150 years ago: The Signal Corps on the Peninsula

Albert J. Myer. Library of Congress descriptio...
Gen. A. J. Meyer, U.S.A. Chief Signal Officer

Overshadowed by the great battles during the Seven Days, the Signal Corps played an important, if small, role in the Army of the Potomac’s operations during the campaign. Small… as in forty-four pages of reports in the Official Records from the Chief Signal Officer, Major Albert J. Myer. From June 25 to July 4, 1862, in addition to the assigned chore of passing official communications, the signal officers provided intelligence and fire direction.

In his initial report written on July 18, Myer pointed to six specific instances in which signal officers influenced the course of events. These included coordination for the evacuation of White House Point; intelligence passed to commanders at the battles of Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station, and Malvern Hill; establishing communications with the Navy in the later stages of the campaign.

Myer provided a more detailed account of the Signal Corps contributions in a report posted later that year in October. Communicators used signal flags, signal rockets, and mobile telegraph wagons during the Seven Days. Myer’s signal officers put that equipment to good use from the start of the Seven Days. On June 25, the wig-wags aided Federal defenses against the Confederate diversionary attack at Oak Grove:

In the action which ensued Lieutenants McCreary and [E. A.]Denicke, acting signal officers, were posted in a tree-top in front of Casey’s redoubt, from which they overlooked the positions of the enemy not visible from the ground. Hence messages were sent in reference to the direction and range of our artillery when engaged to Lieut. C. S. Kendall, First Massachusetts Volunteers, and acting signal officer, stationed with the batteries on the Williamsburg road. The movements of the enemy’s troops visible from this position, and some of them important, were reported to Lieutenant Beckett, acting signal officer with General Heintzelman. The station on the tree-top was rendered unpleasant by now and then musketry fire and occasional shots from the enemy’s sharpshooters. In addition to the services rendered by reporting the location and movements of the enemy, the reports from this station caused to be stopped during the action the fire of one of our batteries which was persistently throwing its shells among our own men.

Ah, yes, the practice of directing artillery discussed a few weeks back (this time a full year before the date on that West Virginia marker).

The next day, at Mechanicsville, the signal officers assigned the provided information about Confederate movements in addition to passing communications. Late in the evening, knowing the Confederates were able to “intercept” the signal flag messages, the signal stations forwarded a false message regarding reinforcements – sort of a low level deception.

During the battle of Gaines’ Mill on June 27, signal officers established signal stations in direct support of the corps engaged. A good signal location is on high ground, allowing for line of sight to other stations. But line of sight to friendly positions often comes with line of sight to enemy positions too. The stations came under heavy fire during the engagement. Use of telegraph wagons proved difficult due to breaks in the temporary wire lines to the rear.

The telegraph wagon, again, proved too cumbersome for employment at Savage Station. So the signal officers used their wig-wags instead. During the battle, the communicators observed the Confederate railroad gun in action:

… the enemy showed themselves on the line of the railway, and opened upon the troops near the central signal station with a gun of the heaviest caliber. The piece is reported to have been either an 8-inch columbiad or a 64-pounder rifle, mounted upon a railway car, and moved upon the railway. The range and service of the piece were splendid, and its fire was most annoying until silenced by a battery of Parrott guns near our center. The signal flag offered too perfect a mark to be used among troops in its presence, and the station here, with the one established before the action, on the right of our line, and now practically useless, ceased working.

In the days that followed, the signal officers’ role increased with the need to coordinate with the Navy. Terrain aided the communicators. “The position of Malvern Hill,” as Myer noted, “nearly 2 miles from the James River, and yet commanding a view of that stream, is perhaps as perfect as could be chosen for combining by the use of signals the operations of the fire of land and naval forces.” Signal stations on Malvern Hill and Haxall’s House could observe the approaches to the Federal position and at the same time pass messages to the Navy’s warships. (Gordon Calhoun mentioned the signal detachments serving on the ships yesterday on the Civil War Navy Sesqucentennial blog.)

On June 30, signal officers began directing naval fires against Confederate columns. Myer recorded an interesting exchange between the stations:

The Haxall station was ordered to immediately report by signals to the general any further facts of interest that might occur. The gunboats were got under way at once, and signals passed from one to another to “Come on and shell the enemy.” … The enemy’s column moving down the-River road came rapidly through the woods to a point within close range and opened on the heights with field artillery. The long lines of dust in the woods and beyond them marked the positions of their infantry. The contest was rapid and decisive. … Our batteries on the hill came promptly into position and opened in reply, while the great guns of the fleet threw in their shells fairly among the enemy. Almost as soon as the gunboats had left Haxall’s Station the signal station on Malvern Hill had come in view to the signal officers stationed on the mast-tops, and the signal messages from the field, “Fire one mile to the right,” “Good shot,” “Fire low and into the woods near the shore,” &c., were reported to the gunners in a few minutes after their broadsides were opened. The gunboats continued their fire for some time after the land batteries had ceased, and until the enemy’s columns, repulsed and scattered, were out of range and hidden from view.

The communication directing fires, while rough in format, is not far removed from that used adjusting artillery fire by radio on the modern battlefield.

Signal officers continued to direct fire support from the Navy on July 1. Myer noted, “At one time the order went to fire only single guns, and to wait after each the signal report of the shot. About 6 p.m., while the last attack was raging, it was signaled, ‘Fire rapidly; this is the crisis of the day.’

The next day, as the Army of the Potomac fell back to Harrison’s Landing, the signal officers continued to direct the gunboats as they covered the retreat. At one point, the Confederates pressed the rear of the wagon trains too closely. The wig-wags flurried and naval gunfire rained down:

A force of the enemy following, and getting in range, opened upon them with two pieces of artillery. The teamsters were becoming anxious and alarmed, the roads were full, and there was danger of a confusion which might cost us the loss of a large number of wagons, with their stores. A message was sent by order of General McClellan to the flag officer of the fleet to notify him that the enemy were annoying the rear of the trains, and to ask that a vessel move up to repel them. The distance and position were given. The Maratanza was signaled from the flag-ship of the duty required, and steamed off immediately. The second shot from her 11.inch gun fell close to the enemy’s battery. It was hastily withdrawn.

The Seven Days were over, but the need for communications continued. At Harrison’s Landing the signal officers continued to provide the link to the Navy, although passing more mundane traffic at that stage of operations.

During the Peninsula Campaign, Myer’s signal detachments did yeoman work. The roles they took on align to three or four specialties in the modern army context. Combat support is never glamorous. But it is essential… be that 1862 or 2012.

(Myer’s reports appear on the Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part I, Serial 12, pages 221-264.)