“Thus secured perfect communication”: Lt. Town’s South Carolina signal stations

In an earlier post, I discussed Colonel Edward Serrell’s report concerning the work to establish a chain of signal stations across the South Carolina coast:


Serrell’s activities were confined to the construction of the towers and supporting facilities, to include basic defenses.  First Lieutenant Franklin E. Town, from the 42nd New York Volunteers was the Chief Signal Officer in the Department of the South.  This string of stations was Town’s brainchild.  On January 14, 1864, Town submitted his report on the establishment of the South Carolina communication line:

During the latter part of September I suggested to the major-general commanding the practicability of a line through, and after some consideration of the subject he authorized me to construct it. The plan I had submitted contemplated the erection of three towers, respectively, at Botany Bay, Otter, and Saint Helena Islands. He directed Colonel Serrell, commanding New York Volunteer Engineers, to build these towers at the points designated by myself.

Town and Serrell started work on the line on October 7, with both men and their accompanying staff departing Folly Island on the steamer Ella Morse.  The team surveyed Botany Bay, Saint Helena Sound, and Saint Helena Island before starting work on towers.  With a detail of 120 men from the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, Town was able to delegate work done on Otter Island and Botany Bay stations, while he focused on establishing the line from Hilton Head out to Saint Helena Sound.  The work got under way in the middle of October.

On the 3d of November it was thought that the towers were far enough advanced to commence practicing from them. I opened communication that day between Otter and Saint Helena Islands. I could not see Hilton Head from Saint Helena tower, so I arranged a plan of rocket signals to get the line. I went to Hilton Head and tried it; saw the rockets and marked the line. I also tried the same plan between Botany Bay and Otter Islands, and found and marked the lines, but could not see the towers, they not having reached the necessary height.

The main problem at that point was the inability to see the station on top of the Headquarters Building at Hilton Head (photo below) from the station setup on Saint Helena Island.

That latter station was located inland on the island near (I don’t know exactly where) the Episcopal Church.  A good location in one respect, as it offered a connection to Beaufort, and other posts around Port Royal Sound.  But even from a 126 foot tall tower at that location Town could only see the “highest masts at Hilton Head.”  At that point, Town determined the best solution was to locate a tower closer to Hilton Head and connect across Saint Helena Island by way of telegraph.  There he established a station at Sea Side plantation on November 13.  Yet even there he had trouble seeing Hilton Head’s station.

Finding it so difficult to communicate with Sea Side from Hilton Head, I decided to make a new station, and accordingly made one at Dr. Lawrence’s place, called Luccaneaugh, 3 miles nearer Hilton Head. This not being visible from the tower on Saint Helena, I ran a line of wire over 7 miles to connect the two stations, and thus secured perfect communication as far as Otter Island.

Turning then to the next set of hops along the line, Town ordered the towers at Otter Island and Botany Bay raised making both at least 140 feet high (please refer to the illustrations provided by Serrell of those towers).  Yet visibility would not allow signal operators to see the flags clearly.  On November 21, Town landed at Edingsville to setup a station.  But the weather did not permit his landing.  Instead Big Bay Island, closer to Otter Island, was selected for an intermediate station.  The site was not far from an old Confederate fortification.  To accelerate the work, the engineers utilized lumber and other materials from those works.  Work started on November 25 and within two days a 35 foot tall tower was up.  The intermediate station resolved the issues between Otter Island and Botany Bay.

The next link in the chain lay between Botany Bay and Kiawah Island.  Although Town had ordered a station on Kiawah earlier in late October, no work had been done before the first of November.  At first the signal officers tried using a small signal platform to relay between Botany Bay and Folly Island.  Even with a new station established on the extreme south end of Folly Island, the platform was not sufficient.  So Town ordered a thirty foot tower on Kiawah which could see Botany Bay and Folly Island with ease.

Finally on November 12, the line of stations was complete.  Major General Quincy Gillmore sent a message to Brigadier-General Truman Seymour.  A reply sent that evening was delayed waiting for a heavy fog to clear the next day.  A rough start, but the communication line was established.  The line continued to operate through December and into January with occasional problems due to fog or storms.  This, Town felt, was a seasonal issue.  In fact, he felt the station on Big Bay Island might be bypassed during warmer months.

Not completely satisfied with his work, Town offered a few suggestions to improve the chain.  He wanted to build a higher station at the Folly Island headquarters, bypassing the station on the south end of that island and avoiding transcription of messages to the telegraph line.  He also wanted to place a station at Edingsville, equidistant between Botany Bay and Otter Island.  (These improvements are depicted in light blue on the map above.)  He also suggested a taller tower on Hilton Head and adjustments on Saint Helena Island.  All these adjustments would reduce the transmission time of messages:

It now takes about thirty minutes, under ordinary circumstances, to transmit a message of ten words from headquarters to Hilton Head, but with those improvements the time would be reduced to twenty, or perhaps fifteen, minutes, and it would relieve for other duty 2 officers and 12 men, and dispense with the use of 8 miles of wire, with the operators and men to keep it in repair.

Assessing the work done to complete the network, Town wrote:

There were many unforeseen and unavoidable delays and difficulties to overcome, which were entirely new, but I think the success of the communication is no longer doubtful. There appears to be a wide discrepancy between the distances marked on the chart by which I arranged my plan and the actual distances.

Town and Serrell had completed a communication line extending close to 60 miles across the South Carolina coast.  Transmission times were 30 minutes, and with improvements might slip below 20.  No small feat in the days before radio.

(Town’s report is located in OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 454-9.)


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