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Civil War Signal Corps

October 11, 2016 by | 25 Comments

Fold3 Image - Confederate cipher used by Signal Corps with directions on how to use it
Both the Union and the Confederacy developed an army Signal Corps during the Civil War. The job of the Signal Corps in both the North and South was to quickly and accurately relay information and orders between the commanders of different units within the two forces (which was especially crucial during battles). The main way they did this was through the use of a flag system called wig-wag (not to be confused with semaphore), which was invented by Albert J. Meyer, an army surgeon, shortly before the war.

In wig-wag, either a single flag (during the day) or lantern (at night) was moved in set patterns to the right or left to represent letters, abbreviations, and word substitutes. There were seven flags of varying sizes and colors that could be used depending on the distance the message was to be passed and what the terrain was like. Wig-wag was a faster way to communicate than sending a courier on horseback and was especially useful in areas where a telegraph system was not set up. Both sides used codes to try to keep their messages secret, but they were often able to crack the other’s codes, until the Union instituted the use of a cipher disc.

If signalmen were in a fairly permanent location, a tall wooden signal tower would often be built; otherwise, members of the Signal Corps used whatever was available to help them reach a higher elevation, including hilltops, rooftops, church steeples, and trees. The distance between signal stations was usually determined by how far the signalmen could see with a spyglass and was not often more than 6 miles. Because signalmen were in such highly visible locations, they were often the target of sharpshooters.

Fold3 Image - Washington, D.C. Central Signal Station, Winder Building, 17th and E Streets NW, and Signal Corps men
In addition to passing and receiving messages with wig-wag, signalmen also sometimes served as observers, scouts, and couriers. Although the Union and Confederate Signal Corps shared many of the same duties, the Confederate Signal Corps was also involved in espionage, including engaging in covert operations and developing a network of informants.

Fold3 has many records and images related to the Union and Confederate Signal Corps. Below are just a few examples:

Do you have ancestors who served in the Signal Corps? Tell us about them! Or search Fold3 for more information about the Signal Corps during the Civil War.

Battle of Leyte Gulf: October 23–26, 1944

October 1, 2016 by | 258 Comments

Fold3 Image - Battle of Leyte Gulf (Oct. 25)
From October 23–26, 1944, the Japanese navy unsuccessfully went up against the American navy off the coast of the Philippines in one of the largest naval battles in history. The Japanese loss at Leyte Gulf effectively finished off their navy and gave the Americans unchallenged dominance in the Pacific for the rest of World War II.

The Philippines were crucial to the Japanese war effort in Southeast Asia. So when Douglas MacArthur‘s troops invaded the Philippine island of Leyte in mid-October 1944, the Japanese sent their dwindling navy—with its now limited air power—to attack the American ships of the Third and Seventh fleets off the east shore of the island, hoping to cut off support to MacArthur’s invasion force. The Japanese planned to send a northern decoy force to draw away Bull Halsey‘s Third Fleet, while a central force (sailing through the San Bernardino Strait) and a southern force (sailing through the Surigao Strait) would cut through the Philippines to attack Thomas Kinkaid‘s Seventh Fleet simultaneously from north and south.

However, very few things went according to plan for the Japanese. The central force was discovered and attacked by American submarines on October 23 and then later pounded by American naval air power on October 24 while still in the Sibuyan Sea, causing the central force to temporarily turn around. However, because the Americans assumed the central force had permanently withdrawn, the Japanese force was eventually able to double back and continue its journey through the San Bernardino Strait unobserved.

Meanwhile, the southern Japanese force met its destruction on the night of the 24th–25th, when it attempted to pass through the Surigao Strait. Alerted to the presence of the Japanese in the strait, Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf was able to deploy his ships perpendicular to the oncoming Japanese vessels and “cross the T,” allowing his ships to fire full broadsides, while the Japanese were only able to use their forward guns.

Fold3 Image - plane lays smoke screen during Battle of Leyte Gulf when Japanese central force attacks Taffy 3
When the central Japanese force exited the San Bernardino Strait on the 25th, it discovered that the plan to draw Halsey’s Third Fleet away had been successful during the night, and it appeared that the Japanese would be able to attack the Seventh Fleet from the north without much trouble. But they soon encountered Taffy 3, the Seventh Fleet’s northernmost escort carrier group. Although it initially seemed that the small American task force stood no chance, the ships and planes of Taffy 3 (eventually aided by Taffy 2) surprised the Japanese with the pugnacity of their attacks, and the Japanese unexpectedly withdrew.

Overall, the casualties for the battle were high, though Japanese casualties far outnumbered the Americans’: 10,000 Japanese casualties versus 3,000 American. The Japanese also lost more ships than the Americans, spelling the end of effective Japanese naval power during the war. The battle was also significant for the use of a new Japanese tactic: kamikaze attacks—which would prove a significant challenge to American naval forces in the Pacific going forward.

Do you have family members who fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf? Tell us about them! Or learn more about the battle by searching on Fold3.

British WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards

September 15, 2016 by | 4 Comments

Fold3 Image - Example of a WWI Medal Roll Index Card
Do you have family members who served in the British Army during World War I? If so, you’re likely to find them in Fold3’s collection of British WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards. This collection contains 90 percent of British WWI soldiers, making it the most complete accounting of the British men and women who served in that war.

The index cards were created by the UK’s Army Medal Office toward the end of WWI to have a single record for every soldier that kept track of which medals he was eligible for. The information on the index cards was compiled from the original Medal Rolls. Because most soldiers were eligible for at least one medal, nearly all British soldiers appear in the index cards.

The most common medals were the British War Medal (a campaign medal for serving abroad during the war) and the Victory Medal (for serving in a theater of war). These two medals appear pro forma on many of the index cards, as does the 1914 or 1914-15 Star (for those who served in a theater of war during those particular years). Other campaign medals to which the soldier was entitled, as well as any gallantry awards, were written in by hand on the cards.

The listing of a medal on the soldier’s index card doesn’t necessarily mean he ever received it—it just means he was eligible to claim it. Also, since officers needed to apply to receive a campaign medal, there will only be an index card for them if they did so.

A variety of different types of index cards were used to keep track of medal information, so the information included may vary. However, fields you can typically find include the name of the soldier, corps, rank(s), regimental (service) number, name of medal(s) received, roll and page numbers of the corresponding information in the original Medal Rolls, theater of war served in and date of entry, remarks, correspondence notes, and address. Some cards may also include the date of enlistment and the date and reason of discharge. Many of the fields on the index cards contain abbreviations; a helpful explanation of the abbreviations can be found on the UK National Archives website.

On Fold3, the index cards are arranged in alphabetical order by surname. Keep in mind that some names may have been misspelled or use initials.

Get started searching or browsing the British WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards on Fold3!

TMIH: The Battle of Brandywine: September 11, 1777

September 1, 2016 by | 140 Comments

Fold3 Image - Washington reports on the American loss at Brandywine
On September 11, 1777, American troops clashed with the British in the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania, resulting in an American defeat that allowed the British to easily capture Philadelphia later that month.

In early September, with British general William Howe’s troops advancing toward Philadelphia, George Washington deployed his army along the east side of Brandywine creek, about 25 miles from Philadelphia, and took up a defensive position to meet the British. Washington was expecting the British to launch a frontal attack, and at first, that’s what appeared to be happening, as British troops congregated on the other side of the creek opposite Washington’s center.

However, Washington received intelligence that a large force of the British army was heading north to cross the creek higher up and outflank the Americans. So Washington sent out orders to reposition his troops to meet the threat. But before the orders could be fully carried out, Washington received conflicting news that there were no British to the north, and he rescinded his orders.

But it turned out that the original intelligence was correct, and there really was a large force of British about to outflank the Americans. Washington hastily repositioned the right wing of his army to meet the British flanking maneuver, but the Americans couldn’t withstand the British attack. Washington tried to reinforce his right with troops from the center, but it was too late. At about the same time, the British at the Americans’ center also attacked and likewise overpowered the Americans there, and the American army was forced to retreat.

Fold3 Image - British attack both American right and center
During the battle, the Americans suffered an estimated 1,300 casualties, with approximately 300 killed, while the British sustained 583 losses, with 89 killed. The Americans’ loss enabled the British to take Philadelphia without a fight later that month, and the Continental Congress, which met in that city, was forced to move to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the time being. Despite their defeat, the American troops remained in relatively good spirits, seeing their loss as only a temporary setback. However, Washington’s failure caused some Patriot leaders to question his skills as a commander.

Did you have ancestors who fought in the Battle of Brandywine? Tell us about them! Or search Fold3 for additional information about the battle.

UK WWI War Diaries

August 22, 2016 by | 17 Comments

Fold3 Image - Daily summaries for 20th Battalion, 2nd Division, 2nd Light Brigade
Do you have family members who served with the British Army during World War I? Look for their units in Fold3’s UK WWI Diaries to discover what they experienced during the war!

The UK WWI War Diaries are unit diaries (not personal diaries) via the National Archives of the UK that document operations and movements for British and colonial units serving between 1914 and 1920 in France, Belgium, and Germany, as well as in the Gallipoli/Dardanelles Campaign (in what is now Turkey but was then the Ottoman Empire). On Fold3, these diaries are separated into two titles: UK, WWI War Diaries (France, Belgium, And Germany) and UK, WWI War Diaries (Gallipoli-Dardanelles).

As required, all units on active duty kept a daily record of events. They were written by a junior officer, then approved by a commanding officer. Some diaries contain more information or are more descriptive or detailed than others, though most if not all record at least the date and location. While some diaries contain daily reports, intelligence summaries, tactics, and general observations, others merely record things like losses (casualties, fatalities, etc.) and map references. Likewise, the format in which the information was recorded can vary widely from diary to diary, as can the types of supplementary documents included.

Though individuals may be mentioned by name, the purpose of these diaries was to record information about the movements and actions of the unit as a whole, not to focus on particular people. Still, the war diaries can be helpful in fleshing out your understanding of what your family member experienced, as you can learn where your family member’s unit was on a given day and what activities the unit was involved in.

On Fold3, these diaries are organized by regiment, division, then sub unit. Some diaries may be somewhat challenging to read as they might be handwritten or may be carbon copies of the original records. This may require you to browse through the documents rather than relying solely on search results for the information you’re looking for. 

Do you have family members who served with the British Army during WWI? Tell us about them! Or get started looking for the units your British WWI ancestors belonged to in Fold3’s UK, WWI War Diaries (France, Belgium, And Germany) and UK, WWI War Diaries (Gallipoli-Dardanelles).

Find: U.S. Coast Guard’s 226th Birthday

August 11, 2016 by | 30 Comments

Fold3 Image - Insignia and hats of the SPARS (women's auxiliary of the Coast Guard)
This August marks the 226th birthday of the U.S. Coast Guard, originally created as the Revenue Marine in August 1790 by Congress. The Revenue Marine was formed at the request of Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, as an armed service to collect and enforce customs duties at U.S. ports. Though the Continental Navy was created before the Revenue Marine (in 1775), the Navy’s disbandment between 1790 and 1798 makes the Coast Guard the oldest continuous maritime service in the U.S.

By 1894, the Revenue Marine had officially taken on the name the Revenue Cutter Service. Then, in 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service was combined with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to create today’s Coast Guard; in 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was also incorporated, as was the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation in 1942.

The Coast Guard originally operated under the Department of the Treasury (1790), then the Department of Transportation (1967), and finally the Department of Homeland Security (2003); during World Wars I and II, it was temporarily moved to the Department of the Navy. In fact, as one of the nation’s armed services, the Coast Guard has participated in every U.S. conflict since its formation in 1790. The three main roles of today’s Coast Guard are maritime safety, security, and stewardship.

Fold3 has hundreds of thousands of search results relating to Coast Guard history. Listed below are just a few:

  • Disapproved Navy Survivors Pension File for Alexander McBride, a Revenue Marine veteran who served 1846-48
  • Civil War era photos of Revenue Marine captains H.B. Nones and J. Faunce
  • Account of the grounding of the USS Harriet Lane, a revenue cutter, during the Civil War
  • 1908 and 1913 Washington Post articles about the Revenue Cutter Service
  • Document regarding the combination of the Revenue Cutter Service and Life-Saving Service to form the Coast Guard in 1915
  • Documents relating to the proposed (but never passed) legislation in 1919 to permanently transfer the Coast Guard to the Navy Department
  • WWII War Diaries for the Coast Guard in the 3rd, 6th, and 14th Naval Districts; for the Coast Guard Air Station, Salem, MA; and others
  • Images of insignia and hats assigned to the SPARS (Coast Guard Women’s Reserve)
  • Navy Cruise Book for the USS Wakefield, a Navy troop transport ship operated by the Coast Guard, documenting its WWII cruise history
  • Photos of some WWII era Coast Guardsmen and SPARS personnel
  • Medal of Honor citation for Douglas Albert Munro, the only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously for actions in 1942)

To find more documents about Coast Guard history, try using this pre-formatted Fold3 search as a jumping off point. Or start a search of your own.

The Spanish-American War Ends: August 12, 1898

August 1, 2016 by | Comments Off on The Spanish-American War Ends: August 12, 1898

Fold3 Image - First page of Medal of Honor citations for the Spanish-American War
On August 12, 1898, representatives for the United States and Spain signed a peace protocol in Washington DC, ending the three-month-long Spanish-American War in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The American victory against the Spanish would result in the collapse of what remained of Spain’s colonial empire and would herald America’s entrance as a major player on the world stage.

The war had formally begun on April 25, 1898, when the United States declared war against Spain. Though the catalyst for America’s declaration of war was the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor (which at the time was blamed on Spain), American public opinion had been turning against Spain for some time, due to atrocities committed against Cubans in their fight for independence. After the sinking of the Maine, the U.S. joined the Cubans in their fight against Spain.

Cuba would prove to be the main stage of the war, though American troops were also sent to the Spanish possessions of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The short war included two main actions in Cuba against the exhausted, ill, and demoralized Spanish army: the Battle of San Juan Hill (with Theodore Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders) and the sea battle and subsequent land siege at Santiago de Cuba.

Fold3 Image - Spanish-American War peace protocol to be signed
Following the American siege on Santiago, the Spanish commander for that city surrendered on July 17, 1898, after being convinced that his situation was hopeless. This surrender essentially signaled the end of the war, though token fighting would occur in Puerto Rico and the Philippines after that date. The peace protocol between Spain and America was finally signed a month later on August 12, with the actual peace treaty not being signed until that December. In all, about 350 Americans died in battle during the war, with far more dying from disease.

American involvement with the former Spanish colonies was far from over at the cessation of hostilities with Spain, however. The U.S. army occupied Cuba until 1902, when the island obtained independence, though it would remain under U.S. supervision until 1934. Puerto Rico and Guam became (and still remain) U.S. territories, and the Philippines soon began a long fight for independence from the U.S. that would last until 1946.

Did you have ancestors who fought in the Spanish-American War? Tell us about them! Or you can look for these ancestors in Fold3’s Spanish-American War collection.