U.S. Army Signal Corps 1863-1880


In all things through life communication always proves vital for the success of any given task. Whether that task is fixing a car, playing sports, or talking with the ones you love. Being able to communicate easily, efficiently, and effectively makes the outcome of any task that more harmonious. This principle holds true for the military as well.

In an era when e-mail, cellular phones, and instant messaging make communication virtually instantaneous, the military has used all the newest and latest technology to help its personnel to communicate, coordinate activities, and ultimately to save lives. Through the ages, armies around the world have always tried to figure out how to get that one vital piece of information to the troops needing it the most. One farsighted individual invented a system that proved both easily to use and very effective in a combat environment. This man was Albert J. Myer.

Mr. Myer is considered the Founding Father of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Born in Newburg, New Jersey, he ended up as a Surgeon in New Mexico during the Indian fighting just prior to the Civil War. While stationed on the frontier, he devised a system of dips and wags of certain flags to communicate a message. Mr. Myer was then commissioned as a Major in the United States Army and put in charge of a “Signal Service.” At the outbreak of the War Between the States, the new Signal Service consisted of only one man: Major A.J. Myer. It was not until 1863 that an official Signal Corps was established by Congress. Up to that point the communications of the United States Army was an ad hoc system. Officers and men from various regiments would be assigned to signal duty, trained and then sent to the front to carry out their dangerous duty. With the advent of a sanctioned Signal Corps, a training camp was established at Red Hill, Georgetown District of Columbia. There, officers and men learned and perfected the systems and codes that would later prove vitally important to the success of the Union Army. 

As soldiers learned the codes and systems, they were broken up into detachments that were then distributed about the army, most often assigned at the Brigade, Divisional, and Corps level. These detachments consisted of, generally speaking, three to four men. One officer was in charge of the detail. An enlisted man would maneuver and wave the flags, and another enlisted man would be used to record the message either sent or received at that station. Most times, the officers in charge of these detachments were lieutenants, with an NCO and a private soldier. Each of these detachments, before taking the field, would be issued a Signal Kit. 

Each signal kit contained seven flags and some accessories: three with white backgrounds and red centers of various sizes, two with black backgrounds and white centers, and two with red backgrounds with white centers, appropriate staffs for the flags and two to three turpentine torches (for use of signaling at night). The color of the flag used was dictated by the background the Signal Detachment was stationed in front of. The lighter the background (blue sky, light colored building, et cetera), the black or red flags would be used. In front of darker objects, the white flag would be used.

It was not just the purpose of communication that the Signal Corps was used for. Their primary objective and mission was signaling. Yet they also provided a good source of solid visual intelligence. The officers with their large and high-powered telescopes combined with commanding positions of height and practicality made it, often times, easy to observe the enemy, whether Southern or Native American, and report their findings. Another task they performed was providing trained and professional telegraphers to be used at garrisons and armies equipped with the necessary equipment. Because of their professionalism, and sense of duty, they suffered drastic and terrible losses. “Sense of duty, necessity, of exposure to fire, and importance of mission were conditions incompatible with personal safety-and the Signal Corps paid the price…the extreme danger of signal work, when conjoined with the stubborn adherence to outpost duty, is forcefully evident by the fact that the killed of the Signal Corps were one hundred and fifty percent of the wounded as against the usual ratio of twenty percent.”[1] These figures are staggering, yet what did these gallant men have to do in combat, not only against fellow Americans, but also against the warriors of the Indian nations of the West? 

A description of the functions and duties of the Signal Detachment while on duty is most appropriate. As the author could find nothing to indicate basic functions and codes, et al. changed between the years of the Civil War and those of the Indian Wars, it stands to reason duties and how these duties were carried out changed little, if at all. Let me begin by explaining and describing the basic function of the Signal Detachment; that of the use of the Signal Flags. “…a member of the Signal Corps in position, holding the flag directly above his head, the staff vertical, and grasped by both hands. This is the position from which all the motions are made.”[2] Each motion was given a number one, two, or three. The number two (literally) was made by the Signalman waving the flag to the right and then returning the signal flag to vertical. The number one (again literally) was opposite the number two. The Signalman waved his flag to the left then, again, returning it to the vertical. Lastly, the number three was signaled by a dip of the flag directly away from the signalman. Thus, through these simple movements, complete messages could be sent, received, and delivered. This same procedure was applied at night, where turpentine torches were used instead of the conventional flags. While flags and torches were used by the Army in the field, the Navy also found ways of applying this format to their personal use aboard ship. While flags were used by the Navy, the preferred method of signals was the use of colored rockets or flares. A white rocket would indicate the number one, and red rocket would be number two, and a green rocket would represent the number three. So knowing how the code was implemented is good, but what was the code?

The code of the Signal Corps was ingenious in its simplicity. Breaking the code would be virtually impossible without prior knowledge simply because it contained no rhyme or reason to its application. The letters of the alphabet, numerals, abbreviations, and some common phrases are below:

A = 11 I = 2 Q = 2122 Y = 222

B = 1221 J = 2211 R = 122 Z = 1111

C = 212 K = 1212 S = 121 and = 2222

D = 111 L = 112 T = 1 tion = 2221

E = 21 M = 2112 U = 221 ing = 1121

F = 1112 N = 22 V = 2111 ed = 1222

G = 1122 O = 12 W = 2212

H = 211 P = 2121 X = 1211

End of Word = 3 End of Sentence = 33 End of Message = 333

12221 = Wait a moment
21112 = Are you ready?
11211 = I am ready
11121 = Use short pole & small flag
11112 = Use long pole & large flag
21111= Work Faster
22111= Did you understand?
22221 = Use white flag
22122 = Use black flag
11111 = Use red flag

The above is just the basic code and their meaning. There are many more variations for certain words and abbreviations. Looking at it the way it is it means little to nothing, but to those soldiers that depended on the Signal Corps to provide and pass along vital information this was the language of Guardian Angels. I will leave you with a few quotes and the resources I relied on for my information. I hope this has been helpful and entertaining for you as it was for me to research and write this.

That wretched little signal station upon Round Top [Gettysburg fame] that day caused one of our divisions to lose over two hours, and probably delayed our assault nearly that long. During that time a Federal corps arrived near Round Top, and became an important factor in the action that followed.

General E.P. Alexander (CSA) in Century Magazine

You are more than welcome to the compliment I paid the signal station on Round Top…I have forgiven all my enemies now; and though you fellows where about the last I did forgive, I took you in…and concluded ‘let by-gones be by-gones.’

General E.P. Alexander (CSA)

Thy work is done; along Virginia’s river
     No more thy signal flies;
From Georgia’s hills by night no more the quiver
      Of thy red torch shall rise.

There came a moon when from the bastions frowning
     Of every fort and bay
Flung out a banner; hurrying on and crowning
     The mountains far away.

We left undecked no hamlet’s little steeple
     That loud with joy-bells rung;
And from the breasts of a happy people
     It’s passion-flowers were hung.

We know its language; knew our work was over;
     And hailed, while ours we furled,
The only Flag whose sovereign folds shall cover
     Henceforth our western world.

- Unknown

1 - General Orders No. 76 (U.S. Army Regulations 1872)
2 - Billings, John D., Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life, University of Nebraska, 1993. [Original edition published in 1887 by George M. Smith & Co., Boston.]
3 - Blue & Grey Press, The Photographic History of the Civil War, (Volume 4), Blue and Grey Press, 1987.
4 - Rickey, Don, Junior, Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay, University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

[1] Blue & Grey Press, The Photographic History of the Civil War, (Volume 4)
[2] Billings, John D., Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life, pg. 398