the writer of these reflections was himself an eye-witness of the incidents related, through a spy-glass at a safe distance, and held in his hands, after the fight, the identical flag-staff which is said to have been thrice shot away and which was undamaged. Two more brief extracts are quoted to show that the service of the Signal Corps was not those of carpet knights. Colonel Brown, of the Fifty-fifth Tennessee volunteers, writes: ‘The enemy's heavy shot and shell poured an almost incessant volume upon our meagre  earthwork, riddling the parapet in front of our guns, ploughing up the earth in every direction and tearing down immense trees in a manner baffling description. The scene was the most terrific conceivable.’ General Trudeau also says: ‘It,’ the redan fort, ‘presented the most appalling picture of ruin and desolation. The parapet was plowed up in every direction and torn to pieces. Trees were hacked down and torn to shreds by the heavy shells and the rifled cannon.’ The signal men at Battery No. 1 had no protection whatever—not even that of the parapet behind which the gunners squatted when not firing—for their position was in rear of the guns, where fell, as Captain Rucker says, ‘many shot and shell.’ Upon the capture of New Madrid and Island No.10 by Admiral Foote and General Pope, the signal party escaped across Reelfoot lake, taking French leave of the commanding generals and paddling across on a raft of their own construction They repaired at once, of their own motion and without orders, to Corinth, Mississippi, then headquarters of the army, and reported for duty. The signal officer is merely mentioned by General Beauregard in his report of the fight at Shiloh Chapel (or Pittsburg landing) as doing active staff duty. After the battle, seventeen men were detailed to be instructed for duty in the Signal Corps; but as glasses were scarce, and all the country between Corinth and the Tennessee river was heavily wooded, the men were mounted and served chiefly as scouts and couriers while their instruction was going on and until sent elsewhere. Among those detailed at this time was Carlo Patti, a private of the One Hundred and Fifty-fourth Tennessee infantry—Colonel Smith. He quickly learned his duties and was zealous in their performance. When not employed with his flags and spy-glass, he was incessantly playing his violin. He was once sent as lance sergeant in charge of a squad of prisoners to Mobile, and it was amusing to see the care and watchfulness he displayed in authority. It would have broken his heart had one of his prisoners escaped. To finish with Carlo: He remained with the signal corps until captured off Havanna in a blockade runner in 1864. He was bound for the Rio Grande to join General Slaughter via Havanna and Mexico, but after his capture never returned to the Confederate States. Peace to his ashes; he was not a bad sort of a fellow. On falling back from Corinth, the signal men being sufficiently instructed to go on duty were dispersed to several points in the command. Clagett with one party going to Mobile, Davidson with  another to Vicksburg, and Elcan Jones with another to Kirby Smith across the river. These were three good men meriting the promotion they afterwards got. All of them became captains in the Signal Corps, and Elcan Jones, the hero of Battery No. 1, was, at the end of the war, Chief Signal Officer to General Joseph E. Johnston. Although, as has been shown, the Signal Service was in active and useful operation on several theatres of war—in the East in 1861, and early in 1862 in the West—it was not until April 19th, 1862, that the act was approved organizing the Signal Corps as a distinct branch of the Confederate army, and the Secretary of War was authorized to establish it as a separate corps or to attach it to the Adjutant and Inspector's Department or to the Engineer Corps. The Secretary decided to attach it to the Adjutant and Inspector-General's Department, and May 29th, 1862, was issued General Orders No. 40, A. & I. G. O., creating the Signal Bureau, with Major Wm. Norris, of General Magruder's staff, as the head of it. No uniform was prescribed for the Signal Corps. The officers wore the uniform of the general staff of the same grade, and the detailed men wore that of the arm of the service to which they belonged, and on the rolls of which they were borne as detailed men. The Signal Corps, as organized, consisted of one Major Commanding, ten Captains, ten first and ten second-class Lieutenants and twenty Sergeants—there were no privates, as men were detailed from the line of the army whenever wanted, and when their services were no longer required they returned to their respective commands. The detailed men in all the various branches of the service numbered about fifteen hundred, and it was a remarkable fact, that while these men were often employed in independent service, and were in possession of important secrets, not one of them ever deserted or betrayed his trust. All the detailed men were instructed in the cipher system, and entrusted with the key-word. They were also instructed in the use of the electric telegraph. When occasion required, they became dauntless messengers and agents, going into the enemy's lines and cities, or to lands beyond the sea; communicating with agents and secret friends of the Confederate Government and people; ordering supplies and conveying them to their destination; running the blockade by land and sea; making nightly voyages in bays and rivers; threading the enemy's cordon of pickets and gunboats; following blind trails through swamps and forest, and as much experts with oar and sail, on deck and in the saddle, and with rifle and revolver, as with flags, torches, telegraph, and secret cipher.  What were the duties at headquarters in the Adjutant-General's Department at Richmond, is best defined in a letter of Colonel Norris' in answer to an officer, representing the Adjutant-General, asking the question. They were, first: Management of the entire Signal Corps and cipher system of the Confederate States army—therein is included also (a) manufacture and collection of all signal apparatus and stores; (b) manufacture, collection, and distribution of all cipher apparatus—second, management and supplying secret lines of communication on the Potomac; third, translation of cipher messages received or sent by the War Department, heads of bureaus, or officers of the army. The duties of officers and employees on the Potomac are defined as follows: First, to afford transportation from and to Baltimore or Washington for all scouts, agents, etc., who shall present orders for the same from the War Department, heads of bureaus, and generals commanding armies, approved by Chief of Signal Corps; second, to observe and report all movements of the enemy on the Potomac river; third, to secure for Executive Department files of latest Northern papers; fourth, to obtain for heads of bureaus small packages, books, etc.; fifth, to forward letters from War or State Departments to agents, commissioners, etc., in foreign countries. In regard to sources of information and out of what fund paid for, Colonel Norris says:
Accredited agents constantly in New York, Baltimore, and Washington. These agents are gentlemen of high social position, who, without compensation, have voluntarily devoted their time and energies to this work. Among them I mention in confidence the name of the Hon.——. There is no secret service fund beyond the mere pay, rations, and clothing of the officers and detailed men engaged in them. These lines have never cost the Government one farthing since I assumed command. When secret information is received, it is transmitted to the Secretary of War, to General Bragg, and the general whose army or department is supposed to be immediately affected thereby; when it comes, as is generally the case, under cover, sealed and directed to a particular general, it is forwarded accordingly. We receive information regularly from the United States on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For prudential reasons no record of such communications is kept in this office, except in cipher.To the question, ‘Do the agents of the Signal Office obtain their information personally or from friendly parties?’ Colonel Norris says: ‘Two of our agents acquire their information from personal  observations, the others from friendly parties within the lines.’ To the question, ‘What are the means of testing the credibility of friendly persons living in the enemy's country?’ it is answered: ‘These agents were selected with great care and with an eye to their intelligence and devotion and energy. Actual experience alone, however, must prove their credibility.’
From the first of April to the last of September,continues Colonel Norris on another head, ‘we placed files of Baltimore papers, published one morning, in the hands of the President next evening. New York papers, of course, a day later.’ Colonel Norris gives the history of the secret service branch of the Signal Corps in the following words: ‘In the fall of 1862 the necessity of having points on the Potomac river, at which Government agents and army scouts might promptly and without delay cross to and from the United States, was so seriously appreciated that the Secretary of War suggested the propriety of establishing one or more camps in King George and Westmoreland counties, with an especial eye to such transportation. The idea was immediately acted upon. In a short time the additional duties were assigned to these stations—first, of observing and reporting all movements of troops, etc., on the Potomac; second, securing complete files of Northern papers for Executive Department; third, upon requisition from heads of bureaus to obtain from the United States small packages, books, etc. Here our duties, strictly speaking, ended. But as we were forced, in order to perform the other duties, to establish a line of agents from the Potomac to Washington, it was determined, as far as possible, to institute a regular system of espionage. The Government having failed, however, to place at our disposal the necessary means to carry into execution this design, we have been forced to rely almost entirely upon the energy and zeal of a few devoted gentlemen of Maryland for such indications of the enemy's movements as they have been able to acquire from mingling in official circles about Washington, Baltitimore, and New York.’ It was the duty of Colonel Norris to wait on Mr. Davis every morning with the cipher dispatches from the generals of armies and department commanders. The burden of these dispatches was, towards the close, calamitous and importunate—reinforcements and supplies were everywhere demanded. All looked to Mr. Davis for relief and support. It was the cry of the king to the prophet: ‘My father! my father! the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!’ Colonel Norris bears testimony to the unruffled serenity of his chief  through all these trying hours—not an impatient or despondent word ever escaped him. If Mr. Davis ever knew when he was whipped he never let anyone else know that he knew it. The secret cipher used by the Confederate States War Department was that known as the court cipher, and has been much used in diplomatic service. A key-word or phrase is agreed upon by the parties who intend to communicate in cipher. The message is written under the key. Suppose, for example, the key to be ‘In God we trust’; and the message, ‘Longstreet is marching on Fisher's Hill.’ It will be written thus: I n G o d w e t r u s t i n G o d w e t r u s t i n G o d w e t r L o n g s t r e e t i s m a r c h i n g o n F i s h e r s H i l l The alphabet is written out in a square, thus:
When this was communicated to Sheridan, as Early intended it to be, Sheridan telegraphed to Washington, and Halleck telegraphed to Grant. In time, the answer came to Sheridan that Longstreet was nowhere near Early. This telegram was long a puzzle to the Union general. When Early was asked about it after the war, he simply laughed. The Signal Corps was nowhere more useful than where the defense and operations were conducted in a field in which water occupied a large place in the topography. Such were Charleston, South Carolina, and Mobile. The reports of Captain Frank Markoe, Signal Officer at Charleston, show that during the siege thousands of messages were sent from one post to another, and from outposts to headquarters, most of which could have been sent in no other way, and many were of great importance.  It is hoped that the length of the following extracts from Captain Markoe's reports will be excused by their interest:
During the month (July, 1863,) my corps has been at work day and night. At Cummins Point (Battery Gregg) Lance Sergeant Edgerton and Privates Du Barry, Lance, Huger, Martin and Grimball have gallantly worked their post with untiring zeal and ability, constantly under heavy fire of the enemy's fleet and land batteries. Fortunately, I have no casualties to report, although their station has suffered from the enemy's fire and is full of holes. As there was no other means of communication with Morris Island, their labors have been very heavy. They have sent over five hundred messages, and at least a third of them under fire. As they are completely exhausted, I have relieved them and sent the men from Sullivan's Island to Battery Gregg. I have read nearly every message the enemy has sent. Many of them of great importance. We were forewarned of their attack on the 18th, and were ready for them, with what success is already a part of history. The services rendered by the corps in this respect have been of the utmost importance. But I regret to state, that, by the carelessness of staff-officers at headquarters, it has leaked out that we have read the enemy's signals. I have ordered all my men to disclaim any knowledge of them whenever questioned. My men have also been actively employed in guiding the fire of our guns, and have thus rendered valuable service.In his August report, Captain Markoe says:
At Fort Sumter, H. W. Rice was twice injured by bricks. At Battery Wagner, I. P. Moodie was shot in the thigh by a musket ball; J. D. Creswell was struck in the face by pieces of shell, and I received a slight flesh wound in the side by a piece of shell. These are all the casualties, I am glad to say. The work done has been very large, as the telegraph line has been constantly out of order for days at a time. We have continued to read the enemy's signals, and much valuable information has been obtained. I have temporarily changed the signals, as we intercepted a message from the enemy as follows: “Send me a copy of Rebel Code immediately, if you have one in your possession.” I make the men, moreover, work out of sight as much as possible, and feel sure that they can make nothing out of our signals.In his next (September) month's report, Captain Markoe continues:
Morris Island was evacuated by our forces on Sunday night, the 6th of September. I brought off my men and all the signal property on the Island. Lance Sergeant Lawrence and Privates Clark and Legare were stationed at Battery Gregg, and Privates Grimball and  Hatch at Battery Wagner from the 1st of September to the day of evacuation. They were exposed to the heaviest fire that the enemy had ever put upon those works, and performed their duties with conspicuous gallantry. Often the enemy's shell, exploding on the fort, would completely envelop the men and flag with smoke and sand for a minute, but as it cleared away the flag would still be waving. I have to report Private Clark badly burned in the left hand, and Lance Sergeant Laurence struck on the right arm with a piece of shell. From the commencement of the attack on Morris Island to the day of the evacuation, my men have transmitted nearly one thousand messages on that Island. On the night of the 5th, the enemy made an attack on Battery Gregg, which failed, and was repulsed by the timely notice from Sullivan's Island Signal Station, which intercepted the following dispatch:Captain Markoe's rolls show the employment of seventy-six men, of which number he lost through casualties as large a per cent. as any command in the action. Twelve of his men did nothing but read the enemy's papers. Mr. A. T. Leftwich, who was stationed in the cupola of the courthouse at Vicksburg, in 1863, contributes the following reminiscence:
The attack on Fort Sumter, on the night of the 8th, was foiled by a similar notice. The dispatch was:
During the attack on Sumter, Private Frank Huger was placed in charge of the fire-ball party on the parapet, numbering some thirty men, and assisted in giving the enemy a warm reception. Major Elliot, commanding the post, speaks highly of his conduct on that occasion. The enemy have been using a cipher in signalling, which has so far baffled our attempts to read their messages. They have not used it lately, however, and several important dispatches have been read.
During the siege, a fifteen-inch mortar shell went through the top of the courthouse and exploded on the lower floor, where there were quartered some one hundred or so men. It seemed to me as if the whole earth had exploded, for I was in a room on the second floor—  and need scarcely say that the horrible sight of finding fourteen mep scattered into fragments and a number of others wounded, was terrible to behold. You know, of course, that we emptied every cistern in the town and depended upon the muddy Mississippi water in the hot summer time to quench our thirst; that we ate bread of ground cow-peas, and depended for meat upon dead mules and rats.An indispensable condition to the prolongation of the war was the running of the blockade of Southern ports by the swift cruisers built and fitted expressly for the purpose. Such were the profits of this business that the owners could well afford to lose vessel and cargo on her third trip if the two first were successful. No life could be more adventurous and exciting than that of a blockade-runner. The Signal Corps played its part here also. Every blockade-runner had its signal officer furnished with signalling apparatus and the key to the secret cipher. The coast was lined with stations for thirty or forty miles up and down on either side of the blockaded part. The blockade-runners came in close to shore at night-fall, and fitfully flashed a light, which was soon answered from the shore station. Advice was then given as to condition of things off the port, the station and movements of the hostile fleet, etc. If the word was ‘go in,’ the beacon lights were set and the blockade-runner boldly steamed over the bar and into the port. A naval officer was in charge of the office of orders and details at the several ports, whence proceeded all orders and assignments in relation to pilots and signal officers. Captain Wilkinson, C. S. N., in his interesting Narrative of a blockade-runner, tells the following incident illustrative of the uses of a signal officer in this line of duty: ‘The range lights were showing and we crossed the bar without interference and without a suspicion of anything wrong, as would occasionally happen under particularly favorable circumstances that we would cross the bar without even seeing a blockader. We were under the guns of Fort Fisher, in fact, and close to the fleet of United States vessels, which had crossed the bar after the fall of the fort, when I directed my signal officer to communicate with the shore station. His signal was promptly answered, but turning to me, he said: “No Confederate signal officer there, sir; he cannot reply to me.” The order to wear around was instantly obeyed; not a moment too soon, for the bow of the Chameleon was scarcely pointed for the bar before two of the light cruisers were plainly visible in pursuit, steaming with all speed to intercept us. Nothing saved us from capture but the twin screws,  which enabled our steamer to turn as upon a pivot in the narrow channel between the bar and the ribs. We reached the bar before our pursuers, and were soon lost in the darkness outside.’