A fine network of wig-wags: Signal stations for the Army of the Potomac, Winter 1864

When the Army of the Potomac went into winter quarters in December 1863, it carried into the season a basic communication network which used semaphore flags, established at the close of the Mine Run Campaign.  Although the area occupied by the army remained at most a few hours ride in width and breadth, the need for immediate, in the 1864 sense of the word, transmittal meant the army retained the signal flag, commonly referred to as “wig-wag,” system into the winter months.

I’ve spent some time getting familiar with this network of signal stations by reading through dispatches and matching source with destination addresses.  But as with anything “Culpeper” related, the most important resource to pin down anything is my friend Clark “Bud” Hall, who’s input has refined what otherwise would be vague references.

The wig-wag system supplemented and extended the telegraph system running along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Culpeper back to Alexandria and Washington, D.C.  And it is important to understand the delineation here between the wig-wags and the telegraph lines.  Throughout the war, the operation of the telegraph, save some tactical applications, was handled by the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps, with civilian contractors.  The telegraph lines were placed by a Telegraph Construction Corps.  Again, a separate organization from the Signal Corps and staffed with contractors.  Some of them are seen here in this photo taken at Brandy Station:

The civilian contract-built and maintained telegraph lines were primarily for communication outside the army.  While in Culpeper, one would assume wire was also run from Army Headquarters down to subordinate units.  However, one would also assume if that was done, there would be plenty of telegraph poles in the background of the many photos taken during that time period.  I’ve seen only a few examples of such.

Lone tree-jpeg

This would lead me to propose the use of telegraph within the army was limited, perhaps due to the lack of telegraph operators to distribute down past the corps level.  Furthermore, given the proximity of the headquarters one would also conclude the effort and resources was hardly worth expenditure.  A good horse and an hour ride could suffice in most situations.

On the other hand, the wig-wag stations were heavily used within the army that winter.   Those were staffed by Signal Corps personnel and led by Captain Lemuel B. Norton, Chief Signal Officer of the army:


The signal stations established by Norton spanned Culpeper County:


This wide ranging network served two important military purposes – communications and intelligence. This is evident in the layout of these stations.   To the north was a string of stations co-located near headquarters elements; to the south were stations on high ground affording observation of the Confederate lines over the Rapidan River; and a station on Pony Mountain operated as a central “hub” to relay messages.

Winter Encampment 096
Pony Mountain

The station on Pony Mountain was not on the highest crest, but rather just down on a plateau (to the left of view above).  The layout of the station appears in one of Alfred Waud’s sketches:

However, a sketch by Edwin Forbes shows a different, perhaps improved, structure:

Just northwest of Pony Mountain, Norton maintained a “warming station” at a house labeled “Curtiss” on the map (you’ll have to zoom in to find it).  There, no doubt, Norton and his men enjoyed many a good cup of coffee, while rotating through their assignments.

The prominence of Pony Mountain afforded a view of Culpeper County, especially to the south across the Rapidan.  Clark’s Mountain directly south of there was a Confederate signal station.

Winter Encampment 009
Clark’s Mountain

And to the north, all the corps headquarters were visible from Pony Mountain.  Keeping the halves of this network in mind, consider the northern half:


Three stations were on Fleetwood Hill, with the Sixth and Third Corps headquarters in addition to the main Army Headquarters.  To the east, a station near Providence Church supported Fifth Corps headquarters.  A station on Cole’s Hill supported Second Corps.

Winter Encampment 097

To the northwest of Pony Mountain, a station on the high ground outside Culpeper Court House linked in the First Corps.    Though labeled “Near Culpeper Court House,” I’m not certain that the Forbes sketch below depicts that signal station.

The sketch is dated to April 1864 and I would expect that by that time a proper and formal station would be operational.  Then again, it is a good study of the type of “tree stations” used by the Signal Corps during the war.

While the “northern half” stations could operate as an intelligence gathering platforms, save for Cole’s Hill, those manning did not have much visibility of Confederate territory.  Their role was more to support command and control measures within the army.  We signaleers find that of interest, as the business of the army flowed from flag to flag.  But it was not the flashy side of the winter encampment.  In the next installment on the Signal Stations, I’ll turn to the southern half of the network and how that integrated with the cavalry pickets to provide solid intelligence to General George G. Meade during the winter of 1864.


3 thoughts on “A fine network of wig-wags: Signal stations for the Army of the Potomac, Winter 1864

  1. Many thanks, Craig, for this extremely informative and thorough post. For the first time, the Army of the Potomac’s ’63-’64 winter encampment communications mechanism prior to the Overland Campaign is herein thoroughly and comprehensively described. And if the truth be known, Capt. Lemuel Norton and his able staff were the unsung heroes of Overland Campaign planning as one only need scan the insightful observation reports he dispatched from Pony Mountain to comprehend how valuable his services were to commanding officers.
    Napoleon wrote prior to the Battle of the Pyramids, “the secret of war lies in the communications,” and you, Craig, have performed yeoman service in detailing and emphasizing this vital military component–one which is often unfortunately overlooked in campaign histories.

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