Intelligence forwarded by wig-wag: Signal Stations as Observation Posts

Consider this exchange of messages filed by Captain Lemuel Norton’s signal stations on February 24, 1864:

Pony Mountain, February 24, 1864–10.40 a.m.
Captain Norton:
A brigade of infantry moving down in direction of Morton’s Ford.
Headquarters Army of the Potomac,
February 24, 1864.
Lieutenant Bartley:
Watch that brigade closely. How far from Morton’s Ford are they, and where did they come from?
Pony Mountain, February 24, 1864.
Captain Norton:
They were pickets. They came from Clark’s Mountain. The others have gone back.
February 24, 1864–10.50 a.m.
Lieutenant Bartley,  Pony Mountain:
Was it our infantry or rebel?
Pony Mountain, February 24, 1864–11 a.m.
Captain Norton:
Hdqrs. Army of the Potomac, Signal Dept.,
February 24, 1864.
Captain Taylor,
(Through Third Cavalry Division headquarters):
Pony Mountain reports a brigade of rebel infantry moving down in direction of Morton’s Ford. Keep a sharp lookout for them and report their progress and intention, if learned.
Chief Signal Officer.
Stony [Point], February 24, 1864–1 p.m.
Captain Norton,
Chief Signal Officer, Army of the Potomac:
A brigade of the enemy’s infantry came down this a.m. to point of woods near Stringfellow’s Ford, where his pickets were stationed, and relieved the pickets on our front. Probably that was what was reported by Pony Mountain. The old pickets, five regiments, have just moved back toward camp.
Captain and Signal Officer.
Cedar Mountain, February 24, 1864.
Commanding General First Army Corps:
The smoke along Lost Mountain keeps constantly changing in position. I think it must be fire in the woods. Deserters report Lomax’s cavalry brigade as being disbanded to recruit. No other change.
Signal Officer.

This was just part of one day’s activity reported by the Federal signal stations during the winter encampment of 1864.


As mentioned in the first post about the signal stations, the wig-wag network consisted a northern half connecting army headquarters to subordinate units and a southern half providing observation stations overlooking Confederate positions.  Focusing on the southern half in detail:


These stations overlooked the fords over the Rapidan River so well that even rotation of Confederate pickets could be observed on clear days (as seen in the exchange above).  Again, Pony Mountain was the critical relay point for this network.  Not only could the signal officers on that mountain see Clark’s Mountain and other Confederate positions, the station there could also connect to all the stations both north and south in Culpeper.  I’ll go into more detail about Pony Mountain in a follow up post.

To the south, a station on Cedar Mountain, established in January of that year, covered upstream fords to Rapidan Station.  Another station, not continually manned, on Garnett Hill provided coverage upstream to Barnett’s Ford.  This station was often called “Wiggins’ Station” for its primary operator – Lieutenant John Wiggins (mentioned in the last dispatch above).


Also not continually manned, due to its close proximity to Confederate lines, a station on Piney Mountain offered direct observation of the fords at the foot of Clark’s Mountain. Piney Mountain (on the original version of the map used above), or Buzzard Hills, received the nickname “Bubby Hills” because it resembled… um… use your imagination.

Winter Encampment 031

Just north of there, an auxiliary station at Mitchell’s Station connected to an advance brigade from the First Corps, when they were in that area.   Another auxiliary station on Stony Point overlooked Morton’s Ford and other crossing sites downriver.  Cole’s Hill, at the Second Corps headquarters provided some coverage to the east.   To the west side of the Federal encampment, a station on Thoroughfare Mountain could observe any activity from that sector.  Additional stations in Fauquier County (the “other” Piney Mountain and Watery Mountain) observed the Blue Ridge gaps.

Throughout the winter of 1864, these stations supplemented the cavalry and infantry picket lines which formed the “feelers” of the army.  As evidenced by the numerous reports filed in the Official Records, these stations provided the immediate reports needed at Army Headquarters off Fleetwood Hill, which kept General George Meade and staff well informed of Confederate activity that winter.

The work of Norton’s signal troops helped set a close affiliation, still felt in the modern U.S. Army, connecting the Signal Corps with the Military Intelligence Corps.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “Intelligence forwarded by wig-wag: Signal Stations as Observation Posts

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