1st Pennsylvania Volunteer Artillery Battery D  and The 62nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

Signal Corp Page

Signal Tower Elk Mtn. Maryland 1862



Myer Pre-Civil War & Beginning of Signal Corps

Albert J. Myer is known as the father of the Signal Corps and was the first Chief Signal Officer. Prior to and during college Myer worked as a telegrapher in New York and when going to college to become a physician he wrote his thesis on “A New Sign Language for Deaf Mutes”. In 1854 Myer sought commission as a US Army Assistant Surgeon but he also wanted to devise a system of signaling using simple codes and lightweight materials across long distances.  This system of codes and use of 1 flag was adopted and the Signal Corps was founded in 1860. This system of codes is known as the Wig Wag system or aerial telegraphy and was used by both armies during the civil war.

The first use of the wig wag system in the Civil War was by the Confederates at the First Battle of Bull Run lead by Edward Porter Alexander who assisted Myer in the field trials for Myers system in 1859.

In 1864 Myer wrote “A manual of Signals: For the use of Signal Officers in the field”.

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Training/Camp of Instruction

On August 14, 1861 the Chief Signal Officer Major Albert. J Myer received an order that he was directed to report for duty.   The organization of the Signal Corps of the Army of the Potomac commenced.   Men were collected form various regiments and sent to 3 different camps of instruction. 

On August 31, 1861 the central Signal Camp of instruction was established at Red Hill, Georgetown, D.C. First received at this camp were officers and men from the Pennsylvania Volunteer Corps. 

On September 12, 1861 this camp became the School for all acting Signal Officers of the Army.



Signalmen were paid as Engineers and demanded to have the high standard of the Engineer Corps.  They were active, athletic young men of medium size, quick, intelligent, have good judgment, superior eyesight, undoubted courage, be able to write well and have a common-school education.

Signal Corps were mounted, armed and equipped as light cavalry.

They must know and understand the use of their arms, ride well and understand the care of horses, understand all the duties of their grade in line and be true soldiers in all respects.

Signalmen were sworn to secrecy and were not called upon to fight except in self defense which may be necessary frequently due to their exposed positions.  When being captured seems inevitable were be prepared to destroy their signals, instruments and papers to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. 

The Corps was authorized to have 1 sergeant and 6 privates for each officer.

During the Civil War, Union Signal Corps that saw service never amounted to more than 3000 officers and men.  The Confederate Signal Corps had only about half that number. 

There were about 227 Pennsylvanians that served in the Union Signal Corps at one time or another during the Civil War.


Weapons/items issued

Federal Signalists were issued Sharps breach loading Carbines until late in the war when they were then issued Spencer Repeaters.



The uniform of the Civil War Signal Corps is poorly known.  Because the Corps was not recognized as a permanent branch of the US Army during the Civil War, no branch color was mentioned for them in the uniform regulations.  The Signal corps controlled its own uniforms; they were not received by or supplied by the Quartermaster Department. 

The Signal Arm Patch may date as early as October 1861 but was known to have existed in the winter of 1861-1862.  It was an embroidered crossed flag on square dark blue background material originally to be worn on the left sleeve but in practice was worn on both sleeves of coat by Federal enlisted signal corpsmen.  The Confederate Signal Corps had no such corresponding sleeve insignia.




Signal Kit & Flags

The Signal kit was a canvas case that contained:

the signal staff which was made of hickory or ash in 4 joints each 4 foot long that were  ferruled at the ends with brass the staff tapered from 1 ¼” to ½” 

A total of 7 flags – one of each: 6’ white, 6 ‘ black, 4’ white, 4’ black, 4’ red, 2’ white, 2’ red.  The two foot flag also was known as the action flag was used when the signalist was compelled to lay down or seek shelter while the signals must at the same time be made.  The size of the flag that was used most often was the 4 foot flag and the White flag was used more than any other color.  The red flag was used at sea, during long shadow hours, in snow and when prearranged.  The black flag was used when there was a light background behind the flagman (light blue sky, on an elevated tower, in snow)

Torch case that was a piece of rubber cloth 3’ x 2’6” fitted on both sides with pouches where torches were inserted.  The cloth was rolled to protect the torches.




Signal Corps were issued white haversacks until the spring of 1863 when black haversacks were then issued to them. 

The haversacks contained cotton wicking, matches, iron shears, pliers, a small funnel and 2 flame shades.

Canteens were also part of the items issues.  The canteen was made of copper and was capable of containing ½ gallon of turpentine or other burning fluid.

All three items had shoulder straps for carrying.

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Basic Signals

Wig wag

One position where the flag was held directly above the head and 3 motions –

#1 was a wave of the flag to the left     http://signal150.army.mil/images/snippets/wigwag_flag_positions_small.jpg

#2 was a wave of the flag to the right       

#3 was made by dipping the flag in front.



Using #1 and #2 in varying combinations made up the letters of the alphabet.  #3 was used once to end a word, twice to end a sentence and three times to end a message.

A   11                          I   2                             Q   2122                      Y   222

B   1221                      J   2211                       R   122                        Z   1111

C   212                        K   1212                      S   121

                                                                    D   111                        L   112                        T   1

E   21                          M   2112                     U   221                        3  End of word

F   1112                       N   22                          V   2111                      33 End of sentence

G   1122                      O   12                          W   2212                     333 End of message

H   211                        P   2121                       X   1211


Pause signal was used at the end of each letter signal and meant that the signal was completed and it was the flag or torch stopping in the vertical position for about 2 seconds.

During the Civil War when an error was made while signaling a code was used, today we hold the flag in the air in the horizontal position.


Pre-concerted codes

Pre-concerted codes were frequently used to decrease the length of time it took to send messages.  A Pre-concerted Code was a one or two letter code, that, when standing alone (separated by signaling a 3) shortened a common battle word.  The use of pre-concerted codes were imperative especially when time was of the essence during battle.


Cipher Disks

There were made of card stock in the Federal Signal Service and contained numerals and letters.  The Confederate disks were made of brass and had letters of the alphabet on outer edges of both disks.

Cipher disks had Adjustment letters (aka “Reference key”) that were selected on the inner disk (aka “top plate”) opposite key letter on bottom disc (aka “outer disk”) adjusts the disk thus becomes the reference key sent.

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Distance of Signals

Messages were ordinarily sent at distances no greater than six or eight miles.  But when the signal stations were in very good locations and the atmospheric conditions were good then messages were regularly sent at distances of 18 miles.  The greatest recorded distance of a successful Signal Message was 24 miles; this message was sent from Maryland Heights, Maryland to Sugarloaf Mountain near Frederick Maryland.


The Signal Corps had a difficult slow go of being recognized as a useful Corp because of their secrecy and being a new type of corp.  A lot of soldiers didn’t understand the purpose of the Signal Corp and why the flags always seemed to be moving or what the flags waving meant.  But slowly people began to understand the significance of the Signal Corps and the invaluable aid they gave to the Army.

At the time of Gettysburg – General Meade would not displace his headquarters from Leister House to Powers Hill until he knew a Signal Officer was present at Powers Hill.

There were 6 Signal Stations at Gettysburg: Little Round Top, Jacks Mountain, Meade Headquarters, Cemetery Hill, Culps Hill, and Powers Hill.