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Civil War Signal Corps

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.

25 Comments

  1. Were the “balloon observers” part of the signal corps or artillery?

    • No, they served at the pleasure of the commanding general. During the Civil War, Balloon observers were civilians. They never received military commissions and if captured could be put on trial as spies. They were formed and lead by a presidential appointee named Thaddeus Lowe. Only the President and some generals promoted their use. Even though they provided a lot of good, brave, work, ranks below general considered them “carnival performers” and never accepted them as a military unit. The Balloon Observation Corp (as it was known) was disbanded after Mr. Lowe resigned in 1863.

    • Initially assigned to the Topographical Engineers, the Balloon Corps were the Army’s step children. As Robert Hoke correctly stated, they served at the pleasure of the Commanding Generals and even provided support to the Navy when Army leadership didn’t want it.

      Aeronaut James and Ezra Allen continued providing aerial observation after Lowe resigned, but also resigned after a catastrophic failure of one of the balloons. There was no support of senior leadership for Balloon repair or replacement.

    • Phil, here is a link to several books about the Balloon Corp if you’re interested in learning more.

      http://www.civilwarballooncorp.com/books.html

    • You can also learn more through my Civil War Balloon Corps page on facebook

      https://www.facebook.com/civilwarballoons/

  2. How unusual to find others who are interested in the Signal Corps, as it is such a little known part of the Civil War. I was a volunteer at a local historic home/museum, Roseland Cottage, Woodstock Ct. The museum offers school programs concerning a soldiers life during the Civil War. Sevaral stations are set up and students visit each station to learn about various aspects of a soldiers life. One station focuses on the Signal Corps, including how to use a flag to send messages and how to use a ‘Wiz Wheel’ to encipher
    and decipher messages.

    • Do you have any facts on observation balloons? I know the Union used them. Did the Confederates? The Signal Corps was sort of an orphan of the Army. That is why the original aircraft used by the Army were assigned to them.Who would have thought that the Signal Corps fostered the Air Corps, Army Air Force (USAAF) and finally the United States Air Force?

      Phil Kiraly

  3. And what about the field telegraphs, in use by 1864?

  4. I believe the first air to ground telegram was from the balloon called the “Enterprise” and it was to Lincoln. If I remember correctly the confederates did use balloons but not to the success the union used.

    • Thank you…..very interesting. The “Enterprise”.would have been a perfect name.

    • 11 Union Balloons – 4 personal used at the beginning of the war and 7 built under contract – made over 3,000 ascents.

      2 Confederate Balloons made 10ish ascents. The first made 3 and was THE ONLY heated air balloon operational during the war – all the rest were gas balloons for which hydrogen provided their lift. The second Confederate Balloon was half the size of the Union’s smallest balloon and made its debut on June 24; the first time ever two opposing forces had aircraft in the sky at the same time was June 27; and the balloon – named the Gazelle – was captured on July 4th when the boat carrying it ran aground.

  5. To go where no one else has gone before.

  6. The US ARMY continued to use balloons into the beginning of WWI. My grandfather and his soon-to-be brother-in-law tried to get into the army air corps, but were instead assigned to the balloon corps. My grandfather served as such, in France. I have photographs.

    • Yes….observation balloons were used by both sides during WW l. One of our locals…..Frank Luke, was known as the “Balloon Buster”. German observation balloons were heavily guarded by anti aircraft guns (“Archies” to allied pilots). Since the balloons were filled with Hydrogen it was hazardous duty for the crews. They were issued parachutes and used them on many occasions. Allied pilots were not issued parachutes because the “Top Brass” thought it would make them less aggressive in battle! Frank Luke went after the balloons regardless.
      I think i would have liked to have sent one of the “Brass” up in an RE 8 without a chute. I’ll bet the policy would have changed!!!!

    • How simply wonderful. I know my spouse was kept out of WWII for his feet were ‘infected’ and our Vet friends tell us all the stories in vivid language. Most of my Tom’s high school friends are on the wall in DC.

      We have ALL the WWII books . We attend any book talk on this at the local History museum and pay and enjoy the ‘feet on the ground’ talks. Do you have any photograph we could see? I am retired teacher pushing 79 and he is a young 72 newspaper Superman in display advertising . Teachers never retire; they just enjoy learning. We are professionals on (c) laws and keep that for your glory. Can you share any one of these for us to admire. I could share a few art creations. Just draw a C (c) on your work and sign it and date it. We used to mail a copy of that to ourselves.

  7. Check out Signal Pointe National Park high atop Waldens Ridge above Chattanooga TN

  8. My great great grandfather, Lafayette Stebbins, was in the Signal Corps. He was from Amherst, MA.

  9. Service of Cpl. Robt. C. Cave, originally with 13th Va. Inf. from Orange County:
    Placed on detached service in Signal Corps 23 July 1863, with Gen. Early
    private horse furnished
    Paid 31 Oct 1863 for 101 days service as Signal Operator @ $0.80/day
    Appeared on Muster Roll of 13th Va. Inf. on 28 Feb. 1865;
    on detached service with Signal Corps in Valley District
    Paroled 15 May 1865 at Louisa C.H.

    He served at relay stations, including one “on a spur of Little North Mountain southwest of Winchester,” at the top of Massanutten Mountain, and lastly “at Thornton’s Gap in the Blue Ridge.”

  10. You have labored on all this work. Wow.

  11. My great-grandfather, Julian Soule, was a telegraph operator during the Civil War. We know that he lived in Columbia, SC and followed the Union soldiers when they marched through Columbia. He then worked in Tampa, FL. We have no records of his having served with either side, although he was originally from Ohio and should have been a Yankee. We suspect, though, that he was a Southern sympathizer. Would he have been part of the Signal Corps?

  12. Thaddeus Lowe was “Pancho” Barnes’ grandfather. She was an old 1930’s race pilot and ran the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a bar near Edwards Air Force Base in the late 1940’s and was a friend of Chuck Yeager’s. The movie, The Right Stuff treated her accurately from a historical aspect, at least for Hollywood standards. The old balloonists used a flammable hydrogen gas mostly, the Helium wells at Borger, Texas were drilled much later.
    I talked to a WWII Navy blimp pilot several years ago. They did valuable anti-sub service as well as air-sea rescue during the war.

    • Yes, Poncho Barnes was Lowe’s granddaughter and ascended to her own place in history.

      Yes, Balloonists of the period, Lowe was only 27, used a flammable hydrogen gas . . . .

      The North made over 3,000 ascents without incident, but everyone references flammable and danger because of one incident that occurred 75 years later with the Hindenburg

      Most will be surprised that Balloonists still use hydrogen today!! I have 34 hydrogen flights – without incident – in my logbook.

      Congress voted to sell our helium reserves in 1996 and we’re now in a severe shortage. In the 90’s it used to cost $1,200.00 to fill a thousand cubic meter balloon with helium. Now, if we can get it – which we can’t – it would cost over $30k. Gas Balloonist have gone back to using hydrogen which costs about $2,500.00 to fill a thousand cubic meter balloon. With US Regulations and the cost most us travel to Germany for our Gas Balloon flights.

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  14. What about the use of musical instruments like bugles and fifes (flutes). I had relatives who used both for the Union to signal movements. They were pre-teen age boys who went with their Dad in an Illinois unit. One was at Vicksburg and ran through a hail of Confederate bullets to inform William T. Sherman that they were out of bullets. Was appointed to Annapolis for his trouble but just didn’t have the schooling to keep up. Got a CMA too. Became a dentist and is buried in Springfield, MO.
    Don’t know how to look him up on the Navy website.