A series of towers along the coast: Federal communication network in South Carolina

On January 6, 1864, Colonel Edward Serrell, 1st New York Engineers, submitted a report on the construction of signal towers and other structures to support a communications link between Hilton Head and Folly Island, South Carolina:

I have the honor to report, for the information of the major-general commanding, that the line of signal towers from these headquarters to Hilton Head is now completed and in operation.

Beginning at Hilton Head, the line commences at the old headquarters building, from which it was proposed to telegraph to the signal tower erected at the junction of the roads between Beaufort and Saint Helena Village, and that leading to the Episcopal Church on Saint Helena Island, but the distance was found to be too great, and an intermediate station has been established at Jenkins’ plantation, 8¼ miles from Hilton Head. This is merely a reading-room and platform. From Jenkins’ to the tower, 6 ½ miles, communication is made by military magnetic electric telegraph.

The tower upon Saint Helena Island is formed upon three very large hard pine trees, and over them, framing in successive sections up to a total height of 138 feet above the ground.

The next tower is at Otter Island [Plate XVI, below], 8 ½ miles farther up the coast. The framework is two towers, one within the other, counterbraced. The total height is 142 feet above the ground. This tower is stockaded, and could, with a good garrison, hold out against an attack of the enemy for some considerable time. The stockade is flanked by tambours at two angles.


The next station is at Bay Point, Edisto Island, distant 5 miles from Otter Island. This is merely a temporary work 43 feet high, 16 feet square, and stands on a sand-hill about 18 feet above high-water mark. It is surrounded by abatis, but is not otherwise fortified.

The next point is at Botany Bay Island, where there is a tower 138 feet high above the ground and 30 feet square at the base.


This tower [Plate XVII, above], being at a very exposed point, has been well fortified by stockade, flanked on the angles by tambours and abatis outside. The entrance is by ladders over the abatis and stockade. These ladders are movable, and are to be drawn in at night, or in case of an attack. In the tower, 18 feet above the ground, there is a platform of timber, surrounded by a loop-holed wall of timber 4 feet high and 7 inches thick. This tower should be able to resist a strong attack.

Serrell provided the distances between stations:

  • Hilton Head to Jenkins’ (Luccaneaugh on the map below, for reasons that will be explained in a later post) – 8 ½ miles
  • Jenkins’ to Saint Helena – 6 ½ miles
  • Saint Helena to Otter Island – 8 ½ miles
  • Otter Island to Bay Point Island – 5 miles
  • Bay Point to Botany Bay – 9 ½ miles
  • Botany Bay to Folly Island, south end – 14
  • (Botany Bay to Kiawah – not listed but about 8 miles)
  • (Kiawah to Folly Island, south end – not listed but about 6 miles)
  • To department headquarters, Folly Island – 3¼

I’ve laid the arrangements described by Serrell on the map below, adjusted to incorporate more detailed descriptions provided by First Lieutenant Franklin Town, 42nd New York Infantry and volunteer signal officer:


Yes, click to “embiggin.”  Sorry for the scale, but as you can see, this network covered a lot of seacoast.  This network went active during the first week of December 1863.  I’ve included the locations of key Confederate command posts and observation posts.  The posts on James Island reported the Federal signal activity almost the day messages started being passed from Folly Island.  And, as you may recall, Captain J. J. Magee scouted the tower at Otter Island around the same time.  So to say this network was secure would be a gross characterization.

In his report, Serrell went on to say the towers at Botnay Bay and Folly Island were too far apart, requiring an intermediate station on Kiawah Island (distance listed in parenthesis above, as not provided directly by Serrell in his report).

The towers at Kiawah, Botany Bay, Bay Point, Otter Island. Saint Helena Island, and the station at Jenkins’, were built by Lieut. Charles F. Hartmann,  from plans furnished from this office. The work was done by three detachments of volunteer engineers, assisted by fatigue parties of infantry.

Serrell did not mention them directly, but many of the fatigue parties supplied were from the 55th Massachusetts Infantry.

In an addendum to his report, Serrell provided descriptions and drawings of the booms laid between Folly and Morris Island in order to protect the signal wire running across Light House Inlet.  “Great attention has been paid to this matter,” he wrote.  As such, I have determined to provide it “great attention” in a separate post!

(Also see:  Improvements to the network of stations.)

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 256-7.)


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